Calling the Green Bay Packers underachievers after they won back-to-back NFC North titles may be harsh.
But it's not far off.
Stung by a second straight loss in the NFC divisional round, this time to the San Francisco 49ers, the Packers spent the offseason addressing their weak spots. While coach Mike McCarthy was reconfiguring a porous offensive line that gave up an NFL-high 51 sacks, general manager Ted Thompson drafted two running backs in the first four rounds. Thompson also locked up three of Green Bay's key defensive starters, signing linebackers Clay Matthews and Brad Jones and safety Morgan Burnett to extensions.
``Guys know there's a short window for a team to be as good as we are,'' receiver Jordy Nelson said after the team's final OTAs. ``You've got to make the most of those (years) and that's by winning championships. We know we've been close. We know we've had the team, but came up short.''
Five things to watch as the Packers try to stay atop the division:
1. LINING UP: Just as everyone knows you don't get cut-rate insurance for a Maserati, you don't let your MVP (Most Valuable Packer) get knocked around like a milk bottle at a carnival. After seeing Aaron Rodgers sacked an NFL-high 51 times last year - on top of the 36 sacks he took in 2011 - McCarthy had had enough. He shifted tackle Bryan Bulaga and guard Josh Sitton from the right to left side, the better to protect Rodgers' blind side. Marshall Newhouse, who started every game at left tackle last season, moved to right tackle, and the versatile T.J. Lang will play right guard. (Center Evan Dietrich-Smith, who unseated veteran Jeff Saturday by the end of last season, stays put.) ``You take your two most accomplished linemen to date to protect the backside of the quarterback,'' offensive line coach James Campen said in explaining the switch. ``(Bulaga and Sitton) are, at this point, the most accomplished guys. And we expect the other guys to be more accomplished, as well.''
2. RUNNING BEHIND: With Rodgers at the helm, the Packers are always going to be a pass-oriented team. But they at least need to have the appearance of a running game, and its absence last year was glaring. The Packers ranked 11th in the NFC at 106.4 yards rushing per game, and haven't had a single-game, 100-yard rusher in almost three years. So it was hardly a surprise that Thompson loaded up on running backs early in the draft, taking Alabama's Eddie Lacy in the second round and UCLA's Johnathan Franklin in the fourth. ``We'll be better, I promise you that,'' McCarthy said. ``You can write that down. In big letters.''
3. CATCHING ON: Losing a 1,000-yard receiver and the franchise's all-time leader in receptions would be a crippling blow to most teams. Not the Packers, who have Nelson, James Jones and Randall Cobb ready to fill the void left by Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. The trio combined for 29 touchdowns and 193 catches last year, and each of the three finished with 745 yards receiving or more. ``I believe we have three 1,000-yard receivers in this room,'' Jones said. ``We know the departure of Greg and Donald means more opportunities for us. Do you want to lose guys like that? No. But it gives us the chance to step up.''
4. BEING GREEDY: Green Bay ranked in the middle of the NFC last year with a plus-7 takeaway-giveaway differential, but that was largely thanks to Rodgers, whose eight interceptions tied for fewest in the entire NFL. The defense came up with 23 takeaways, and only five of those were fumbles. That's not lost on defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who has made stripping the ball a focus during offseason workouts. ``You see all the pursuit and leverage drills,'' he said. ``We're trying to make an emphasis that you get there and punch at the ball. ... The more you emphasize something, the more results you're going to get out of it. So I like what I've seen to this point.''
5. BIG MONEY: In his first five years as a starter, Rodgers has won a Super Bowl title, been the NFL's MVP and set the single-season NFL record for quarterback rating (122.5 in 2011). He set another record in this offseason: signing a five-year extension that's worth as much as $110 million, which will make him the highest-paid player in NFL history. But Rodgers insists the riches won't change him - or remove the sizeable chip on his shoulder that's been such a big part of his success. ``Always working on things,'' he said during Green Bay's minicamp, ``trying to get better.''---AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org