In 2008, the Green Bay Packers won only six games despite getting a breakout season from Aaron Rodgers, who had the onerous task of filling in for the most beloved Packer in history (a player who might quickly become the most hated in Packer history).
In fact, the offense was fifth in the NFL in points scored last year and eighth in total yards. The offense featured a 4,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher, and two 1,000-yard receivers. No other team can boast such a luxury, and the offensive nucleus returns intact for 2009.
Aaron Rodgers showed, but perhaps did not prove, that he was capable of being a franchise signal-caller for an entire NFL season.
What's more, don’t blame Rodgers for the Packers' inability to finish games. The Packers lost seven games by less than five points, four of those coming down to a field goal or less. This was due in large part to the Packer defense failing to come up with stops at crucial points in the fourth quarter.
In Week Nine, Green Bay went to Tennessee and played the undefeated Titans closer than any team had to that point, matching the Titans physical play and forcing overtime. The Packers couldn’t contain rookie running back Chris Johnson, who took over in the extra session and eventually set up the game-winning field goal.
The Tennessee game was a microcosm of the Packers season: close, but not quite good enough.
Ted Thompson and the Packers recognized the need for a major change and fired defensive coordinator Bob Sanders along with four of his assistants.
Thompson brought in 3-4 veteran coach Dom Capers to overhaul the Packers vanilla defense in an attempt to infuse energy into a defense full of talent.
The transition to the 3-4 defense represents the greatest challenge for the Green Bay Packers heading into the 2009 season. Sure, Brett Favre may or may not be on his way to Minnesota, and the Bears have some talent under center for the first time since World War II, but a few defensive stops were the difference between a 6-10 Packers team and a 10-6 playoff team.
Luckily for Cheesehead Nation, the Packers have a solid defensive foundation.
The rock of the 3-4 defense, the nose tackle position, is manned by Ryan Pickett, a behemoth inside used to handling double teams. He will get a chance to show blue-chip rookie B.J. Raji how it is done on the interior, giving the Packers tremendous depth at NT.
For the Packers to really succeed however, the play from their linebackers will be the crucial piece. A.J. Hawk will slide inside along with Nick Barnett while Aaron Kampman and a player yet to be named will bring pressure off the edge.
The linebackers make the 3-4 defense what it is, that is why you play four instead of three. For a Green Bay defense which ranked no higher than 20th in points, rushing yards, and total yards allowed to get better, the linebackers must adapt to the new system quickly and play to the level of their pedigree. This is a group that could feature three first-round picks if USC rookie Clay Matthews starts on the outside, not to mention a three-time Pro Bowler in Kampman.
Often times, the scheme has no bearing on the success of the coach, but rather success is based on whether or not the coach gets the most from the players on the roster. If Dom Capers can do that, the Packers can be a contender for the division title, and certainly look like a dangerous team headed for the playoffs.
Even with visits from Super Bowl winner Pittsburgh, runner-up Arizona, Baltimore and Dallas, the Packers play road games against just three playoff teams. The Vikings still have no quarterback while the Bears lack offensive playmakers and their defense continues to age. Oh, and the Lions still play in the NFC North.
Fans in Packerland always have high hopes for the Packers, and fans will pack Lambeau every week whether the team is 4-12 or 12-4. Luckily this year, the Packers look like a sure bet to finish with a winning record, and if the defense can find some continuity, will challenge for a playoff spot and beyond.