On the sidelines with Rich
BY RICH PALZEWIC
It’s football time!
After a long winter of no (real) football activity in Green Bay, the Packers finally gave fans a little taste of what to expect this season when they opened organized team activities (OTAs) to the public May 22.
You can’t really gauge a season based on a few non-padded voluntary workouts, but if one day was any indication, I think the team is on the right path to more success.
As most of you know, Ted Thompson – who was actually on the field this day – is out as the general manager and Mark Gutekunst is the new man in charge. Joe Philbin also returned as the offensive coordinator (replacing Edgar Bennett) and Mike Pettine took over for Dom Capers on the defensive side of the ball.
Since it was my first time attending an OTA in my role as editor of Packerland Pride, I got to Lambeau about 10:30 – a full hour before it actually started. I thought maybe I’d find a bunch of people tailgating, but that wasn’t the case. I saw a few hearty souls, but the real stuff won’t happen until training camp.
There weren’t many people waiting in line to get into Ray Nitschke Field even at 11:00, so there was ample seating once we were finally let in. That quickly changed as people starting pouring in. It wasn’t full by any means, but I’d say it was a good crowd. You could sense the excitement in their voices and cheers.
Since OTAs are voluntary, I didn’t expect to see so many veterans report, but I heard Tramon Williams and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix were the only no-shows of the notables. Even Aaron Rodgers was there.
It was cool to see some of the new additions … tight end Jimmy Graham (No. 80) and quarterback DeShone Kizer (No. 9) to name a few. Graham was picked up via free agency at a hefty 3-year, $30-million price tag and Kizer was acquired in a trade (Damarious Randall) with the Cleveland Browns.
Graham must have thought 60 degrees was too cold for short sleeves because he came out with a long-sleeved hoodie on underneath his jersey! I’d say that lasted about three minutes until he realized we have nice spring temperatures in Green Bay.
What a physical specimen Graham is! He was doing a few catching drills with Lance Kendricks right in front of me, and he’s one big man. When the Pro Bowler lined up on the right side of a formation with Rodgers at quarterback later in practice, the crowd let out a big cheer. An even louder roar could be heard when he actually caught a pass from Rodgers soon thereafter.
Speaking of Rodgers, he looked as good as ever. He likes to have fun out there, but from what I saw he was pretty much all business. Packer fans realize that we will go as far as Rodgers’ right arm will take us, so that means keeping him healthy.
Obviously, a lot has changed over the years with OTAs, mini-camps and training camps. I’ve read stories and books on how NFL teams used to use training camps as a way to get players into shape – often having grueling practices day after day. If you read any book on Lombardi or from one of the players from the 60s, you’ll find that to be true. Salaries weren’t like they are today, so players often had to work jobs after the season ended to make ends meet.
Players today have better diets, personal trainers and stay in shape year round. You won’t see a whole lot of conditioning at many of these practices. The players are expected to do that on their own time, so they better be in shape. I would often dread my high-school practices because they were so hard!
I heard one fan say, “It’s so fun seeing rich kids doing grass drills!” In all reality, there was none of that … it makes sense. There’s so much to learn at this level that they can’t take as much time with conditioning. There were certainly no “up-downs” as we used to call them. Just the thought of hearing those two words brings chills to my body!
The experience at Nitschke Field is really amazing. If you’ve never been there before for some type of Packers event, plan a trip for sure. You can get remarkably close to the players. I often wonder if other teams do as good a job for the fans as Green Bay does. I also often wonder what new players like Graham and Kizer think of the small-town feel to the team … and this wasn’t even training camp!
Upon entering the facility, a number of different ushers will help answer questions and provide you with a roster. The roster at the first OTA was 90 strong … it’ll be down to 53 September 3. In a move approved by the NFL owners in May, the roster cuts will all be made in one move, not two like in years past. That means most of the guys fans saw May 22 will be with the team at least until early September.
After watching some of the special-teams players practice tackling by wrapping up a big exercise ball, I headed down to watch the defense for a little bit.
I didn’t realize that former Packers player Nick Barnett was assisting the team! He’s the first guy I saw out there working with the linebackers. I had to do a double-take to make sure it was him. He still looks like he could play!
Former players Brandon Jackson (running back) and Jarrett Bush (defensive back) will also be assisting the Packers’ coaching staff in different capacities during OTAs and minicamp.
All three were members of the Super Bowl XLV team that beat Pittsburgh. Bush even picked off a Ben Roethlisberger pass in that game.
Another player I would like to see do well this season is former Wisconsin Badger Vince Biegel. The linebacker missed half of the 2017 season with a broken bone in his foot.
My first OTA was a success! By the time you read this, it’ll be July and training camp will be a few short weeks away, beginning on the 26th.