I have heard many non Packer fans, and even some sceptical Packer fans, say they are tired of hearing how great the Packers are now. These people generally seem to think that they are are overrated.
I do not believe the Packers are overrated. Let’s face facts: the Packers 2009 season was a disappointment masquerading as a massive success. Before I go into why, let’s take a look at what went well.
The offense, by and large, was outstanding. Aaron Rodgers put on a show in his second season, garnering MVP attention while putting up gaudy numbers, some of which took Brett Favre 19 years to accomplish. Rodgers has quickly and quietly elevated himself into the “top five active QB’s” discussion, and we may be treated to even better play in the future.
The running game was a massive improvement from the previous year. Ryan Grant was able to match his rushing yards from the year before, increased his touchdowns by seven while getting 30 fewer carries, gaining an extra half yard per carry. Things look to be even better this year with a healthy Brandon Jackson and rookie James Starks spelling Grant. All three should enjoy better blocking from a healthy and revamped offensive line.
The receiving corps just keeps getting better. Greg Jennings is talented enough to necessitate double teams on a regular basis, leaving Donald Driver, James Jones, and Jordy Nelson one on one with whoever the secondary has left over. Even if you somehow manage to cover those guys, matchup nightmare Jermichael Finley will be open enough for Rodgers to find his massive frame.
How far will the Packers go this year?
The offensive line looks to be very competitive this year. Long time tackle tandem Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are finally both healthy entering the season, giving Rodgers the veteran blockers he needs to survive. Joining them are young tackles Bryan Bulaga and T.J. Lang, both of whom should take over as starters in the next few years. Aiding the tackles will be talented inside blockers Scott Wells, Josh Sitton, Jason Spitz, and Daryn Colledge. Most of the guards and centers can play tackle as well, so this year injuries and depth should be the least of the problems.
As a whole, the offensive unit was near the top in nearly every statistical category. So if they were not the problem, the only thing holding them back must be their defensive counterparts, right?
The defense is quietly becoming a “who’s who” of talented playmakers known well throughout the league.
When all 11 starters are healthy, the line is probably the defense’s weakest link, if there in fact is one.
Cullen Jenkins, Ryan Pickett, B.J. Raji, Justin Harrell, and Mike Neal can all play both end and tackle. However, none of them have shown the ability to play at an elite level on a consistent basis. It should also be noted that all of them have missed time due to injury, save for rookie Mike Neal who has yet to play his first snap of pro ball.
Jenkins is probably the only one with a guaranteed starting spot. Pickett and Raji will battle for the NT slot, leaving the other end spot up for grabs between Harrell, Neal, and the NT runner up.
It is possible to see a Pickett, Raji, Jenkins starting line. However, you can almost set your watch to Pickett and Harrell missing time due to injury, which means for at least a portion of the season a starting line of Neal, Raji, Jenkins is a likely scenario. As long as Neal does not become the defense’s version of liability extraordinaire Allen Barbre then we shouldn’t see leaks in run coverage.
One of the main reasons the Packers decided to become a 3-4 defense was to take advantage of their depth at linebacker. Now that the massive failure that was the Aaron Kampman project is a thing of the past, there doesn’t seem to be a major flaw in the second level of the defense.
Clay Matthews has emerged as a pro bowl talent as a rookie. He has help on the outside from a well rounded corps of Brady Poppinga, Brandon Chillar and Brad Jones. Not exactly a group of well known superstars, but very talented players that know how to get the job done.
Inside linebackers Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk are two budding stars, both being tough as nails and quick to boot. All of these guys are quick to read and react, which helped suffocate the opposing team’s rushing attacks. Applying pressure was a problem at times, but as the linebackers become more and more accustomed to being the standard pass rushers we should see more sacks and hurried throws.
The secondary, when fully healthy, is near or at the top of the league.
Starting cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Al Harris form one of the best tandems in the league. Charles Woodson has always been known as a great individual player, but last year he really became the captain of the defense and embraced being a leader. He did it all, and the league took notice, naming him defensive player of the year. Al Harris is one the of the most physical “bump and run” cover corners, although he does seem to have lost a step or two when covering some of the younger, quicker receivers. If Harris can return at full strength after spending the last several months rehabbing his knee, the Packers pass defense should pick up where it left off in November of last year.
Rounding out the cornerbacks are backups Tramon Williams, Will Blackmon, Pat Lee, Brandon Underwood, and Josh Bell. All are decent players, but none have shown the consistent ability to take over when Woodson or Harris decide to hang ‘em up.
Starting safeties Nick Collins and Atari Bigby are two players who can cover like a corner and hit like a hammer. Collins received his first pro-bowl nod last season. He showed remarkable poise being stuck in packages, such as “big okie,” that featured him as the only defender over the top to make up for a lack of depth at the position once Bigby went out with an injury.
This year, the Packers used a draft pick on Georgia Tech safety Morgan Burnett, who is a player some have likened to both Woodson and Bigby. He is athletic enough to play both corner or safety, so he should be a very valuable asset if a starting corner or safety is hurt and misses time.
Special teams are bit of a problem, as kicker Mason Crosby has an unquestioned strong leg, but his accuracy remains inconsistent. The Packers seem to have a revolving door when it comes to punters. Kick/punt returns remain an issue when Will Blackmon cannot play. Jordy Nelson, Tramon Williams, and Charles Woodson have all filled in, but the team needs to find a consistent return specialist, preferably someone who is not starting at another roster slot.
