Given this week's headlines coming from Minneapolis, it seems apropos to cite "four" reasons why the Packers could be much improved in 2010 compared to the 2009 squad.
You may wonder how an 11-5 playoff team can be "much improved?" Let's take a journey back in time to the first half of the 2009 season.
Remember the mind-boggling number of sacks the offensive line allowed in the first half of the season? Allen Barbre and company absolutely missed assignments, leading to tackles for loss, or there were just too many hits on Aaron Rodgers. Remember when Aaron Rodgers did have time and sometimes would wait for what seemed like forever before ultimately getting sacked again?
Remember hitting rock bottom after McCarthy's team looked a shell of themselves against the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in their QB's first NFL start, while dropping to a 4-4 record? Not to mention losing two brutal matchups against division rival Minnesota, with plenty of sacks allowed, even though ultimately Green Bay finished only one game behind the Vikings in 2009.
What a difference one calendar year can make. So here are those four reasons why 2010 will be different.
No. 1: Offensive Line Improvement—Entering 2010, reports from Green Bay suggest oft-injured tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, after nearly one week of camp, look to be in better shape than last year.
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Recall that Tauscher wasn't ready until the mid-point of the season, and even then there were two to three weeks of rust and rotation to work through. This year, the Packers have stabilized the offensive line in what appears to be a drastic improvement when compared to the unit that started the 2009 season.
They have more experience and better depth than in any of McCarthy's previous years as head coach.
Reason No. 2: Jermichael Finley Starting the Opener—As the 2009 season started, the Packers started steady veteran Donald Lee at tight end, unsure exactly what a young, maturing, second-year player like Jermichael Finley was capable of providing.
Finley may not have received enough credit last year as being a major factor for the Packers going 7-1 during the second half of the season. Yes, the line performed better and Aaron Rodgers' internal clock seemed to tick faster, but the turnaround also coincided with Finley being inserted into the lineup as a regular starter and a favorite target of Rodgers.
Considering Arizona seemed to have no answer for Finley in the playoffs, I believe this could be a major factor in the Packers jumping off to a faster start in 2010 and utilizing Finley over a full 16 games.
Reason No. 3: The Packer Defense—2009 was a transition year for the Packers' defense.
With a roster full of 4-3 players, they implemented a 3-4 scheme under Dom Capers guidance. Reports from Green Bay in 2010 suggest players to be better suited to the scheme as well as more comfortable with the playbook. No longer focusing on the basics, they are adding wrinkles and moving players around to find their best matchups.
As part of that 2009 transition, Aaron Kampman seemed a round peg in a square hole playing the OLB position. To Kampman's credit, he did what he could to contribute until a knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Kampman was Green Bay's only notable offseason departure, moving to a 4-3 team in the Jacksonville Jaquars. In 2010, you'll see Clay Matthews starting the opener—when he didn't start until several games into the season last year, much like Finley. Opposite Clay Matthews, he should provide plenty of speed and athleticism.
Whether it's second year player Brad Jones, who had a respectable four sacks as a rookie in limited action, or Brandon Chillar, a savvy veteran who is an aggressive tackler with better coverage skills than Kampman could offer, this defense is moving in the right direction.
Reason No. 4: The Vikings—You have to be able to beat the two-time defending NFC North champs.
The Packers dropped two games to the Vikings last year while still finding their way as a young team with a new defense and weak offensive line play. I also think its fair to attribute a little "shock and awe" to facing the former Green Bay QB in two games where the Packers started very slowly, only to find their rhythm in the latter stages of both games.
The 2009 season seemed to be a magical year for the Vikings, where opponents missed field goals, dropped potential interceptions, and a street free agent WR made a miraculous catch to win a game. Not to mention, the schedule was set up nicely for the Vikings (similar to the Packers), but that will not be nearly as forgiving in 2010.
I firmly believe, whether Favre returns or not, that it will be difficult for the Vikings to duplicate that magic, and would expect the Packers to be better prepared to face their division rival in 2010. Despite all the circus and attention surrounding the Vikings, the Packers quietly finished just one game behind them in the standings.
Again, the Packers impressive 11-5 record makes it somewhat easy to forget that they stumbled to a 4-4 start in 2009. To be a true contender, they must maintain a high level of performance for all 16 games.
During the 2009 preseason, the Packers dominated their opponents. But when it really mattered, they struggled in the early part of the year. You would expect that lessons have been learned by this young team, which has plenty of experience, to get off to a much better start in 2010.
The question then will be will they finish as strong in 2010 as they did in 2009? This is setting up to be a very entertaining season in the NFC North with Jay Cutler and Matt Stafford both in year two with their teams.
Still, I expect things to go the Packers' way in 2010.