Oh, I remember those 1984 Green Bay Packers. You might not, but it was a year with a lot of optimism. Bart Starr had finally been relieved of his duties, and Forrest Gregg was brought in to try and do something with the remaining talent that was left from an offense-only 1983 squad.
Now, in hindsight, we know how the Gregg tenure turned out; but in those days we went into the season sky-high that we had not only a coach who was connected to the Lombardi era (which, at the time, was all anyone 30 years or older talked about anyway), but one that had proven he could take a team (almost) all the way to a championship.
John Jefferson was gone, but a veteran nucleus of Lynn Dickey, James Lofton, and Paul Coffman remained. Eddie Lee Ivery and Gerry Ellis were almost healthy all season. And the defense featured some very talented players in the linebacking corps and secondary. Ask me a player, I can still name most of their numbers: Mike “Mad Dog” Douglass (53), John Anderson (59), Tim Lewis (26), and Mark Lee (22).
I was a sophomore in high school. I begged for #85 when I went out for football for the first time, in honor of the guy who I thought would be the next big thing, Phillip Epps. In what was perhaps my first-ever Packer blogging article, I wrote a five-page paper for Mr. Jonas’s English class, entitled “Why The 1984 Packers Will Win The Super Bowl”. I got a C. My teacher was a Bear fan.
The fence outside of Lambeau Field read, “Gregg Will Lead Us Out Of The Forrest”, and after a Week 1 win, we thought we were on our way. But the Packers went on a streak of seven losses, all but one with a margin of a touchdown or less. The air slowly seeped out of Packer fans sails, but each week, we reassured ourselves by claiming our team was “the best 1-5 team in football”.
Even the announcers began chiming in. “The Green Bay Packers are the best 1-6 team in football!” It was almost a joke by the time we hit 1-7, but it was still tinged with a silver lining of truth. The Packers were in every game. They just didn’t know how to win at the end.
The Packers proved us all right, finishing the season with a 7-1 record that left them at .500 and out of the playoffs. Just like every other year during the Dark Days, we played our favorite game, “Woulda-Coulda-Shoulda”, and waiting for 1985.
My point? We knew that despite the record, the Packers were better than what the win-loss showed, but in the end, that record trumped the logic we could see on the field. The 2011 version of the Green Bay Packers might be somewhat of a reversal of that pattern.
Now, I know you have to look very hard to poke holes in a team that has won thirteen straight games dating back to last season, and is sporting a Lombardi Trophy over that time to boot. In fact, you almost feel guilty (or stupid) for even trying to look for any negatives on a team that is redefining many of the superlatives that already describe a legendary franchise.
The Packers are 7-0, simply put. They’ve dispatched of miserably crappy teams and Super Bowl contenders over the course of the season, and sit firmly atop anyone’s power rankings. But they haven’t won pretty, and they’ve allowed some of those lesser teams to stay in games they shouldn’t have.
In the end, those 1984 Packers didn’t know how to finish a game. The 2011 Packers rely on knowing how to finish a game, and in the end, that might be all the difference.
But our modern-day Packers have an all-star roster, a veritable Who’s Who of players that should be occupying many starting spots in the Pro Bowl this year. But the Packers have been less cohesive, less balanced than the team that took the trophy just nine months ago.
Last year, I fretted about the lack of commitment to the run, how Aaron Rodgers would disappear for quarters at a time, how McCarthy would let teams back into games. But in the end, what saved us, game after game, was a playmaking defense that stymied comebacks in spectacular style. It wasn’t perfect, and sometimes it wasn’t pretty. But, it was enough to earn the Packers a fourth Super Bowl trophy.
The difference this year, while not evident in the record, is glaring on the field and in the statistics. Last year, when the offense faltered, the defense rose the occasion, ranking fifth in yards allowed and second in points allowed. This season, the defense has given up an uncharacteristic number of huge plays, and while they’ve stopped the bleeding (15th in scoring), the yardage given up can’t continue come the postseason (30th in yards allowed).
Why have the Packers had trouble on the defensive side? Certainly there’s plenty of culprits. The linebacking play has been average, and including Clay Matthews. The pressure on opposing quarterbacks has been severely lacking, perhaps in part to a departed Cullen Jenkins. And the loss of Nick Collins as a quarterback of the defense doesn’t help either.
Whatever the reason, the anemic Minnesota Vikings offense came to life against the Packers last week, with Adrian Peterson notching 175 yards on the ground, and rookie quarterback Christian Ponder looking a lot better than his stat line indicated. While he only completed thirteen of his thirty-two passes, twelve of them were for first downs or touchdowns.
In other words, the Vikings stayed in a game they probably shouldn’t have been, running up 27 points against the defense and forcing the Packers’ offense to pull out the win.
