Ask just about any media outlet who the breakout team of 2009 would be before the season started, and odds were you were going to hear the Green Bay Packers.
After all, they had absolutely dominated all four preseason games and looked pinpoint-accurate on offense. Their defense had stayed pretty much vanilla on the play calling yet still forced turnovers left and right.
Everyone was ready to crown the Packers kings of the NFC before the season had even started, and one got the feeling that there was no way this team could be stopped. Their defense was now healthy, the offense had more weapons than it knew what to do with, and the special teams were starting to rise up to an average standard.
After Week one, fans cited a tough, grind-it-out game against a solid Bears' defense as the reason the Packers did not put up 30 points. However, they still won the game and did so by making good on the one thing they failed to do last season: win the close game.
A week later, the Packers had just been defeated by a suddenly resurgent Bengals team that should be 2-0 (see Stokley, Brandon), and all of a sudden, the majority of Packers fans were seen either heading for the nearest bridge to jump off or seeking shelter due to the sky falling. As is typical with most sports fans early in the season, good outcomes are overvalued and bad outcomes are undervalued (Jay Cutler, anyone?).
The fact of the matter is the Packers are a better team than what they trotted out last Sunday afternoon against the Bengals, but they aren’t as good as what they showed in the preseason.
The Packers finished their 2008 campaign with a 6-10 record that slotted them in the ninth spot in the draft. Say what you will about the close losses and how they were in just about every game they played in, you are what your record is, and the Packers were just plain bad last season.
In the offseason, they brought in Anthony Smith, a former backup safety from the Steelers who was known more for his smack talk to Tom Brady than his on-the-field play. The Packers also drafted a slough of defensive players that included first-rounders B.J. Raji and Clay Matthews III. Raji has yet to play in a game, and Matthews III has seen limited time but looked good.
The Packers also instilled a 3-4 defense with new coordinator Dom Capers that was expected to take time to work. Running the scheme with players used to a 4-3 defense was not the most ideal of situations, and a learning period was going to need to occur.
After an outstanding preseason, optimistic Packers fans seemingly threw that learning curve out the window and expected results right away. So when the defense struggled against the Bengals and everyone wondered why all of a sudden the 3-4 wasn’t working, it didn’t make any sense.
Any way one slices it, the Packers still have the exact same personnel that won them six games last season and have not made a huge improvement or change in a big part of the system that would expect immediate results.
Last season, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan came in and took over the helm at quarterback along with brand new coaches and saw results.
That’s not to say the Packers need to fire head coach Mike McCarthy and trade Aaron Rodgers, but what it means is the process is going to take time. Everyone knows that Rodgers is going to be just fine this season with all the weapons he has, but the defense is still getting their feet underneath them.
In a way, their performance against the Bears was like a pitcher making his first start in the major leagues. He has made starts in Double-A, Triple-A, just as the individual players on the Packers’ D have played the 4-3 defense their whole careers. Once that pitcher comes to the big leagues, there is a huge change in how you approach batters and how fast the game moves.
The one caveat is that when that starting pitcher makes his first start in the Bigs, no team has a good enough scouting report to figure out what is going to come. The first time through the order, he torches the offense who have never seen him before. As the season progresses, teams will pick up scouting reports and that pitcher will also become better.
Much is the same for the Packers' defense. True, they have been with Capers since July and have been working on the defense, but there is no replacement for the real thing and the Packers are still figuring out the defense at game speed.
There are going to be growing pains with the Packers this season, but the hope is they figure it out at a fast pace so they can continue to win football games.
The offensive line is extremely young and inexperienced for the most part and has struggled to date. Experts who chose the Packers to win the NFC might have been premature because they looked at it with Fantasy Football goggles on. The Packers have the skill positions on offense and defense down pat.
But the little things like fluidity on defense and consistency on the offensive line are going to take time, so being confused as to why the Packers had a bump in the road against the Bengals is nonsense. Dom Capers did not make the Packers the second coming of the Steelers in one night, and Aaron Rodgers is not Tom Brady just because he led one fourth quarter comeback.
All the pieces for the Packers to be successful are in place, but this isn’t Madden 2010. Give the team some time and let them work out the kinks as the season moves along. For what it’s worth, the Packers are again the youngest team in the NFL, and it has shown to some extent.
As long as they stay healthy and keep progressing under Capers, there’s good reason to believe the Packers will be in contention come December. However, the preseason made the Packers out to be the 2007 Patriots before they had even taken one snap in the regular season, so the Bengals game came as a shock.
It’s how the Packers respond to them that becomes important. Take Allen Barbre, for example. He had a very rough game against the Bears, allowing two sacks and constant pressure from the right side. Against the Bengals, he fared much better and was stellar in the running game again.
The Packers are a much better, more disciplined, and better coached team than they were last year so it’s not as if six wins should be expected again, but growing pains and inexperience are going to creep up during times this year, and Packers’ fans need to understand that they are there.