Let's just get this out of the way: if Brett Favre signs with the Minnesota Vikings and returns to Lambeau in purple and gold, it will be the mega story of the new millennium. It is not, however, what will define the Green Bay Packers in the 2009 season. The pressure will be on the defense and its new 3-4 scheme under coordinator Dom Capers.
The story is well known now that the defense was the main culprit for the team's 6-10 finish last year. The numbers don't lie as the Packers ranked 20th in the NFL in total defense, while the offense finished eighth.
Probably the largest reasons for the overhaul of the defense were the multiple heartbreaking losses where defensive and special teams mishaps gave up late leads. Will the new defense put the Pack over the top or will it turn out to be an overreaction that costs the team a chance to contend?
Let's dive in and take a closer look.
Will the return of Nick Barnett turn the tide?
In the demise of the Packers defense, many fans and media pointed to the loss of middle linebacker Nick Barnett (pictured above) as a key factor. This was actually one of the biggest exaggerations of the season.
Even though it was painful to watch AJ Hawk try and play middle linebacker at times, Barnett wasn't doing much before he tore up his knee nine games into the season. He finished with zero sacks and only one forced fumble. The team defensive numbers back up his lack involvement before his injury.
- Before Barnett injury: allowed 330.3 ypg
- After Barnett injury: allowed 338.4 ypg
Now Barnett is learning a new scheme and it is unclear if his rehabilitated knee can bring him back to a form that was not very impressive last year. The good news is the entire linebacking corps should be well motivated in 2009. If strides are not made, look for wholesale changes next year.
Rookies: The Building Blocks of the Packers
Barnett and Hawk will have some help with the addition of some highly drafted rookies. As has been the philosophy of the Packers under General Manager Ted Thompson (next to Barnett above), the team counts on the draft, not free agents, to infuse the roster with talent.
With the ninth pick, the team drafted defensive tackle B.J. Raji, a logical succession after drafting A.J. Hawk the last time they were in the top 10. Raji was arguably the most talented player in the draft and should keep offensive lineman off of Barnett and Hawk more often.
The switch to the 3-4 scheme will also move defensive lineman Aaron Kampman to outside linebacker, which Capers hopes will allow for a better pass rush. Opposite Kampman will most likely be rookie linebacker Clay Matthews, another first-round pick that Thompson traded up to get.
With one of the better secondaries in the league behind them, the pressure will squarely be on the front seven to improve drastically. Top corners Charles Woodson and Al Harris are not getting any younger, so great strides will need to be made in the front seven if the Packer's defense will ever reach its full potential.
Keep the Offense Rolling
Thompson went with the old adage, "If it ain't broke don't fix it" in the offseason by not drafting a single skill position player or signing one via free agency. If there was one shortcoming of the offense last season, it was the inconsistency of the running game.
Head coach Mike McCarthy will hope that it was just growing pains with running backs Ryan Grant and Brandon Jackson.
Aaron Rodgers should continue his growth and treat the ongoing Favre saga the same way he did when Favre was actually on the team: by letting his play on the field do the talking. If he puts up similar numbers to last year he will make the Pro Bowl.
He's got arguably the best receiving corps in the league and a coach that will put the ball in his hands to make plays. A year of experience should only help his leadership skills and hopefully win some of the close games that were lost last season.
The Final Verdict
The Packers will be improved next year. There really isn't anywhere to go but up for the defense and they have one of the best 3-4 gurus in Capers. Will it be improved enough to make a run at the division? It's possible, but I see the defense as a year away from being able to consistently stop teams.
The pressure will be squarely on Aaron Rodgers to put up points. He was able to do this last year, but also had moments where it looked like he was forcing the ball down field. If Favre is in the same division, expect the spotlight to intensify if the Packers get off to a slow start.
My prediction: An exciting 9-7 season with some close, high scoring games. Raji and Matthews will show promise, Rodgers makes the Pro Bowl and the Packers enter 2010 as division favorites.