Wait, did I hear that correctly? The Packers’ offense had to pull out a win? How times have changed. Now, I know some of you will debate the point as to whether the offense had to “pull out a win”, or whether or not the offense did similarly last season.
The point is, Aaron Rodgers is not the same guy he was last year, on the field or statistically. He’s superhuman this year. And whether you like it or not, he was the reason the Packers were not upset by the lowly Vikings last week. Period.
Yes, James Starks ran for 75 yards, but 55 of those were on the final drive of the game, in the last two-and-a-half minutes. No, the pressure came down on the guy we once criticized in 2008 for not being able to lead a game winning drive…the guy who is now (to some of the national media’s chagrin) the class of the quarterback position in the NFL.
He was near-perfect again, as he’s been all year. Hey…one critical fumble, or perhaps an interception or two, and that game might have turned around. But that’s the point. We expect nearly any quarterback, even the Bradys and the Mannings, to have a turnover at some point. But Aaron Rodgers doesn’t.
He’s on pace to smash records. He’s completing over 70% of his passes. He holds a 125.7 passing efficiency rating after seven games, enough to top the single-season marks set by guys like Montana, Young, Brady, and Manning. And he makes it all look nearly effortless.
And therein lies my worries with Rodgers. While I know I’ll take a little flack for this, the Packers are relying on him more and more to lead the team and win the game on his arm. It wasn’t too long ago that we had a different quarterback that we played this game with: this “well, you’re the big superstar…go out and win it for us” mentality. And, we remember what that did to that particular player’s ego.
The Packers have never won a Super Bowl with an emphasis on one player. Heck, the Lombardi years were the very definition of team-oriented football. Even with players like Brett Favre and Reggie White, it was a special teams player that won the MVP award in Super Bowl XXXI. But all those seasons we had the “veteran sure-fire future Hall of Famer” as the center of attention, we didn’t quite make it all the way, did we?
And yet, here we are, with a defense with a propensity for giving up as many big plays as they make, and a running game still averaging only 3.8 yards per rush. And all eyes on #12 when he stands in the empty backfield shotgun, not even giving the defense a threat of handing off.
Perhaps what peaked my attention was the introduction of the no-huddle offense in the preseason, watching Rodgers approach the line and taking the full 30-second clock to call out the play and adjustments. It reminded me of the many times I watched Peyton Manning do the same for the Colts. At one point, the Colts offense was a cast of great players, with Joseph Addai, Reggie Wayne, Marvin Harrison, and Dallas Clark, all in their primes. The defense featured some freaks of nature, too, like Dwight Freeney and Bob Sanders, but played well enough as a unit to contend year in and year out.
But Manning became more and more of the focal point of the team, signing a $90M contract this offseason without even putting him through a physical first. You’ve seen him run that offense. And we all said, no one could run that no-huddle offense the way the Manning is able to.
And, when Manning was lost for the season, it was clear exactly how important he was to that team. As the Colts have fallen to a humiliating 0-7, you’re left to wonder if Manning should have been the league MVP every year. Could any player be any more important to a team’s success.
Such a philosophy would seem to be completely opposite of Ted Thompson’s approach, building and rewarding from within, cultivating depth and falling in line with McCarthy’s “next man up” pragmatism that worked so well for the Packers in 2010.
Yet, as the Packers have flown to a 7-0 start, the evidence on the field suggests that this may not be the best 7-0 team of all time…but a team that simply knows how to finish a game, increasingly on the arm of its quarterback. This isn’t a gloom-and-doom prediction of harrowing drama to come yet this season. However, it is a cautionary tale, a little sliver of concern in the hopes that the Packer success continues for as long as possible.
It’s conceivable that the eventual gravitational pull of a superstar quarterback is inevitable, that players like Marino, Montana, Favre, Brady, and Manning will always become the identity of a team. It’s possible that after watching the Rise and Fall of Brett, his successor may be in line to also become the central focus of the entire team.
But, if I were Mike McCarthy, I’d take some “ounce of prevention” moves now. Pull the defense together, commit to the running game, and allow Rodgers’ perfection to continue to be a cog in the larger machine. There’s going to come a day when a defense is going to find a way to neutralize Rodgers (or worse, force him to make mistakes we rarely ever see).
Or worse, we’re going to have to go for a stretch of games without him. The Colts have shown us how devastating it is when The Most Important Player In The World can’t be replaced.
The Packers have a chance to be one of the best teams of all time this season, and are off to a 7-0 start. But, as we say when the Packers have had a slow start, its how you finish that matters. Let’s hope this bye week helps the Packers “clean some things up”, as Mike McCarthy likes to say, and the Packers go back to hitting on all cylinders.