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Cincinnati trip worth more than on-field work to Packers

Young roster enjoyed chance to bond away from football

LB Justin Hollins, LB Eric Wilson
LB Justin Hollins, LB Eric Wilson

CINCINNATI – In developing plans for a joint practice with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Packers were thinking, first and foremost, about football.

For a young team with a first-year starting quarterback, it made perfect sense for Green Bay to get in a few extra reps against one of the NFL's premier teams before opening the preseason.

However, the intrinsic benefit to flying down to Ohio a couple days early was the downtime the team enjoyed. They ate together, played together, and took a breath during what can be a hectic, anxiety-ridden march through training camp.

"I think it's vital, in order to become the best version of whatever your team is," LaFleur said. "Certainly, you've got to get the execution right and that's more important, but when you have a team that can go out there and execute and a team that bonds really well together, it gives you an opportunity to survive the adversity that is inevitable in this league."

As LaFleur points out, that adversity hits players on a daily basis from July until hopefully February. The more "social cohesion" among your players, the easier it becomes to survive the challenges and tribulations of a relentless NFL season.

After flying into Cincinnati last Tuesday, the team congregated for dinner at Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse. There were cornhole boards set up at the team hotel and a pool table. LaFleur also left players time after practice on Wednesday to go out to dinner with one another and see the city.

"We had the hotel to ourselves. They had cornhole going on, a nice little area to hang out," right guard Jon Runyan said. "Matt's given us some freedom with that. It's just another opportunity for guys to get together. This is just a really young new group and for us to develop those bonds and grow together, it's going to help us off the field and that's what we're looking for on the field."

Runyan believed that camaraderie showed itself during last Wednesday's practice. It began when starting left guard Elgton Jenkins got into a tussle with Germaine Pratt after blocking the Bengals linebacker into the ground on a screen.

The goal obviously is for no fisticuffs during practices, but Runyan was pleased to see Packers teammates step up and "have each other's back" after tempers flared. Ultimately, that could be a major binding agent for a young team.

After practice on Wednesday and walkthroughs Thursday, the team had food trucks at Paycor Stadium awaiting players. As much time as players spend time with one another around Lambeau Field during camp, it's sometimes easy to forget the wave of new players entering the locker room each offseason.

"It's super beneficial being able to vibe together and come together as a team outside of just football, the film room and the field," receiver Christian Watson said. "We have a lot of young guys, but I think we have guys who connect in a lot of different ways off the field. Just being able to grow that relationship off the field is going to be huge for us."

Watson and fellow second-year receiver Romeo Doubs felt the benefits of the joint practice were two-fold. In addition to players getting to know one another better, the trip was an opportunity for a young roster to gain a firm grasp on the experience of practicing against another team.

The Packers welcomed in the New Orleans Saints for joint practices last summer. While helpful to his development as a rookie, Doubs feels he had a much better feel the second time around.

"Going into last year, joint practices, I didn't know what to expect," said Doubs, who had a 50-yard catch from Jordan Love during a team period in Cincinnati. "It was good I got that experience coming into this one where I can get the feel of just being in that same uncomfortable situation when I'm out there."

Added running back Aaron Jones: "It's just you and your teammates and the coaching staff, so you get to spend a lot of time (together). We went out to eat, did numerous amounts of things and that's time you normally don't get together during training camp even if you're staying in the hotels. So, it's definitely something that I enjoyed."

The joint practices aren't over yet, either. Now back in Green Bay, the Packers are preparing to welcome the New England Patriots into town for practice on both Wednesday and Thursday prior to their preseason showdown Saturday at 7 p.m.

Although there was trepidation from some when LaFleur first introduced the idea of bringing joint practices to Green Bay in 2019, established veterans like five-time All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari see the net positives.

"I'll tell you, I used to be super-against joint practices, but I think they got a good beat," Bakhtiari said. "I think having the understanding is good. They're not trying to be (jerks), I'm not trying to be (a jerk) to them, too. I think that's the most important thing. We're here to get some work in, get some laughs, also get to know an uncommon opponent. I think that's really beneficial. Definitely growing on me, for sure."

The Green Bay Packers held a joint practice with the Cincinnati Bengals on Wednesday, Aug. 9 at Kettering Health Practice Fields in preparation for their preseason opener on Friday, Aug. 11, 2023.