The State of the Packers - 2008
Another season, another missed opportunity. That’s the only way to look at the 2007 Green Bay Packers. While 14 wins is always a good season, I thought this team would make the playoffs and thus the failure to get to the Super Bowl is a disappointment. Following a season like this there are two traditional ways a team usually goes: forward to the Super Bowl or totally out of the playoffs. Later this year we will see which route the Packers choose. On the positive side the Packers were clearly improved over last season. They were the better team in almost all their games with the exception of one of the Chicago games, the toss up in Dallas, and the NFC championship game. The Packers were outplayed and outcoached in every aspect of the game by the Giants in the championship, revealing all of the Packers’ weaknesses. Here’s my take:
I’ve always like Ted Thompson and so 2007 was sort of a vindication. The Packers have resisted trying the quick fixes of free agency and drafting by position under Thompson and that began to pay big dividends last season. Several of his draft picks and other acquisitions played important roles in last year’s team and 2008 will feature even more. The team is now out of the Mike Sherman era and can truly be called Thompson’s team.
Unfortunately for Thompson it will actually be harder to resist the calls for free agent signings and positional draft picks after this seasons’ success. The temptation for many people after this past season will be to believe the Packers are just one player away from the Super Bowl, and thus there will be calls to pay big money for some particular free agent or to draft a specific player under the fiction that he can instantly be plugged into the team for a Super Bowl win. The reality is that the Packers could be improved at virtually every position and only by trying to improve everywhere will they get over the hump and into the Super Bowl. Thompson’s job will be to resist the calls for immediate action and continue to build the team for the long term. 2008 will be his biggest challenge to date. If he’s up to the challenge I will continue to be a Thompson supporter.
Like Ted Thompson, 2007 was vindication for Mike McCarthy. The Packers were generally well prepared and, more tellingly, were seldom outplayed in the second half. McCarthy and his staff were consistently able to analyze the opposition make adjustments at halftime that lead to victories.
Offensively the Packers were the ultimate pragmatists: McCarthy abandoned whatever failed and stuck with whatever worked. At times this meant five wide receivers, at other times this meant two fullbacks in the backfield. The willingness to do whatever worked meant the Packers consistently exploited their opponents weaknesses. No more can be asked of coaching during a game.
Defensively the Packers abandoned the zone defense and played man to man almost exclusively. This adjustment from 2006 better suited their players and led to far fewer defensive breakdowns in the secondary. This simple scheme was difficult for the rest of the league to deal with and was really only solved by Eli Manning, and then only by several absolutely perfect passes that he threw in the NFC championship. The defensive scheme that can stop the perfect pass has never been invented. Only a perfect pass rush can stop the perfect pass.
The were only two negatives in the coaching department. One was the failure of the Packers to perform in poor weather. The only times the Packers looked unprepared coincided with bad weather and one has to question whether or not the two are related. The other was the NFC championship game. Offensively the Packers did nothing against the Giants and failed to make the necessary adjustments to change that. The Giants were able to stop the Packers all day long with a plain vanilla defense including stopping the run with only the front seven. While everyone will talk about how the players will react to the loss, this was this coaching staff’s first season of playoff experience, and how the coaching staff reacts to that loss, and what they learn, will be at least as important.
Brett Favre had yet another good season and in spite of what all the pundits may claim his play was not dramatically different from the past years. The difference in his play was largely situational: the Packers trailed late in fewer games and thus there was less need for Brett to single handedly win the game. Favre remains one of only 3-4 quarterbacks in the NFC and one of only 8-10 in the league that can realistically be considered as capable of winning a Super Bowl and if he retires the Packers will instantly become favorites to miss the playoffs next year. If he returns he will have only one goal: a Super Bowl win.
Aaron Rodgers remained the backup and this was both good and bad. In the little playing time he saw, Rodgers showed he was obviously improved over the past season and was capable of playing in the NFL, something that was previously in doubt. Unfortunately he also demonstrated that he was capable of suffering significant injury while seeing only limited playing time and this has to concern the Packers. Given Favre’s impending retirement and Rodger’s injuries expect to see the Packers acquire another potential quarterback of the future during the off season.
