Packers, Patriots built with different approach
From Tyler Dunne, JSonline
Green Bay — For 20 filibustering minutes, Bill Belichick heaped praise upon the Green Bay Packers. Through this conference call with Wisconsin reporters and each trip to the podium in New England, the Patriots commander-in-chief saluted his opponent Sunday.
In truth, Belichick probably would’ve cut or traded many of the Packers’ players long ago.
Maybe Mike Neal, hounded by injuries his first three seasons. Maybe Sam Shields, the speed demon whose tackling skills reached embarrassing proportions for parts of 2011. Maybe T.J. Lang, who cleaned up his act off the field to earn a starting spot and long-term contract. Or Brad Jones, the goat in the Week 1 loss at Seattle. Or Mason Crosby, who endured a career-worst slump in 2012.
“When you put an investment in a guy,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt Jr. said, “the players that come here understand that we’re not looking to get rid of people. Even if you have a rough start, we’re going to develop you and make you ours.”
Now, the only two teams to reach the postseason each of the last five years meet Sunday at Lambeau Field. And they’ve gotten here in polar-opposite ways.
Yes, both are built on franchise quarterbacks. But whereas New England signs players Tuesday and cuts ’em Friday — Belichick has fostered a stone-cold, you-are-replaceable climate — the Packers are more apt to develop prospects within. They’ll be counting on several such prospects in this cross-conference showdown, too.
Neal to generate pass rush. Shields as a quick-reacting antidote to Tom Brady’s accuracy. Jones as the dime linebacker.
Whitt is one assistant central to the development. He molded a former University of Miami wide receiver into a $39 million man.
Would Belichick really have tolerated the growing pains after that brutal sight Nov. 20, 2011, against Tampa Bay? Human sledgehammer LaGarrette Blount broke eight tackles en route to a 54-yard touchdown, and Shields’ miss was the most egregious. With a perfect angle at the back, Shields’ merry-go-round attempt epitomized the team’s tackling woes.
Yet general manager Ted Thompson, Whitt, everyone stuck with him. And in 2012, he responded.
All along, Whitt said he told coach Mike McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers that Shields was a worker, he was mature. He’d get it.
“Sam had so much raw ability, it’d be hard to throw that raw ability out,” Whitt said. “When you put that (work ethic) with his ability, you knew if he did it the right way, he was going to be a quality player because he had the skill set.”
The breakthrough? Whitt doesn’t hesitate. A third and 2 in the 2012 season opener. San Francisco’s Frank Gore caught a swing pass left, rumbled toward the sideline and Shields, mano a mano, was the aggressor.
Said Whitt, “It showed that he had the ability and the courage to tackle.”
Shields has been beat at times this season, but his ball skills remain a potential game-changer in this prime-time setting. From press coverage, when “he doesn’t see the ball,” Whitt said, Shields still can make a play on the ball. He sees “flashes” and reacts. Through 70 career games, the 5-foot-11, 184-pound cornerback has 85 pass breakups and 19 interceptions.
Elsewhere, Neal transformed from college defensive tackle to 3-4 defensive end to the outside linebacker the Packers need against Brady with Nick Perry (shoulder) listed as questionable again.
This is after missing 28 of a possible 48 games his first three seasons, echoes of bust Justin Harrell getting louder and louder.
“Obviously, they won’t quit on you,” said Neal, who has 32 tackles and three sacks. “They’ll give you as much opportunity as you need. You just have to be ready to capitalize on it. It has benefited me.
“It works. Even if sometimes it seems murky, we still have a winning record, still go to the playoffs and see people in our system thrive and get better. So I think that it’s a positive.”
Of course, the Patriots’ cutthroat approach works for them.
Wide receiver Wes Welker — his six years of service, 672 receptions, 37 touchdowns — was low-balled in free agency and departed for Denver. Veterans are routinely whisked away, recycled. Blount rampaged through the 2013 postseason, left in free agency, was cut by Pittsburgh and then was signed again by New England. Thus, Shields will get a shot at personal redemption Sunday.
Remember Tiquan Underwood? The Patriots cut him less than 24 hours before the Super Bowl. Belichick constantly reshuffles the bottom of his roster.
There is a value in fear, in players always wondering if they’re next.
In Green Bay, the Packers’ faith in Jones at inside linebacker led to midseason scrambling. Clay Matthews, their best pass rusher, is now lining up inside instead.
The Packers don’t want trust to be confused with complacency.
“Tomorrow is not promised to anyone,” wide receivers coach Edgar Bennett said.
“So we want to make the most of our opportunities. Yes, bring them along. But don’t put anything on the backburner as far as the ultimate goal — and Coach Mike talks about it at the beginning of every season — where we want to be at the end of the year. Our standards will never change.”
Adds Whitt, “We’re all under the pressure that we understand we have to perform. And we’ve had enough success around here that we don’t panic when we do get hard days.”
The players seem to get that memo. Whenever a player is cut in Green Bay — be it Jerron McMillian last year or Ryan Taylor this year — it resonates in the locker room.
James Starks, another player the Packers stayed patient with through injuries, said both the Packers and Patriots “have an eye” for talent, a “knack” for roster building.
“And I know it’s a business,” Starks said. “You’re here to perform. That could happen anywhere, that’s the way of the league. You never know where you’re going to go.”
So here inside an interview room, asked about when Randall Cobb truly broke through, Bennett even calls his star slot receiver a “work in progress.”
With everyone, they want more.
Still, Sunday features a stark contrast in styles. Two different ways of doing business in today’s NFL.
Whitt uses himself as an example. When he arrived as a quality control coach in 2008, he knew in the back of the Packers’ brass minds, they wanted him to eventually to take the cornerback room over.
All assistants operate with one team ethos in mind. Thompson did so hoping it’d lead to winning games like this.
“You bring in talent, you grow your talent,” Whitt said, “and it might not necessarily flourish Day 1 but you saw something in that individual that fits the Green Bay Packers.
“So we hold onto it and we grow our players.”
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