One common melody filled the air at the 37th Annual Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame Induction. And it had the 1,000-plus in attendance howling.
Honorees Robert Brooks and LeRoy Butler credited the team’s strong family bond as the catalyst for its mid-1990s dominance by sharing several knee-slapping stories. Egos were set aside and camaraderie flourished, leading to hundreds of spilled beers in the front row of both end zones.
Brooks’ presenter, Antonio Freeman, recalled dinners the team’s wide receiver unit held, with the bill alternating each week. On Freeman’s night to pay, Brooks ordered multiple entrees, jacking the price up to $1,200 for the not-quite-rich rookie Freeman. That night Brooks told a ticked Freeman that such an amount wouldn’t seem like much soon - that he was on the verge of stardom. The two became great friends, quickly becoming the league’s top receiving tandem. Saturday night Brooks referred to Freeman as his ‘little brother.’
Butler told a story of the veterans switching the MEN and WOMEN signs on the bathroom doors to trick a newcomer. The newbie waltzed in the restroom, only to see no urinals. He yelled and tried to fight his way out, but Butler and company held the door in, laughing hysterically before letting go and watching their new teammate hit the deck. That new guy was Brett Favre.
An indescribable cohesive quality blended that team off the field, leading to wins on it.
General Manager Ted Thompson is working diligently to create a similar atmosphere by building from within. Instead of lavish free agent spending, he has quietly rewarded his own players in hope of sending a positive message throughout the locker room.
Training camp is where that mid-1990s attitude develops.
Before Brooks broke out in 1995 for a team-record 1,497 receiving yards he needed to gain Favre’s trust as a number one wideout in August. Before Butler became such an unsuspecting blitz specialist, defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur needed to experience with that wild notion in practice.
Now it’s time to monitor future developments. Despite returning 20 of 22 starters from last season, plenty of questions blur the team’s playoff hopes. To seriously contend, many young guns must step up.
There are three players worth monitoring on the roster. Here’s the first:
Last off-season, safety Marquand Manuel was given a five-year, $10 million contract to serve as an upgrade over Mark Roman.
That didn’t stop Marviel Underwood, who makes less than one-fourth of that amount, from emerging as a starting candidate next to Nick Collins in training camp.
It was short-lived. Against San Diego in the 2006 preseason opener, Underwood tore his ACL and MCL knee ligaments, ruining his season.
But the hard-hitting, 2005 fourth round pick’s hunger only grew. Underwood spent the 2006 season in Green Bay to train with the team’s medical staff and attend positional meetings, exactly as Brooks did a decade ago. It was a decision that surely helped Underwood gain the respect of his teammates and coaches.
Mentally, he’s up to speed with Bob Sanders’ defensive system.
Physically? We’ll see.
Some torn ACLs permanently affect an athlete’s speed. Burst subsides and sudden quickness tailors off. Hesitant running back Willis McGahee has experienced this effect. Whereas many like Brooks, the 1997 NFL Comeback Player of the Year recipient, return to nearly 100 percent.
This summer Underwood’s recovery will be exposed. Can he sell a stunt close to the line and quickly reverse direction into the secondary at the snap of the ball ala Troy Polamalu? Will Underwood’s repaired knee hinder his closing speed? Psychologically, will he approach the game with less abandon? These questions will be answered in shells and in pads each practice.
In his third NFL season, Underwood’s career is at a pivotal junction. At full health he has the skills to start over Manuel and rookie Aaron Rouse. But if his speed is visibly diminished, then Underwood may be released.
Strong safety is one of three positions completely up for grabs this summer. After a productive off-season, Underwood should enter camp on pace with Manuel and Rouse.
Next up: Dunne focuses on kicker Dave Rayner Tuesday on PackerReport.com.