So there is no question this team is stacked with talent on both sides.
Why didn’t everything work out? Why didn’t the Pack bring the Lombardi Trophy home after a 14 year hiatus?
It’s simple: Teams on paper do not win championships. If they did, you would probably order Super Bowl rings for this year’s Jets team.
Newton’s third law applies greatly to the Packers 2009 season. Stats do not lie. For every positive the Packers had last year, there was an equal and opposite reaction.
The offense finished sixth in the league. It featured a 4,000 yard passer, a 1,200 yard rusher, and two 1,000 yard receivers, something that had never been accomplished in NFL history. The offense did all this while allowing a franchise worst 50 sacks, more than half of which came in the first eight games.
The Packers finished with a very good record of 11-6 (playoffs included) last year. Unfortunately, that record was inflated by wins against eight teams with losing records. Over the course of their 17 game season, the Packers played just eight games against teams with winning records, winning only three of them. Three games out of eight, and one of them was a meaningless regular season finale against Arizona that may have made the Packers overconfident heading into a rematch the very next week.
The Packers are obviously a very talented and young team. However, you can’t help but question their ability against the league’s elite when they go 3-5 against teams with winning records.
The victories over Dallas, Baltimore, and the heart crushing shootout in the playoffs against Arizona were three great games. The near comebacks against Minnesota and Cincinnati showed that Rodgers and the rest of the offense were not afraid to gamble it all. If the offense can somehow go for the throat from their first snap, rather than wait until they are down, that would alleviate some of the negativity that is pointed toward them.
Too often in big games the offense sputtered, or even worse, turned the ball over at the most inopportune moments. It was equally bad when opposing teams went to three and four receiver sets to exploit how bad the secondary was without Al Harris starting and Tramon Williams slotted at nickelback.
To say there were breakdowns in coverage is a vast understatement.
Charles Woodson looked frustrated and disappointed as he literally tried to be everywhere at once. During the Arizona playoff game he actually ripped the ball out of Larry Fitzgerald’s arm, and it seemed more out of frustration and desperation than because just he wanted to make a play.
The fact is that the defense finished second overall in the league, and first in rushing. This is a great turnaround from being a bottom of the barrel unit just a year before. The defense also led the league in turnover margin and was near the top in defensive touchdowns. They had rookie Clay Matthews net 10 sacks and become a pro bowler after splitting time for nearly half the season.
An offense near the top of the league, and a defense practically at the top of the league. Statistically.
And that is the message.
It looks great on paper. There were times last year when the Packers were truly impressive, if not impossible to beat.
Unless they were beating themselves.
And that is what they must protect against.
They went into last year clearly just hoping to survive the defense’s transition and somehow keep Rodgers healthy until Mark Tauscher was cleared to play six weeks in. The team went 4-4 as a result. They barely made it to that mark. They beat Chicago in Week 1 on a last second touchdown, and even lost to previously winless Tampa Bay in Week 9.
So last year really, honestly, and truly was a disappointment. Those are the facts. Slice it any way you like, the Packers underachieved at the worst times and overachieved at the best of times.
There really wasn’t a reason they should have been able to keep up with Arizona once they went down three scores. My god, if they had been playing in comeback mode from the first snap, they would have run the Cardinals out of town. They might have even had a shot at beating the Vikings or even the Saints.
And that is the lesson. The Packers were an inconsistent team last year, right to the bitter end. They suffered a loss in their only playoff game during overtime on a play where protection broke down and Rodgers probably held onto the ball too long. These were the same things that doomed them in the first half of the season, yet here they were, happening all over again in Week 18.
But enough reminders of just how sickening the end of last season was for all of us.
This year, we have everything to gain and nothing to lose. I wrote an article around this time last year citing all the reasons the Packers would go all the way and then some. I think looking back I was gushing over how great they looked compared to the year before, which was a horrible mistake.
(you can read the article here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/244875-return-of-the-chedi-rodgers-and-his-new-defense-look-to-desimate-all)
The Packers looked like crap in 2008, so of course when they starting racking up stats in 2009 I thought they were gonna blow the doors off the league’s record books. Not so.
This year I will be cautiously optimistic, and tell you that there is not one team, even the Jets and their ridiculous roster, that I truly think the Packers do not have a chance against.
Rodgers has shown he has high patience (4300 yards, 30 TD, seven INT in his second year if you needed reminding), and rarely makes mistakes in big games. If anything, he is too patient at times, not throwing the ball short and getting what he can before it’s too late. Other times he dinks and dunks until the defense falls asleep, and then still won’t take the deep ball. Don’t get me wrong, I will take Rodgers and his skills as a surgeon any day over that turnover machine, what was his name? Brent Favor?
I honestly believe we have yet to see the best from this team, and that a Lombardi Trophy or more is in the near future.
Stats do not tell the whole story. I have learned my lesson. Hopefully, the Packers have as well. The preseason kicks off this weekend, hope you all enjoy a great 2010 season, it looks to be action packed.
Casey Mabbott is a featured writer for those fortunate enough to locate his articles. You can mail checks made out to cash to my address, I will never turn those away.