By Brandon, Acme Packing Company
The Green Bay Packers enter their third season of life after Favre as one of the trendy Super Bowl picks. Not many fans look longing back at what could have been if the recent grandfather was still playing for the Packers because we are focused on beating him twice a year, and his replacement at quarterback has already become one of the best in the NFL. The team is certainly one of the best on the offensive side, but a solid defense has some question marks concerning their depth in the secondary and whether they'll be able to provide a consistent pass rush. Their weakness remains two fold: a terrible special teams unit, and an aggressive style of play on defense that leads to many penalties. It's almost impossible to tell whether they'll be better in either area until the regular season begins. But the team is relatively healthy and playing with a lot of confidence so far this preseason. Predictions of a Super Bowl appearance have been written about in many publications and for good reason: this is a very good football team.
Their big move this offseason was to keep the status quo. That's not a bad idea since they finished 11-5 in 2009, made the playoffs, and remain one of the youngest teams in the league. They spent a lot of money re-signing their veteran offensive tackles, LT Chad Clifton and RT Mark Tauscher, while giving a big contract extension to their Pro Bowl FS Nick Collins. The one long-time player they did not ask to return was DE/LB Aaron Kampman. It was a rough 2009 season for Kampman, who was asked to convert from a 4-3 DE to a 3-4 LB, and ended up tearing his ACL. He decided he was better suited to play on the defensive line, and he'll get an opportunity to start for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who signed him to a four-year contract. It would have been a risk to assume that the 30 year old Kampman could have provided the same pass rush on his surgically repaired knee, but now the Packers have to find someone to replace his previous production.
As is typical under Packers GM Ted Thompson, the new additions not from free agency, but via the draft. First round LT Bryan Bulaga is unlikely to start in 2010, but he'll be the anchor of the offensive line in the future, and has looked great when asked to play it this preseason. second round DE Mike Neal was another selection for the future, but he might be asked to play more than expected after the season long suspension of DE Johnny Jolly was announced in July. 3rd round SS Morgan Burnett is being asked to make a quick transition into an NFL starter because incumbant SS Atari Bigby is likely out to start the season after undergoing ankle surgery in early August.
The NFL's sixth ranked offense in 2009 will return all their starters. QB Aaron Rodgers made his first Pro Bowl last season and expects to improve due to a healthy offensive line. In 2009, LT Chad Clifton missed four games and parts of two others early in the season, and RT Mark Tauscher wasn't even re-signed until October. Their replacements at tackle were bad, bad, bad and Rodgers was sacked over 40 times in their first 8 games, but only sacked 10 times over the second half of the season. So far in their first three preseason games, the expected starting offensive line has played without injury (knock on wood) and Rodgers hasn't been sacked. The biggest beneficiary of all the extra time Rodgers will have to throw the football is every Packer fan's candidate for a breakout season: TE Jermichael Finley. The third year pro is only 23 years old, but he's already a mismatch nightmare for opposing defenses. At 6'5" and 247 lbs., Finley has the size to tower over the average cornerback, but he has the speed and hands of a wide receiver so he can't be covered by a linebacker. To make the situation even worse for the defense, Finley is often lined up wide, which allows the offense to move a receiver like WR Greg Jennings in the slot where he can take advantage of a separate mismatch against a safety or linebacker.
The running game will always be the second banana in Mike McCarthy's offense. But RB Ryan Grant remains the undisputed lead back and it's almost certain he'll have another 300 carries and 1,200 yards in 2010. The Packers aren't expected to give any other running back over 100 carries. While Grant uses his size and speed to be an effective runner, RB Brandon Jackson will play nearly as much due to his superior skills as a receiver and a blocker on passing downs. Neither one is a complete back, but in a platoon situation, their skills match perfectly.
