The last time a team went 15-1 and failed to win the Super Bowl, that team won the Super Bowl the next year.
Of course, by the time the 2005 Steelers navigated the AFC playoff field from a sixth-seed starting position, their one-loss regular season from the prior year had become a faded memory.
For the Packers, a season of unfulfilled postseason expectations came one year after the Packers pulled off a Super Bowl win starting from the last position in the NFC pecking order. And the sooner they can forget that one-loss regular season, the better off they’ll be.
Considering what the team has and what the nucleus of the roster has accomplished, the Packers start the 2012 regular season in first place — despite exiting in the quarterfinal round last season.
If the Packers don’t finish with at least a berth in the Super Bowl, it won’t be because they lack the talent.
The Packers have the strongest strength of any team that has a strength of any kind. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the league’s reigning MVP, had a season for the ages (then again, so did Drew Brees). Rodgers’ full-season passer rating of 122.5 was the highest in league history, with 45 touchdowns passes against only six interceptions. Four seasons after spending three on the bench, Rodgers has become the best all-around quarterback in football.
He can run when he needs to, throw pretty much whenever he wants to. With a Super Bowl ring, a Super Bowl MVP trophy, and a league MVP award, Rodgers already has a greater variety of hardware than his predecessor, Brett Favre, who never was a Super Bowl MVP.
The only thing that could slow Rodgers down is injury. Concussion issues plagued him for part of the 2010 season. Though he emerged from 2011 unscathed, Rodgers is one solid hit to the noggin away from not being available, possibly for several weeks.
Making Rodgers’ job easier is the fact that he has one of the best top-to-bottom corps of receivers in the league. From Greg Jennings to Jordy Nelson to Donald Driver to James Jones, Rodgers has plenty of options. Throw in tight end Jermichael Finley and up-and-coming wideout Randall Cobb, and the Packers have the ingredients to move the chains and score the points each and every week, against whatever the defense puts in their path.
Questions at left tackle overshadow the fact that, from 2008 through 2010, the Packers loaded up the offensive line, with players like right tackle Bryan Bulaga (first round in 2010), left tackle Marshall Newhouse (fifth round in 2010), guard T.J. Lang (fourth round in 2009), and guard Josh Sitton (fourth round in 2008). Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel believes that, if Newhouse can become a reliable option on the left side, the Packers could have their best offensive line since 2003. Of course, the Packers also will need center Jeff Saturday to play in Green Bay like he did in Indianapolis, where he went from undrafted free agent to anchor of Peyton Manning’s wall of blockers.
Statistically, the Green Bay defense finished dead last in the league last season, a fact that makes it a little harder to install the Packers as the top team in the league entering 2012.
But the Packers were still 15-1 and the defense doesn’t need to get much better to push the Packers over the top. Torched by big plays and limited to only 29 sacks for the season, the Packers need to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
They also need to work on their tackling.
The fact that the Packers devoted their first six draft picks to defensive players proves that the front office realizes the importance of fixing that side of the ball, with first-round linebacker Nick Perry and second-round defensive lineman Jerel Worthy leading the way.
“Obviously, when you have a No. 1 offense and your defense finishes last, there needs to be some improvement, and that’s what we’re trying to address,” linebacker Clay Matthews recently told the Associated Press.
On offense, running back James Starks needs to play like he did during the 2010 postseason. Or they need to find someone who can. The fact that Ryan Grant is long gone shows that the Packers view the position as a revolving door of interchangeable parts. The Packers justify their lone weakness on offense by explaining that they want their running backs to support the passing game, in part by helping protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers. (Hell, even the running backs coach, Alex Van Pelt, is a former quarterback and former quarterbacks coach.) But if they could find someone who can become a real weapon, one of the top offenses in the league would become the very best.
The Packers will need their running backs to step up even more if starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffers an injury. With backup Matt Flynn gone to Seattle, former back-foot chuck-and-duck Air Raid specialist Graham Harrell will be counted on to finally become an NFL quarterback. And that could get even uglier than his back-foot chuck-and-duck Air Raid throwing motion.
For an elite team, the Packers are dealing with plenty of transition. Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin parlayed the Packers’ excellence on offense into a head-coaching job, even though coach Mike McCarthy’s influence and role likely diluted Philbin’s responsibility for the team’s success. Former quarterbacks coach Tom Clements slides into the job, and the thinking is the Packers won’t miss a beat.
Veteran center Scott Wells jumped to the Rams in free agency; if Jeff Saturday still has gas in the tank, the Packers won’t miss Wells.
The Packers decided to move on from long-time left tackle Chad Clifton. If Marshall Newhouse can’t get it done, the Packers may wish they had done more to address the fairly important position during free agency or before round seven of the draft.
Running back Ryan Grant once appeared to be on track to have a long career with thousands of yards rushing. Injuries and ineffectiveness have prompted the Packers to move on; Grant is still looking for a new job.
An influx of defensive rookies could shake up the depth chart, and free agents Philip Merling and Anthony Hargrove (after his eight-game suspension) could provide some needed depth on the defensive line. Cornerback Charles Woodson will spend plenty of time at safety, something he did last year after Nick Collins suffered what turned out to be a career-ending neck injury.
Linebacker A.J. Hawk had a down year. Kind of. Maybe. And that could possibly open the door for others (like D.J. Smith) to cut into Hawk’s reps.
Though Marshall Newhouse enters camp as the starting left tackle, 2011 first-rounder Derek Sherrod could go from Plan B to Plan A, if Sherrod gets healthy and Newhouse gets beaten repeatedly.
The running back position will be a revolving door, but the depth chart needs to be determined. James Starks is the likely starter; behind him, Du’ane Bennett, Alex Green, Brandon Saine, and Marc Tyler are jockey for positioning.
At receiver, Randall Cobb possibly could pick off James Jones for the fourth spot on the depth chart. The team’s decision to keep using Cobb as the primary kickoff returner, however, suggests that Jones will stay in the last non-special-teams roster spot at receiver, and that Cobb will be No. 5.
If Aaron Rodgers suffers a serious injury, the Packers will be battling the Vikings for the basement of the NFC North. If Rodgers stays healthy and the defense improves only slightly, the Packers should once again run away with the division — and they’ll have as good a chance as anyone to run the table to their fifth Super Bowl title and second in three years.
The Packers’ path would be more clear if the team could address some of its more glaring weaknesses. The goal should be to improve in the trouble spots over the course of the season, and to be ready to go when the playoffs start.
In that regard, the Packers actually could benefit in a roundabout way from a two-to-three week injury absence by Rodgers, since it would force the rest of the team to get the job done without relying on him.
For now, the biggest problem with the Packers seems to be that they have too many eggs in the passing game. The fact that it powered them to a 15-1 record last year shows that it won’t take much diversification to finish the job in 2012, and perhaps beyond.