Packers 2017: If Not Now, When?
Every Packers fan knows the litany of post-season sorrows since the team’s last Super Bowl victory: smacked down at home by Giants, and then in San Francisco; edged by the 49ers at Lambeau; denied another Super Bowl by their own collapse in Seattle; out-crazied in Arizona; stampeded last January in Atlanta.
Aaron Rodgers’ brilliance and smart moves by General Manager Ted Thompson and Coach Mike McCarthy have kept the Packers among the NFL elite for almost a decade. But seven seasons after the ultimate success, the usual “ifs” in fans’ dreams blend into one big “WHEN?” The Fairly Detached Observers discuss...
Frank: First the good news: Rodgers, who’ll be 34 in December, seems as good as ever since shaking off a mid-season slump last year. Like Tom Brady, he’s become dedicated to good diet and exercise, even saying it’s “realistic” to think he could play at 40, as Brady is doing.
Artie: Of course a serious injury can happen anytime, but it sure helps that quarterbacks are more protected than ever by the rules.
F: All the forecasts say the Packers remain a strong contender to go all the way. But is this the year that “When” comes true? Let’s get detailed, starting on offense.
A: As always, every assessment carries a big asterisk that stands for “Barring Injuries.”
F: The wide-receiving corps is deep as usual, and everyone says one clear improvement is at tight end.
A: And that’s big! Look who they added. Martellus Bennett, fresh from the Patriots’ title, is top of the line. And Lance Kendricks ain’t far behind.
F: Bennett is a monster!
A: Listed as 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds, and he’s a terrific blocker. That’s a big upgrade because last year Jared Cook was more like an extra wide receiver.
F: Bennett can help the running game keep teams from over-blitzing. Rodgers is an escape artist, but the fewer pressures the better.
A: The running game is a question mark, but it was last year too, even before Eddie Lacy went down early.
F: After that Ty Montgomery did well in his brand-new role, and now he’s had an entire off-season of work. And rookie Jamaal Williams has promise.
A: He’s also touted as a good pass blocker. But really, how much of a ground game do you need if the air game is awesome? Rushing is just supplemental for many teams in today’s NFL.
F: But the pass protection better hold up! How’s the offensive line?
A: From what I’ve read out of camp, the first string is excellent but there’ll be trouble if the young-guy backups are needed. We don’t know how Bryan Bulaga’s ankle injury will play out, and his subs at right tackle had some problems in the Denver exhibition game.
F: On to the foot-guys. Is the “crisis” involving Mason Crosby’s place-kicks over?
A: Seems so, since they rehired long-snapper Brett Goode. Crosby nailed a 52-yarder in Denver. As for the rookie punter, Justin Vogel, the Journal Sentinel said he’s “shown a powerful leg” but added, “When Vogel is off it isn’t pretty.” The Pack might look around when teams go to 53-man rosters this weekend.
F: Moving to the defense, how about the line?
A: I think it’ll be fine. Ricky Jean Francois was a good pickup, and yes, they lost Datone Jones but he didn’t do much last year.
F: Outside linebackers lead the pass rush in the 3-4 scheme, so a lot depends on Nick Perry and Clay Matthews staying healthy.
A: Perry did last year, uncharacteristically, but my worries are back now that he tweaked an ankle in Denver. Matthews has been banged up a lot the last couple of years. It’s not just missing games; it’s also being ineffective because he’s hurt but still on the field.
F: What if there are health issues again?
A: They like their new “Nitro” scheme, where a safety plays up like an inside linebacker. Rookie Josh Jones will join Morgan Burnett in that job.
F: When the rush isn’t effective, what’ll happen in the secondary? It can’t be as ragged as it was in Atlanta, right?
A: Or in much of last season. The Pack was next-to-worst among 32 teams in passing yards allowed per game, after ranking sixth-best in 2015.
F: A year ago they thought they had terrific depth in the D-backfield.
A: They did! But Sam Shields was lost quickly to a severe concussion and second-year cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins under-performed and also missed games.
F: And by the playoffs they had guys at the corners who shouldn’t have been starting.
A: So Thompson drafted Kevin King from U-Washington, who has good size. He’s legit, and Jones can play corner in certain setups. So they expect the secondary to be better, by more than a little.
F: Last week a friend told me, “If they can just achieve mediocrity on defense they’ll be OK,” because the offense will pile up points.
A: I agree, at least for the regular season. Only major injuries can deny them the NFC Central crown. But would mediocre D work in the playoffs?
F: They face two playoff-type games right away: Seattle at home and a return to Atlanta.
A: Not to mention visits to Dallas and Pittsburgh. But they can count on two W’s over the Bears, plus a romp in Cleveland.
F: The Packers’ lowest “power ranking” I’ve seen, from The Sporting News, puts ’em seventh in the league and fourth in the conference, behind Seattle, Atlanta and Dallas. One comment was that “they’ve got to find a bigger sense of NFC title urgency...”
A: Are they nuts? Who could feel more urgency than a team from Titletown with a Hall of Fame QB and a six-year list of frustrations?
Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek watches every Packer game urgently.