Forget about Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or anyone else not named Aaron Rodgers. The best quarterback in the NFL currently plays in Green Bay. And that’s good enough to get the Packers in the top five as the 2014 season approaches.
They’d be even higher if Rodgers had the help that other franchise quarterbacks enjoy. Specifically on defense. And everyone knows it. Maybe that’s why recent remarks from Rodgers that easily could have been interpreted as a slap at the front office and/or the locker room didn’t ruffle many feathers.
“We haven’t had the kind of physical talent as far as size here in a while,” Rodgers said last month. “I think there’s been times — I think back to playing Jacksonville in ’08 in Jacksonville, some of the battles we’ve had with our division teams at times — where you walk on the field and feel like you’re kind of a JV team.”
Beyond Rodgers, the Packers have been a JV team, mainly on defense. But the Packers may have improved just enough that they’ll be good enough to have a chance to get back to the Super Bowl.
On offense, it begins (and arguably ends) with Rodgers. A high-precision passer who can run the ball, too, Rodgers knows how to gain yardage on the ground without putting himself at undue risk. Last year’s broken collarbone happened not while he was being reckless but while trying to step up in the pocket. Shea McLellin of the Bears shed a block and spotted Rodgers and closed ground and pulled him down before Rodgers knew what happened. If he can stay healthy throughout 2014, the Packers will likely win the NFC North. The real question becomes whether he’ll have enough help in the postseason to advance past the divisional round, or whether it’ll be another JV-level showing at single-elimination time, particularly from the defense.
The Packers rolled the dice last season on a pair of tailbacks, stopping Eddie Lacy’s round-two free-fall and snagging Johnathan Franklin, who appeared to be a perfect fit for the Green Bay offense. A neck injury ended Franklin’s career before it could get started, but the gamble on Lacy ended up being a good one — especially since he eventually was able to pound out some strong performances even when the Packers were forced to implement a crappy backup plan for Rodgers. If Lacy can match the quarterback when it comes to avoiding injury, the Packers could have the best one-two offensive punch in the NFL.
A bad defense would be a lot worse without linebacker Clay Matthews, who continues to be one of the better pass rushers in the NFL, but who has missed nine games over the past two seasons combined. The arrival of Julius Peppers could make Matthews even better, even though the jury is still out on whether Peppers still has it like he used to.
The secondary has the potential to be very good, with highly-paid cornerback Sam Shields and first-round rookie safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix potentially leading the way. As a unit, however, the defense doesn’t belong in the “strength” category.
The tight end position holds little promise after the departure of Jermichael Finley. He seems to want to return to Green Bay after neck surgery, but it seems highly unlikely that that Packers will clear him to play — or pay him what it would take to get him to walk away from his probably-too-good-to-be-true $10 million tax-free insurance policy. The depth chart is so uncertain that the Packers have taken a chance on undrafted rookie Colt Lyerla, whose talent has been overshadowed by a litany of off-field concerns.
The offensive line continues to shuffle and rotate and generally underperform. Bryan Bulaga moves back to the right side after a short-lived experiment at left tackle, which ended when his ACL gave out during an intrasquad scrimmage. David Bakhtiari played well enough as a fourth-round rookie to keep the job, holding former Viking (new Bear) Jared Allen without a sack in two games and generally not being nearly as bad as some feared Bakhtiari would be. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith bolted for Tampa Bay (to the chagrin of Rodgers), leaving the Packers to hope JC Tretter is ready. Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang provide quality at guard, but the five-man operation as a whole allowed 45 sacks, ninth worst in the league.
Despite a few bright spots, the defense continues to be a liability, finishing in the bottom fourth of the league last year in yards allowed (372.2 per game) and points (26.8 per game). Most of the blame lands on the poorly-toupeed head of coordinator Dom Capers, who should have been given a ticket out of Titletown after a playoff meltdown against the 49ers in January 2013. Coach Mike McCarthy has opted for loyalty to a fault; that could end after the coming campaign.
G.M. Ted Thompson stepped out of character in free agency, adding veteran pass rusher Julius Peppers. Whether he plays linebacker or defensive end (he’s listed as both), Peppers could wreak havoc, if his play in 2012 was more about not being in the right frame of mind and less about diminishing physical skills.
Offensively, Matt Flynn officially is back as the Week One backup to Aaron Rodgers, which is a much better plan that to have no plan for fear of jinxing Rodgers. While not able to lead an offense, Flynn has shown that he can get it done when pressed into service. The Packers wisely have decided to make sure he’s available to do what needs to be done, if Rodgers gets banged up again.
The receiving corps continues to be in a state of transition. A year after losing Greg Jennings to the Vikings, James Jones signed with the Raiders. Jordy Nelson and/or Randall Cobb could be joining them a year from now, which perhaps suggests that the Packers realize a quarterback like Rodgers can make most receivers look good.
The biggest free-agency defection occurred when safety M.D. Jennings left for the Bears. Rookie Clinton-Dix will be expected to fill the void right away, if he can.
Barring the unlikely return of Jermichael Finley, it’s time to find a new tight end. Andrew Quarless is expected to get the first crack at the starting job, with others in place (like Richard Rodgers) to challenge Quarless for the top spot on the depth chart and playing time. Colt Lyerla provides the most intriguing option. If he can stay out of trouble and get the most out of his skills, Lyerla could be the next Finley.
Before we assume that Eddie Lacy will become the unquestioned workhorse, consider these words from coach Mike McCarthy about the tailback position: “My depth chart looks nothing like your depth chart.” James Starks and DuJuan Harris provide plenty of talent, when healthy. If Lacy stumbles or gets injured, one or both of them could step up.
JC Tretter gets the first crack at replacing center Evan Dietrich-Smith. Corey Linsley provides Plan B. Plan C could be a lot of shotgun formation and plenty of roll-out passes.
At safety, converted cornerback Micah Hyde could delay the ascension of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the starting lineup, if the rookie struggles to make the transition to the next level.
Since winning Super Bowl XLV, the Packers have had three straight playoff appearances that resulted in disappointment, with a home loss to the Giants, a road loss to the 49ers, and a home loss to the 49ers. The defense has primarily been responsible for the inability to progress beyond the divisional round, and if that happens again in 2014, it’ll be time for a new coordinator, at a minimum.
Chances are the Packers will be good enough on both sides of the ball to let Rodgers carry them back to the round of eight again. It’ll take more than a mild improvement to get to the NFC title game, or beyond. The Packers could be poised to do just that, and they’ll get a chance to show where they are when traveling to Seattle for the first game of the regular season.