GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Joe Whitt had to say something.
The Green Bay Packers had just lost an early November game to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, with the secondary giving up three touchdown passes to rookie quarterback Josh Freeman in his first NFL start. Before that 2009 season, Whitt had been promoted from defensive quality control assistant to cornerbacks coach, an assignment that meant the then 31-year-old Whitt was coaching a pair of Pro Bowl cornerbacks -- 34-year-old Al Harris and 33-year-old Charles Woodson -- who were both older than him.
Woodson and Harris had been particularly close with Whitt’s predecessor, Lionel Washington, whom they’d called by his nickname (Coach “Speedy”) and whose 15-year NFL playing career had earned him endless credibility with them.
Then along came Whitt, who’d made a good first impression on Woodson and Harris in a support role in 2008, but had a lot to prove to the two veterans as a younger coach who’d never played the position (Whitt played wide receiver in college at Auburn) and never played in the NFL.
“So we come back after that game, and the three of us -- Al, ‘Wood,’ myself -- we had a little sit-down talk,” recalled Whitt, now 37 and one of the Packers’ most highly regarded assistants. “And I basically told them how much I respect them, [how] they’re great players. ‘But we’ve got to get on the same page and do things the way I want them to get done, or we won’t be working together.’ I told them, ‘I’m as good at what I do as you are at what you do. Just listen to me. And if it doesn’t work, y’all can tell me to go to hell. I don’t really care.’
“From that point on, we’ve been as close as you can get. Before that, there were some interesting moments. Because why would they listen to me? I’m two years younger than one, three years younger than the other one, never played the position -- I played receiver, and I wasn’t very good at that anyway -- never played in the NFL. So why would they listen to me? I knew it was going to be difficult at the beginning. But we worked together.”
New Packers wide receivers coach Luke Getsy (32) and assistant offensive line coach David Raih (35) won’t be coaching any players older than they are -- barring an out-of-character veteran free-agent signing this spring -- but they both understand that they’ll need to follow Whitt’s example in their new jobs following their recent promotions.
Getsy, who’d spent the last two years as the offensive quality control coach, played quarterback at Pittsburgh and Akron but didn’t make it in the NFL; Raih, who’d served as a coaching administrator the last two years after Getsy beat him out for the quality control job, was a backup quarterback at Iowa before working in medical sales after graduation.
Like Whitt, they’ve had the chance to get to know the players they’ll be coaching this season, but in their new roles, the dynamic will be different. And even though head coach Mike McCarthy said two of the Packers’ veteran wide receivers -- Jordy Nelson (31) and Randall Cobb (25) -- pushed for Getsy’s promotion, both Getsy and Raih will have to prove themselves the way Whitt did.
“[To] have those guys do that, that’s awesome. Hopefully, they’re saying a lot better things as we go down the road about how I helped them individually,” Getsy said of Nelson and Cobb. “I think that’s the most important thing, to be yourself. That’s what I did. I was who I am. I’m going to continue to do that. I’m not going to let somebody else dictate that.”
Getsy said he “wasn’t shy” about sharing his opinion in meetings in his previous job, something that impressed two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Raih said he’ll take a similar approach with the offensive line, even though line coach James Campen is entering his 10th season in his position and the linemen have been together for several years.
“Regardless of your age, we’re here to coach,” Raih said. “These guys have plenty of friends. Are you kidding me? It’s not my job to be friends with them. Now, I’m always going to build relationships with them and I love these guys, but my job is to do everything I can to make James the best line coach and to help this blocking unit be the best. So [if you’re] truly focusing on your job, they see it. The players see it and they know you’re taking this seriously.”
In the end, that’s exactly what Woodson saw in Whitt. When the Packers cut Woodson on Feb. 15, 2013, it was one of the hardest days of Whitt’s coaching career. The two remained friends after Woodson returned to the Oakland Raiders, and they spoke weekly this year during Woodson’s final NFL season.
Woodson’s advice for Getsy and Raih? Be yourself, be honest and don’t try to overcompensate or pretend to know something you don’t.
“I just thought [Whitt’s] approach, it was real, it was professional and he always shot everybody straight, whether it was me, Al, those other guys in the room,” said Woodson, who recently joined ESPN as an analyst after 18 NFL seasons. “He never wavered from that, and he gained the respect of everybody in the room. He knew football, and we weren't going to listen to him if he didn't know what he was talking about.”