The Packers have been at or near the top of the NFL for four years running, and there’s every reason to believe that they’ll remain at or near the top of the NFL this year.
That’s the ultimate takeaway from our preseason look at the Packers: They’re the clear favorites to win the NFC North and host at least one playoff game at Lambeau Field, and they’re one of the Top 10 teams in the league.
For Packers fans, however, No. 8 may be disappointing: As long as Aaron Rodgers is in his prime, anything short of the Super Bowl will feel like a letdown. We explore below why our six-person PFT panel thinks the Packers will again get close but fall short.
It all starts with Aaron Rodgers, who is masterful running head coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. In 2011 Rodgers was the league MVP and set an NFL passer rating record. In 2012 he took maybe a tiny step backward, but he led the league in passer rating again. Rodgers is the NFL’s all-time leader in passer rating, at 104.9 for his career, and he has the lowest career interception percentage in NFL history, with just 1.7 percent of his passes getting picked. His career completion rate of 65.7 percent is second all-time, and he’s the post-merger record holder (surpassed only by some old-timers who played in a different era of passing offenses) in career yards per pass and career touchdown percentage. In case you haven’t noticed, Rodgers isn’t just a good quarterback. He’s a quarterback who’s doing things the NFL hasn’t seen before.
Rodgers also has a good trio of wide receivers in Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones, and Jermichael Finley at tight end gives Rodgers another threat in the passing game. Cobb is a uniquely talented playmaker whom Rodgers has said could catch 100 passes this season. If Cobb gets as involved in the offense as the Packers hope, and if he continues to be Green Bay’s primary punt and kickoff returner, he could threaten Darren Sproles’ all-time record for all-purpose yards in a season.
The Packers’ defense took a major step forward from 2011 to 2012, and Clay Matthews managed 13 sacks despite missing four games. Green Bay’s defense melted down in the postseason loss to the 49ers, but that appeared to be more a matter of running into the wrong quarterback at the wrong time, as the Packers simply had no answer for Colin Kaepernick. That game was alarming, but one bad game does not mean Green Bay has a bad defense.
If there’s a concern on offense, it’s whether Aaron Rodgers can stay upright for 16 games. So far Rodgers has proven himself to be tough and durable, but last year he was sacked an NFL-high 51 times. If you’re hit by 300-pound defensive linemen that often, there’s a very good chance that eventually you’re going to get hurt. And there may not be any team in the league that has a bigger drop-off from its starting quarterback to its backup quarterback than the Packers have from Rodgers to Graham Harrell, who has thrown exactly four passes in his NFL career.
The inability to stop Colin Kaepernick’s running in the playoffs was a disaster, and Packers coach Mike McCarthy sent his defensive staff back to college to study how to stop the read-option. But a bigger concern is that the defense struggled at times to stop running backs. Adrian Peterson was good against everyone, of course, but he was particularly good against the Packers, running for 210 and 199 yards in his two regular-season games against Green Bay. (The Packers did hold Peterson to “only” 99 yards in the playoffs.) Games like the Packers’ loss to the Giants, in which they allowed Ahmad Bradshaw to gain 58 yards on 10 carries and Andre Brown to gain 64 yards on 13 carries, are also alarming for the Packers’ defense.
The loss of wide receiver Greg Jennings may sting, but if Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson and James Jones all stay healthy, Aaron Rodgers won’t be hurting for wide receivers. Donald Driver’s retirement is also noteworthy, but while he’ll be missed by Packers fans, the offense won’t miss him at all: Driver had a long and honorable career with the Packers, but he really didn’t have much left last year.
The departure of veteran defensive back Charles Woodson got a lot of headlines, but the Packers won’t necessarily miss him a whole lot on the field, either. He missed half the season with a broken collarbone last year, and the Packers feel good about their depth in the secondary. Veteran linebacker Desmond Bishop, who missed all of last season with a torn hamstring, was also let go, but the Packers like their starting linebackers, too.
Overall, the changes the Packers made this offseason are the changes they’ve always made: They held the line by declining to pay a lot of money to aging veterans, kept the nucleus of their team in place, and added a lot of talent (11 picks) in the draft, highlighted by first-round defensive end Datone Jones. That formula has worked well in Green Bay.
With Charles Woodson out, M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian will compete to start at safety alongside Morgan Burnett. Packers safeties coach Darren Perry has said neither of them has separated himself so far, so that’s a competition that bears watching during training camp.
The kicking job will come down to a competition between Mason Crosby and Giorgio Tavecchio. Crosby was very shaky last season, so Packers fans have to hope that Tavecchio will prove he’s up to the task, and that Crosby can be sent packing.
The Packers also hope last year’s mediocre running attack can be bolstered by their two running back draft picks, Eddie Lacy and Jonathan Franklin. In a five-way competition, Lacy, Franklin, DuJuan Harris, Alex Green and James Starks will all get the opportunity to prove themselves. Lacy would seem to enter camp as the favorite, but that competition is wide open.
The Packers are a good football team, the clear favorites to win the NFC North and a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. The presence of Aaron Rodgers virtually guarantees that they’re going to have an elite offense. There’s a lot to be optimistic about in Green Bay.
But the Packers probably haven’t closed the gap with the 49ers and Falcons in the NFC, and they also have a good Seahawks team to contend with in the conference. Green Bay looks like a good playoff team, but not a Super Bowl team.