Tough Loss Leaves Packers With a Certain Future
The Packers lost the NFC Championship game in week 1. Every team has certain keystone players that they cannot live without. The quarterback is almost always among them, but there are others as well, especially on defense, and for the Packers, Sam Shields was among them.
The Packers were a good team, and I would even go so far as to say they were a very good team, but the seeds of true greatness were there, and they probably would have sprouted with just a little more health. Shields made a world of difference as a shutdown outside stopper who took pressure off everyone else, and allowed for more flexibility in safety play. Without him, Burnett and Clinton-Dix found themselves tied down with specific assignments, Rollins and Randall found themselves pushed into the starting spotlight against elite competition a little too soon, and Ladarius Gunter, who gave it everything he had this year, found himself overmatched when forced into the lead role. A healthy Sam Shields allows everyone to cover longer, allows the pass rush to get home more frequently, and allows more freelancing. Once he was lost, possibly forever, the Packer ceiling was capped.
It’s natural to want to blame someone for a playoff loss, but in truth the culprit was almost certainly bad luck. Blaming bad luck is extremely unfulfilling, but Shields was just the tip of the iceberg. You could complain that Dom Capers has worn out his welcome, and that he should have coached up his team, but Capers was playing with a decimated secondary that had Gunter as its lead, was missing Morgan Burnett, and after a few plays was even down Micah Hyde. Clay Matthews has looked either old or hobbled all year and Nick Perry still has a cast on. The Packer defense was bad, but they were bad for a good reason.
That might lead you to blame Ted Thompson, his draft and develop strategy, and the personnel problems he created, but doing so is also problematic. While it’s true Capers has had his share of bad defenses, he has also coached some top 10 units for the Packers, and the 2015 version happens to be one of those. The Packer defense was 9th overall, and against the pass they were 6th.
Yes, pass defense was a strength of the Packer defense just one year ago, and the young corners who struggled so much this year were a big part of that. Last season when targeting Quinten Rollins, Damarious Randall, or Ladarius Gunter, no quarterback had a completion percentage over 59 and no quarterback had a QB Rating over 88. In 368 snaps last season, Rollins held opposing quarterbacks to a 58.1 rating when targeted.
This season all three took huge steps back. Gunter’s regression is excusable, as he is an undrafted free agent acquisition with limited speed who had to cover elite receivers all year. He allowed a 112.4 rating against this season and he was the best of the 3. Rollins was an outright disaster, allowing opposing QBs to complete over 70% of their passes for a 133.8 rating.
The fact of the matter is that Thompson did bring back Shields, two promising rookies, a promising prospect in Gunter, two all-pro caliber safeties in Clinton-Dix and Burnett, and an excellent catch-all backup in Hyde. The struggles of this secondary to this extent were completely unpredictable, and exacerbated by injuries. Capers came into this game hamstrung by his roster, but that roster was constructed completely rationally. Some might be tempted to blame the medical staff, but Sam Shields has a concussion, and no amount of training will stop that. Nick Perry has broken bones. The defense collapsed, mostly, because of circumstances that were completely beyond their control. It happens sometimes. Not being able to blame someone won’t make you feel any better, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
The Offense: More of the Same
I think the Packers understood that the defense would have its issues. Atlanta’s offense wasn’t just better than the Packer offense this year, it was much better. The Falcons scored 108 more points than Green Bay this season. The difference between Atlanta, who led the NFC in points scored, and the Packers, who were 3rd, is the same as the difference between the Packers and the Vikings, who finished 12th with 327 points. The Packers were going to have to win a shootout, and to do so they really needed to have all hands on deck, but if anything the offense was even more banged up than the defense, and by the end of the game it was so banged up the defensive lineman Letroy Guion was playing offensive line. Jordy Nelson looked good early, but after some time it looked like his broken ribs were bothering him, and Davante Adams was definitely struggling with his injured ankle. On top of everything else, some of the Packers, including Rodgers and Nelson, had a case of the flu.
If the injury luck wasn’t bad enough, the Packers also had a terrible bit of luck while the game was still close. Aaron Rodgers actually moved the ball with relative ease early, but Mason Crosby missed a field goal, and on their next drive, Aaron Ripkowski fumbled in the red zone. The subsequent Falcon touchdown, basically a 14-point swing, cemented the game. Even the zebras hurt Green Bay early as they granted the Falcons an unwarranted first down on the game’s first drive, that otherwise would have forced a punt.
Sometimes it’s just not in the cards.
None of this is meant to deny credit to the Falcons, who played an extremely smart game and never allowed the Packers any hope of getting back into it. Julio Jones was able to dominate Ladarius Gunter partially because they came out of the gate firing at Green Bay’s biggest weakness on defense, Damarious Randall. Mohamed Sanu caught 5 passes in this game. 4 of them came in the first quarter with his 5th and final coming early in the second. Sanu was the focus early to make the Packers give Randall help, and once they did, there simply wasn’t as much help for Gunter, which opened up Jones. The Atlanta defense also managed to hit Rodgers with a couple of very timely sacks, and kept the injured Packer receivers blanketed. The Falcons played a brilliant game and earned their Super Bowl. Even at full strength the Packers would have merely been an even matchup, and still would have had a hard time winning the game. Coming in underpowered gave them no chance.
A Certain Future
I have already seen many Packer fans calling for sweeping changes, but the fact of the matter is that this team encountered a ton of adversity and still made it all the way to the second last game of the year. The offense may have struggled early, but with the return of Jared Cook and the position switch of Ty Montgomery, McCarthy righted the ship, and the defense was hit by all kinds of unforeseeable issues. Some people believe the Packers are more injury prone than the rest of the NFL, and that was once true, however they have actually been quite healthy lately. Football Outsiders tracks this in a statistic called Adjusted Games Lost, or AGL. You can see how the Packers have ranked here (lower numbers mean that a team has been healthier)
@BadgerNoonan AGL rank in Rodgers era— Neal Olson (@olewr7) January 23, 2017
2008 - 17
2009 - 25
2010 - 30
2011 - 16
2012 - 32
2013 - 30
2014 - 3
2015 - 9
In 2014 they were the 3rd healthiest team in the league, and in 2015 they were 9th. This season is likely to be a recent anomaly more than a continuing trend.
The Packers still have a solid base of talent, and it won’t take very much to keep them as a member of the league’s elite. Even their much maligned defense is really only a player or 2 away from returning to top 10 form. They likely need to replace Sam Shields, who is still experiencing symptoms from his concussion to this day. They could use another edge rusher, and they could use another playmaker on offense. On the whole, their problems are fairly minor, and the vast majority of teams are in much worse shape. Every Packer fan is feeling the disappointment of the loss, but this is a team well built to return to greatness next year. Most fan bases cannot count on such things, and it is a testament to the ownership structure and the front office that success is the norm, not the exception.