Running back may be the only position at which the Packers are truly set, with a combination of talent and youth. The Packers featured Brandon Jackson, Vernand Morency and DeShawn Wynn early in the season before settling on Ryan Grant as the featured back midway through the season. Grant ran with both speed and power, was comfortable with the Packers’ zone blocking scheme and protected the football. All that is left is for Grant to develop into a better receiver out of the backfield. If he can do this, Grant will be among the elite backs in the league for several years. Jackson played better as the season wore on and he will probably be the number 2 back next year. Morency and Wynn will likely fight it out for the 3rd spot, but Packers will be solid regardless of who wins that battle.
At fullback the Packers used both Korey Hall and John Kuhn and appears that the Packers have finally found a couple of fullbacks capable of playing up the level that William Henderson did. This as much as anything was the reason for the emergence of the running game in the second half of the season.
At wide receiver the Packers have some serious decisions to make. While the Packers have NFL receivers in Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Ruvell Martin and Koren Robinson this is still a troubling position. The trouble is that the Packers really do not have a true number 1 receiver. Neither Driver nor Jennings are receivers that anyone feels compelled to double team, and while Jones showed sparks in his rookie year, he also showed poor hands. All three men disappeared completely in some big games. In addition none of these receivers have shown that they are “go to” guys who are always open on 3rd down. Others will disagree with me here, but I think this is a position where the Packers will have to say goodbye to at least one popular player in order to improve the team. The temptation for management will be to hold fast at wide receiver, but I would like to see them to try to improve here.
At tight end Donald Lee took over for Bubba Franks and immediately the Packers went from being worst at tight end to in the top ten in the league. Lee is simply a far better receiver. Playing only part time, Bubba Franks play actually improved. Tight end is probably another position where the Packers have improved but could stand to get better still.
Last year I thought that the Packers offensive line play would be a key to this past season and that was the case. The younger trio of Spitz, Wells and Colledge all improved their play and they were joined by Junius Coston who stepped up and challenged for a starting guard spot. Their improvement was one the big reasons the team was able to run the ball in the second half of the season. At tackle Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton were both effective both in run blocking and pass coverage.
This unit performed poorly against the Giants, but given the Patriots difficulty against the same defense that may have been an isolated case. Alternately, that game may be an indication that the line has a ways to go before they can effectively deal with the more physical defensive lines in the league. There were two plays that stood out in Champion ship game; both screen passes. The first was a screen deep in Giants territory that was the perfect play call right up until the point where three offensive linemen out in front of the runner failed to block the only defender capable of preventing a touchdown on the play. The second was on the Packers’ side of the field that also should have gone for a big gain but was run down from behind near the line of scrimmage when the line failed to account for pursuit. Both these plays were poorly executed by the offensive line and properly executed were potential game changers. Clearly there is room for improvement beyond increasing the strength of the linemen.
Clifton and Tauscher are another year older. Tony Moll never challenged either of these two for a starting spot, and it may be that Darren Colledge will get a try at tackle given his difficulties at guard late in the season. Expect the Packers to look for long term help on the offensive line. People are forecasting a possible first round pick on a tackle, but given that the team has time to develop someone at this position I suspect the Packers will instead opt for a diamond in the rough in the later rounds.
There is good and bad news on the Packers defensive line. The good news is that the team has some depth here. The bad news is that the team lacks a true pass rusher after Aaron Kampman. At defensive end the team used Kampman and Cullen Jenkins, with KGB on passing downs. KGB has gone from being an every down player to a pass rushing specialist in the last year, and now even that must be called into question. I expect he will be gone next year. Jenkins was good against the run but did not develop into a pass rush threat and this was a disappointment. With only one end to rush the passer, it was easy for teams to focus their protection on Kampman. Developing another pass rushing end is probably the teams’ number one priority.
At tackle the team used a committee including Ryan Pickett, Corey Williams, Johnny Jolly and Justin Harrell. Before he got injured, Jolly was surprisingly the team’s most effective tackle, and the only one capable of collapsing the pocket. The Packers were noticeably worse rushing the passer after his season ending injury. Pickett, although a favorite of many announcers, was only average against the run and provides no pass rush whatsoever. Williams will likely depart in free agency. Harrell, recovering from an injuring, played sparingly until Jolly got hurt and showed some signs of being a decent player. The Packers will be looking for improvement and consistency at the tackle position, so don’t be surprised if the starting duo becomes Jolly and Harrell by the middle of next season.