The defense went through a complete overhaul in 2009. They fired defensive coordinator Bob Sanders and replaced him with former Panthers and Texans head coach Dom Capers. He then replaced the long time 4-3 scheme with a 3-4 scheme. The main advantage of the switch was to improve the Packers awful run defense, and it certainly worked. The Packers run defense was ranked No. 26 overall in 2008, and improved to No. 1 overall in 2009. The pass defense was no slouch either, ranked No. 6 overall last season and led by the NFL's 2009 Defensive Player of the Year, CB Charles Woodson. Unfortunately the secondary has mixed in some really bad games with the typically good ones. They kept opposing teams from racking up the yardage, but they had trouble keeping them out of the end zone, and the pass defense allowed 29 touchdowns, which tied for 4th worst in 2009. They also were torched in a couple late season games, at Pittsburgh and during the wild card game at Arizona, after veteran CB Al Harris was lost for the season with multiple ligament tears in his knee and depth became an issue. With Harris out for the start of the season, if not longer, the Packers need a new nickelback and will have to decide if CB Brandon Underwood has made enough of an improvement since his rookie season to earn the job. Instead of using the draft or free agency to improve the cornerback position, they are hoping their returning 2nd and 3rd year players can step up.
You really want to know about the Packers horrible special teams unit? First the good: K Mason Crosby isn't awful, but he's not very good either. He only made about 75% of his FG attempts and is perfectly average on kickoffs, but he is the brightest star on this awful unit. P Jeremy Kapinos was so bad in 2009 that he was not even offered a contract for 2010. Instead P Tim Masthay was signed to compete with Aussie P Chris Bryan. While neither has stepped forward to claim the job yet, at least they both have the potential to not be the worst punter in the NFL (as Kapinos was). The punt and kick return units were bad, but at least they have some potential if KR Will Blackmon returns to form after a knee injury wiped out his 2009 season. The punt and kick coverage units were awful, awful, awful. Instead of canning the coach in charge of this disaster, Shawn Slocum, Mike McCarthy decided to keep him around. He's made some changes in the coverage personnel, but there is no guarantee that this group will be any better in 2010.
Speaking of the coaching, Mike McCarthy returns for his fifth season. I was not a fan of his hiring in 2006, but I've come to respect him as a head coach. Like many former offensive coordinators turned head coaches, he calls the plays, but he relies on eight offensive assistant coaches. Their duties are broken down by traditional titles (offensive coordinator, running backs coach, etc.) but he delegates certain offensive situations (i.e. red zone offense, 3rd down schemes, etc.) to the various assistants and McCarthy acts more like a CEO overseeing the offense during the week. Plus, Rodgers works hard during McCarthy's offseason quarterbacks camp and continues to his improve as the offensive leader on the field. On the defensive side, Dom Capers returns for his second season overseeing the defense, aided by long-time Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac. Inside linebackers coach Winston Moss holds the title of assistant head coach, he was the only defensive coach not fired after the 2008 season, and obviously has McCarthy's respect. Former linebacker Kevin Greene began his coaching career last season with the Packers. He's their outside linebackers coach and developed LBs Clay Matthews and Brad Jones into starters last year, and appears to have found another success story in undrafted free agent LB Frank Zombo. Please don't make me mention the special teams coaches again...(see above). OK, I'm better now.
Conclusion/predictions for 2010
I fully expect the Packers to return to the playoffs in 2010. Their poor 6-10 season in 2008 is now sandwiched between a 13-3 record in 2007 and 11-5 last season which proves that neither 2007 or 2009 was a fluke. The biggest question is whether the Packers can beat the Vikings. Their two losses versus Minnesota in 2009 were the difference between another 13-3 division championship and a 11-5 wild card berth. As I watch the Vikings lose multiple wide receivers due to injuries, I grow more optimistic, but they still have to play those games (which unfortunately don't start until their October 24th matchup at Lambeau). Since I'm a true homer fan, I'll take the over bet and I expect they'll beat the Vikings twice, finish 13-3, and win the NFC North.