On Friday the Green Bay Packers took their first collective step in a new direction.
With first-year head coach Mike McCarthy leading the way, the team officially opened the 2006 season with a non-contact practice session inside the Don Hutson Center. The session opened the first of two, three-day mini-camps in the month of May.
The practice got under way with quarterback Brett Favre breaking a huddle on the North end of the Center, but with no defense to oppose him. And first-round draft choice A.J. Hawk was running drills on the opposite end without the restrictions of an offensive blocking scheme, or a helmet to hold back his hair.
Taking their place on the first-string offense were three-year veteran Scott Wells handling the center duties and second-round draft choice Daryn Colledge lining up at left guard. Samkon Gado was in the backfield and would burst through the line and sprint downfield on the first play from scrimmage.
For McCarthy, the first day of mini-camp represented his first chance to implement part one of his offensive scheme. Part two is to be delivered Saturday, with a repeat of parts one and two during the next mini-camp as well as an introduction to the third-down offensive system.
For Favre this means learning a whole new way of thinking on the football field, and for his new coach it means teaching his system to a future hall of famer.
"He's eager, he's going to be challenged mentally in a way that he hasn't been challenged in a while because we have changed the offense," McCarthy said. "I think that's healthy ... Brett Favre is a football player and I think he's in the environment that he belongs in"
McCarthy said Favre is picking up quickly the new language he is implementing into the offensive scheme, and after a two-hour conversation on Thursday night, the two appear to be on the same page.
And that is exactly the point where McCarthy is trying to get with his rookies in particular. Wide receiver Greg Jennings appeared to be the standout guy when it came to rookie performance, making a nice cut and beating Charles Woodson on the second play of 7-on-7 work.
"I thought he looked very natural, a very natural pass catcher," McCarthy said. "He had a hook there in the (7-on-7), he had bump-and-run and we refer to the technique as a speed move where he has to adjust his route, drop his weight and cross the face of the (defensive back). I almost had to look and check his number because I thought it was Donald (Driver)."
Knowing that his first-year players are going to have the hardest time adjusting to the NFL as well as his scheme, McCarthy made sure to take time out to meet with them before the season began.
"When I spoke to them last night the number one thing I said I wanted to see from the rookies is them competing, I want to see them stick their nose in there and get after it," he said. "Yes, they're probably going to make some mistakes, it was evident today, we had a few mistakes but they got to make the step to the pro level and the first hurdle they need to overcome is the competition and I was pleased with that.
"Obviously I don't have the scheme down right now but eventually I'm going to get it and get in there and play," rookie cornerback Will Blackmon said. "I bring a lot of energy. I just feel like if I come here and I'm positive everyday I'll just feed off of everybody else... it's fun working with Al Harris and Charles Woodson."
For highly-touted free agents like Woodson and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett, the practice provided their first opportunity to strap on a green and gold helmet that has come to symbolize one of the best professional sport's teams in America.
"It felt good. Just being back out there on the field," Woodson said. "It was definitely strange ... I think this is a good move for me, me and my family as well, and just a good fit for the team and I'm ready to go."
Woodson, who wore No 2 while fielding punts as well as playing cornerback during the practice, came to Green Bay with more hype than any free agent this off-season. He delivered on that hype with a solid practice and an interception of a Brett Favre pass intended for Jennings.
The full roster will be back in action again on Saturday for a morning practice at the Don Hutson center at 10:15 and an afternoon practice at 3 p.m. Even with a full-tilt of football ahead of them this weekend, not even the rookies are letting the heavy workload get in the way of having a little fun doing what they love.
"I don't think you pace yourself. We were going hard, offense, defense, it's the first day back and everybody's pretty excited to get out there," first-round draft choice A.J. Hawk said." With me being a rookie, I want to get out there and just show I'm going out hard, and competing, and definitely get out there and have some fun."
Mini-camp practices in May will be held inside the Don Hutson Center due to the unavailability of Clarke Hinkle Field until June and the space limitations of Ray Nitschke Field with an 80-plus player roster. Unfortunately, for space reasons, the team cannot open the Hutson Center practices to the public. June OTA practices are expected to be held outdoors on Hinkle Field and open to the public.