Hi, all! Another historic season of Packer football starts up on Sunday and we at the MMQB compound have fired up the laptops, hired another group of expendable interns (Hey, I'm sorry but if you bring Miller products into the office, your done!) and started shifting our snarkiness into high gear. As is my custom, I've got a few things to say about last year and a couple about the new season before it gets going...
If you ask any of the legion of Packer fans littering the Wisconsin (and beyond) landscape, many of them would say that 2011 was a disappointing season. How could you consider it a success after that soul-crushing defeat at the hands of the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants? And you know what? It didn’t go as planned. There was supposed to have been a coronation of a new Green Bay Packer dynasty and that didn’t happen. But you have to look at the season as a whole and not just one or two games. Yes, I know: that one game was a very important one.
The Packers went 15-1 in the regular season. They set team records for wins, consecutive wins and a dozen offensive categories. Aaron Rodgers was named MVP of the entire NFL. He put up historic numbers all over the stat chart and set new standards in efficiency and passer ratings. From the preseason on, they were a lock to waltz through the playoffs and clobber some poor collection of schlubs in the Super Bowl. Short of hoisting a consecutive Vince Lombardi trophy, no Packer team has ever done better. Disappointing? The final result was certainly disappointing, but the season? Disappointing? Preposterous!
We had a lot to be thankful for during that ride in 2011 and I for one felt privileged to watch it. I’ve been a Packer fan all my life and last year ranks right near the top of my all-time favorite seasons. There were low points, absolutely. The puzzling descent from an elite defense to a collection of human turnstiles was hard to watch every week. When the Chiefs came up with a way to beat the Packers in week 16, it was painful but we all treated it as an aberration. Of course, the Giants used it as a blueprint and the Packers chipped in with their worst performance in more than a year and the dream was over.
So how do you improve on a 15-1, got-knocked-out-of-the-playoffs team? Well, you have to look at your weaknesses. First and foremost was the defense. Hard to believe in a 15-1 team but it was true. The 2011 Green Bay Packers gave up more passing yardage than any team in NFL history. As in EVER. This required the offense to be ON every week and score as many points as possible, which forced opponents to play wide-open, which put more pressure on the defense and on and on. A pass rush that evaporated was the main culprit, coupled with a mediocre secondary, populated by lesser men due to injuries. If you think about it, the 2010 defense was so much better simply because their pass rush was so much more effective. Remove that rush and your defensive backs are exposed. So the brain trust, led by Ted Thompson, went out and found a couple of free agents and drafted a whole pile of defenders to enhance the rush and shore up the secondary. Based on what we’ve seen so far in the preseason, many of these players will be making immediate contributions, most notably Nick Perry, drafted as a bookend to Clay Matthews at outside linebacker. Upgrading the defense, even if it’s just a little bit, would have a huge impact. You just cannot expect your offense to play lights-out every single week. When the offensive troops do have an off day, you need a defense capable of winning the game for you. Remember 2010? That unbelievable run to the Super Bowl? How many of those games hinged on the defense? How many of those games could have been put away by the offense but the defense had to step up big? We were fortunate last year but you can’t count on fortune. You can count on a dominant pass rush and a defense that dictates terms and takes no prisoners.
Another issue is the running game. I’m sure there are many of you now saying “What? MMQB, you know the Packers are a pass-first team! It’s all about getting the ball to Nelson and Jennings and Finley and the run is just there to keep the defense honest!” and you’d be partially correct. With a guy like Aaron Rodgers and the corps of targets he has to choose from, the Packers are going to win through the air. With the yards and scores the Packers put up last year, with a fairly ineffective running game, why would it matter? Well, all you have to do is look at the two football games we lost last year to answer that question. Both the Chiefs and the Giants beat the Packers by dropping seven into coverage and rushing only four. Both of these teams have effective defensive lines and a great pass rushers. Do you not think the rest of the NFL has looked at those films? Clog up the secondary and put just enough pressure on our QB and the offensive juggernaut grinds to a halt. How do we combat this? RUN THE BALL! Whether it’s Rodgers tucking the ball in and scrambling (a tactic used to great effect on the Bengals two weeks ago) or handing it off on a draw or even a dump-off pass to a back curling out of the backfield (essentially a long handoff) you negate the effectiveness of the defensive tactic and gain yards. Sure, you’re not ripping off big chunks that a complete pass would get you but rushing yards are WAY better than an incompletion, a sack or a pick. The Packers attempted to upgrade the running attack from within but injuries to the RB corps again (seems like it’s been that way forever) caused them to switch gears and bring in Cedric Benson. Benson is not the second coming of Ahman Green but he is just the type of back to take advantage of pass-centric defenses, wear down a d-line with repeated poundings and grind it out in tough, short-yardage situations. If he can catch a few passes (again, the Cincinnati game was instructive) and learn to pick up a blitzer on occasion, we might just have something. Don’t think of the Packer running attack as a primary weapon, think of it as a force-multiplier: just how much better will our pass offense be if our opponents have to account for the possibility of a real running back on every play? When we need to run out the clock, won’t it be much more effective if we have someone capable of ripping off 6 or 9 yard runs, rather than just slamming into a pile of bodies and falling down?
So how do I see our chances in 2012? A lot will depend on the injury situation, as it always does. The defensive backfield is in flux due to injuries and the move of Woodson from corner to safety. The Packers are painfully thin at offensive line. Watching Graham Harrell run for his life in the preseason should tell you something. In the final cuts last week, the Packer management thought so little of their current prospects on the O-line they canned almost all of them, leaving them with only two back-ups for five line positions. And speaking of our presumptive back-up QB, despite his reassuring performance last week, you can’t help but worry about the possibility of an injury to Rodgers and how big that fall-off truly is. Both Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson profess confidence that Harrell can get the job done. These guys see him in practice every day and we only get to see him behind a second-rate O-line throwing to also-ran receivers. How many people knew that Matt Flynn was as capable as he appeared when he was needed? An NFL season is long and difficult and simply the wear and tear on players is enough to grind them down. I will repeat my mantra as I have for so many seasons: your team will go as far as your back-ups will take you. Finding ways to win games in the face of adversity is the most difficult task for any team. In order to continue their great success, the Packers will have to fight through adversity and no one can say just what form that will take. But I think this team is up to the challenge. They are well coached at all levels and have the kind of experience in key areas that will serve them well. There is no way they will win 15 games again (the first month of the season is as brutal a test as you could get!) and you can treat that as a disappointment if you want. The truth is that 15-win seasons are rare in the NFL and you don’t need to go 15-1 or 16-0 to be a great, great football team. I think, however, the Packers will win no fewer than 13 games and again dominate the North: The Lions shot their wad and missed, the Bears’ offense will be improved but I think their defense will grow more suspect and the Vikings will never claw their way out of the cellar, much less challenge for a Division title. I’m predicting 13-3, a North win and another trip to the playoffs and decent shot at another Lombardi Trophy.