Defensive line is a position much like receiver for the Packers. While they have players capable of playing at the NFL level, they are all similar to one another and an impact player anywhere along the line would greatly improve the team.
At linebacker the Packers started AJ Hawk, Brady Poppinga and Nick Barnett. Barnett thinks he is a pro bowl caliber player but the reality is he needs to figure out how to have a bigger impact on games before that will be true. Hawk had a sophomore slump. While he was not a liability, he did not become the player his rookie season indicated he might. Hawk was reacting to what had already occurred on the field instead of what was about to occur far too often. He needs to play less tentatively to continue to develop into the player the Packers drafted in the 1st round. Poppinga was a pleasant surprise. While he is not athletic enough to ever be a superstar, he played much smarter and was seldom a liability on the field (accept as a blocker on the punting team, where he missed a couple of blocks resulting in turnovers). The only backup of note was Tracy White, who remains largely an unknown quantity.
On a positive note, Barnett and Hawk are a good combination in the nickel defense. Both are athletic enough to cover players out of the backfield and can provide a pass rush on a blitz. Given that I think the league will trend towards more 3, 4 and 5 receiver sets, this is a big positive. All in all this was a group that would look better with a more effective pass rush.
The same secondary that got shelled for big plays routinely last year became a force with the abandonment of the zone defense. Only during the Dallas game did the zone consistently rear its’ ugly head and the results were predictable. The secondary was probably the Packers strongest unit in 2007.
At corner the starters were the usual suspects Al Harris and Charles Woodson. Both were pro-bowl caliber players who consistently shut down opposing receivers. Any sort of a pass rush throughout the year would have made them look even better. Harris had trouble in the NFC Championship but it still took perfect passes and a total lack of pass rush to expose the trouble. After these two, the Packers remain weak at corner. Tramon Williams was probably the best of the rest, but he is still too raw to judge. Will Blackmon and Jarrett Bush got burned a little too often for my liking. Given that the Packers had success using four and five wideouts this year, we can expect to see other teams use spread offenses against them in the coming year. This fact, combined with the age of Woodson and Harris, makes it likely the Packers will expend a high draft pick on a defensive back.
At safety the Packers finally found a starter in Atari Bigby. Bigby had some issues with stupid penalties, but ultimately was willing to hit receivers and tackle running backs. Both traits make it likely he will be starting at safety for several years. The other safety position is wide open. Nick Collins has wiffed on one too many arm tackles for anyone’s liking, and while Aaron Rouse showed some spark, he will need to make significant improvement for this position to be solidified. Safety is another position where the Packers can be expected to seek help.
Dave Ryan had a second solid season at punter outside of the disastrous Chicago game. Ryan is consistent, and that probably is worth more than an extra yard on his average. Expect him to be back next season.
Mason Crosby took over kicking duties and the Packers improved at kicker for the second year in a row. Crosby became a reliable kicker and was better on kickoffs than any Packer of recent years.
The Packer coverage teams took a step back, I thought, last year. This may be due to the teams’ youth. The Packers often failed to maintain their lanes on kickoffs and as a result they were not as good as they could have been. This should be easily correctable, so I expect the Packers will improve in this area next year.
The Packer return teams are better, but still have a ways to go before anyone will be afraid of them. The Packers have not had a true return threat since Allen Rossum left the team. Tramon Williams has excellent hands and showed some ability on both kick and punt returns. His improvement as a returner would greatly improve the team’s chances in close games and in the playoffs.
The Packers obviously made a big leap this year. They went from 8-8 to 13-3 with a playoff win and berth in the NFC Championship game. Having done so, however, they now find themselves at a crossroads. While the Packers reached the NFC Championship game, they were clearly the inferior team, and they were inferior at enough positions that one must call into question the idea that they are only a slight improvement from being champions.
