The day is so close I can already faintly smell the bratwurst and sauerkraut, taste the cool Miller sliding down my throat, and even hear the crowd in what can only be described as beautiful disharmony: “…I just want to bang on my drum all day!”
That’s right, folks, it’s time for the 100-day countdown to the kickoff of the Green Bay Packers’ 2010 campaign.
Sure, that also means we’re more than three whole months—and roughly 50 Brett Favre faux news stories—away, but we all know it’s never too early to project, predict and analyze anything and everything Packer-related.
And as of this writing, it is optimism abound in the Packerland.
Coming off an 11-5 finish in their 91st season, the green-and-gold return pretty much all the important pieces needed to improve upon that mark.
Although the team failed to advance past Wild Card weekend, the offense looked wholly unstoppable in that 51-45 overtime loss to the Cardinals, and there is no reason to expect anything less than at least a repeat of that 11-win record.
At the same time, however, life in the NFL can be as fickle and erratic as they come.
This decade alone, four Super Bowl champions—the Patriots of 2002, the Buccaneers in 2003, and the Steelers after both of their Lombardi-trophy-earning triumphs—have failed to even reach the playoffs the next season.
Super Bowl losers have fared worse yet.
Nothing is taken for granted in professional football.
Which is why taking note of a team’s remaining (or newly created) shortcomings is just as, if not more, important than drooling over the positives that return.
Therefore, here is a list of the five biggest concerns regarding the Green Bay Packers as we embark on our 100-day journey to kickoff.
If anything has been learned from A-Rod’s first two seasons at the helm of the Packers offense, it is that if he is upright, he is likely dismantling the opposing defense.
In 32 starts, Rodgers has completed 64 percent of his passes, for 8,472 yards, and 58 touchdowns against just 20 picks—an almost three-to-one ratio!
Not to mention, he also ran for 523 yards and nine touchdowns in those two seasons.
For comparison, in Favre’s first two full seasons (1993 and 1994) he successfully completed 62 percent of his attempts, good for 7,185 yards, and 52 touchdowns against 38 interceptions.
Favre also ran for just 418 yards and three scores.
Now obviously, you can’t simply compare those starts without caveats, and I don’t want to get into that debate here.
The point is, there is no arguing Rodgers’ effectiveness.
Unfortunately for him, though, the memory of Favre’s durability still saturates the minds of Packers fans—reasonable or not, that’s what we expect from our quarterback.
In addition, neither Matt Flynn nor the newly acquired Graham Harrell inspire an iota of confidence in me.
As sad as it is to say, an injury to Rodgers would entirely derail the Packers’ 2010 season, and that’s a pretty big reason for concern.
Despite his struggles last season, I am willing to give Mason Crosby the benefit of the doubt going forward.
There is no question about his leg strength, and he still only missed two attempts last season from less than 40 yards (both between 30 and 39).
Outside of that, though, the Packers special teams units appear, well, rather unspecial.
Honestly, the franchise hasn’t had a top-notch kick returner since Desmond Howard in the glory days of 1996-97, and really hasn’t featured a high-caliber punter since Craig Hentrich bolted for Tennessee.
And currently, the malaise in those roles looks destined to continue as the team pins its hopes on Australian Football League recruit Chris Bryan to pull a Darren Bennett and successfully transition to the northern hemisphere version of the game.
Call me skeptical.
As for a returner, Will Blackmon has shown glimpses of explosiveness as a punt returner (though he was injured most of last year), and Jordy Nelson was serviceable last year on both kickoffs and punts.
But if the team pushes forward with that—or some other arrangement of average talent—it once again puts all the pressure on the offense.
Could they handle it?
Sure, but a dynamic returner could completely alter the field-position game, and could frequently set the offense up with a short field—which would be quite scary for opposing defenses.
Without one, the special teams remain a big concern.
Last season, with a switch to the 3-4 that was meant to generate more quarterback pressure through more elaborate pass-rushing schemes, the Packers fell in the middle of the road as far as quarterback sacks went.
Led by rookie Clay Matthews’ 10, Green Bay ranked seventh in the NFC with 37 sacks, a respectable 2.3 per game.
This time around, Matthews and company will have the advantage of being in their second year in the 3-4, which should inevitably help.
However, the team will also be without pass-rush specialist Aaron Kampman (although you could argue that is a good thing considering his ill-fit in the 3-4), as well as possibly being without Jonny Jolly for some time, depending on whatever the outcome of his drug possession trial is, whenever, of course, that decision finally comes.
Now, one thing is for certain: good man-to-man coverage helps a pass-rush be effective and vice versa.
And as it stands, Al Harris’ health is still a big question mark.
Which means for the Packers “D” to be improved, everything has to start up front, to alleviate pressure on the back end.
Right now, I’m cautiously hopeful that improvement will manifest—but if it doesn’t, Packers fans should be quite concerned.
While the pass-rush situation is a tad alarming, the defensive backfield is downright distressing.
Yes, Charles Woodson and Al Harris are both fantastic, and if healthy, provide one of the best cornerback tandems in the entire NFL.
But Woodson will turn 34 in October, and Harris, who may not be completely healthy by the start of the start of training camp, will be 36 in December.
Optimistically, both will stay healthy and continue to ignore the aging process, but realistically, an injury to one or both is quite feasible.
That’s a big problem.
Anyone who remembers how Green Bay’s defense was shredded by the likes of Kurt Warner and Ben Roethlisberger after Harris’ injury (remember Josh Bell trying to check Mike Wallace on the last play in that Steelers game?) recalls just how suspect the depth in the secondary was.
Or, perhaps, is, since no major changes—not even a draft pick—were pursued by the team to bolster the nickel, dime and quarter packages.
Which means, it will be up to Pat Lee, Tramon Williams and Brandon Underwood to be better or be burned—again.
That’s a pretty big concern if you ask me.
Think back to the first eight weeks of last year: the team was 4-4 and many fans were ready to pack it in for ice fishing season.
The primary reason? Allen Barbre and T.J. Lang, and anyone else who tried to protect A-Rod’s blind side looking flat-out silly against the likes of Antwan Odom, Adewale Ogunleye, and Jared Allen.
Thankfully, old stalwarts Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher returned to save the day, and the services of both were retained to hold down the proverbial fort again in 2010.
That alone is reason for worry, as Clifton turns 34 this month, and Tauscher, who blew out his knee just two short years ago, will turn 33 in two weeks.
Both have been solid for pretty much this entire decade, which is a pretty good run for an O-lineman.
Maybe they’ve got another solid year in them, and if so, wonderful.
If they don’t, however, the team is looking at Breno Giacomini (the guy who couldn’t beat out Barbre last year), Lang, or rookie first-round selection Bryan Bulaga.
Personally, I hope Bulaga can be a long-term solution for the franchise, but I don’t want to have to find out this year.
Not to mention, the rest of the line—Josh Sitton, Scott Wells, and Daryn Colledge—aren’t exactly a who’s who of Pro Bowl interior linemen.
The bottom line is, the most critical factor for Packer success is Aaron Rodgers.
And his health is something that is highly predicated on the performance of the O-line.
If they are able to stay healthy, gel, and give Rodgers time to find his bevy of talented receivers, as well as create running lanes for a dedicated and healthy Ryan Grant, the team could improve on its No. 1-ranked offensive yardage unit.
If they don’t, well, concern isn’t even the right word.
I believe the applicable phrase then would be: Uh-oh.
Either way, we’ve got 100 whole days to think about it.