The reality is that this team needs personnel improvements at receiver, offensive line, defensive line, safety, and kick returner. While some of that improvement may come from players already on the roster, it is likely that the Packers will have to part ways with some popular veterans to get over the hump.
The first priority for 2008 will be convincing Favre to return. Favre will not play forever but for the Packers to have a chance next year he must come back. 2008 will probably be triumph or tragedy for the Packers and in either case it would be difficult to see Favre returning for another season after that.
The second priority will be taking a long look at the available free agents. Defensive end and safety are probably the two positions where the Packers could spend some money in free agency and possibly improve the team, but outside of these positions, free agency is more likely to just bring the Packers players similar to what they already have.
The final step will once again be the draft. Cornerback will become a priority as early as next year, so expect the team to look hard at the available corners in the draft. After that, help on both sides of the line is needed, as well as receiver, safety, a second tight end, etc… In short, the Packers have enough holes outside of running back and possibly starting linebacker that they need to take the best player available. If they can find some help in the draft, anything is possible in 2008.
Finally, congratulations New York Giants. The Giants were clearly the best team throughout the playoffs so a Super Bowl win was well deserved. Beating the Cheatriots and shutting up that AFC homer Chris Collinsworth on HBO are bonuses that will hold the rest of us over till next season.
Posted by BVBigBro at February 4, 2008 09:51 AM
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|# February 4th, 2008 1:05 PM kris|
|Personally, I think that they need to improve both lines - but they don't need that much improvement. To me, with better coaching they are the Super Bowl winner. |
|# February 4th, 2008 7:03 PM doc|
|Pretty decent analysis, unfortunately only about half of what you say makes sense. The rest you are obviously making up based on what little knowledge you have. A lot of people think Aaron would have played better that BF in the championship game. He has better mobility, and it definately would have shown up in that cold weather. BF looked real OLD that second half and made a horrible decision that only a rookie would make on that last throw. Where is all that supposed veteran experience? He has only a mediocre playoff record. There was one article by a Packer beat writer that said 4 players were in the route that last terrible throw and he through to the worst one. Jennings was wide open down the left side and probably would have scored. And both Grant and Lee were open for first downs and big gains. Not only was Driver not open and covered by their best DB but BF made a bad throw to top it off. Lets play the young QB and see if we can win the tough playoff game. BF's days are over as far as that goes. He can beat the easy teams, but so can a host of other average QB's too. Plus, how do you know the Pack will not make the playoffs if BF retires - you have no logical point of reference for that. Give the kid a chance to show his stuff like he did against Dallas. He played GREAT not just good. You Pack fans with Favre colored glasses just don't want to admit that Rodgers way outplayed BF that game. When is the last time BF played well against a tough team????? 11 years ago??!! Retire now with a good year behind you and don't wait until you have a horrible year again or you are taken off on a cart with a career ending injury! |
|# February 4th, 2008 7:38 PM BVBigBro|
|I don't mind Rodgers, but thus far he is an unknown. Or more precisely, an unknown who gets hurt.
Favre threw a terrible pass on the Packers last possession and I don't believe for a second he ever saw the DB, who was screened by Driver at the time Favre actually threw the ball. There were not three other open receivers on the play.
Favre's single biggest asset is his ability to avoid the sack. His footwork is perfect and his sense of when to get rid of the ball is near perfect. Should he retire the Packers offensive line is quickly going to be revealed as average as best in pass protection and Aaron Rodgers will be on the run too often to be as effective as Favre.
|# February 4th, 2008 7:39 PM themandownthehall|
|Favre will be back. He was having a lot of fun out there this season. That makes a big difference.
Doc, I am not a Packers fan, so I don't have enough Pack knowledge to fill a thimble. However, I do know that Kris lives and breathes football, and more over, Packer football. She more than knows her stuff and can toss more insight into things than most of those jokes that ESPN or Foxsports or newpapers call analysts.
|# February 4th, 2008 7:41 PM kris|
|Well thanks, but I didn't write this article, BVBigBro did. I like football, that's true, but I don't analyze like he does. |
|# February 9th, 2008 6:45 PM themandownthehall|
|Oops, sorry. I am so used to you writing everything that I just assumed. Silly me.
Doc, same thing above applies to BVBigBro.