As the Green Bay Packers have stumbled through their second preseason debacle in as many tries, there's a lot of statements being made to calm the masses.
It's early. It's a long season.
There's several key contributors absent (Jennings, Bishop, Woodson) from most or all of those two games.
Injuries have hurt, but we know Thompson/McCarthy can compensate for them by mid-season.
For cripes sake, people...it's the preseason! These games just don't matter.
All are very wise points, backed up by the experiences of having gone through these panic-ridden seasons before, only to find ourselves still playing in mid-January later on. Chances are that the Packers are off to a slow start, hampered by a CBA-controlled practice schedule that doesn't accentuate the needs of the exotic schemes on both sides of the ball. Chances are the Pack will indeed be back in 2012.
But that question still lingers in the back of my mind. Maybe in lingers in the back of your mind, too. Maybe you don't want to ask it, and maybe if someone even comes close to asking it aloud, you're ready to slap them down to size for even suggesting it.
But it's still there. It's not a panic-ridden question, nor is it full of angst-ridden fingerpointing. Like Mufasa said in The Lion King, "It's all a part of a great Circle of Life, Simba."
Have the Green Bay Packers peaked?
We stood and basked in the glory of the unexpected Super Bowl win in February of 2011, then watched as the team ripped off thirteen straight wins to start the following season. And we've clapped ourselves on the back and enjoyed the ride. Rightfully so, too.
But even as the 2011 Packers were finishing 15-1, had a first-round bye, and were set to play host to a team essentially given last rites before sneaking into the playoffs, the chinks in the armor were growing more noticeable each week. The defense, which once carried the team on its big plays, was a weekly liability. The passing game powered the entire team, putting more and more pressure on Aaron Rodgers to win each game on his own. We believed, for some inexplicable reason, that the Packers could win another Super Bowl with no running game and a terrible defense.
The Packers took the field against a team that finished the regular season with a negative point differential, and proceeded to look like the inferior team from start to finish. It wasn't a "tough loss". It was, in Clay Matthews' own words, a demonstration on how to pull the rug out from under your own feet.
Like the Packers the year before, the Giants coalesced at the right time and turned it into an impressive road warrior path to a Super Bowl trophy. The team that should have had all the momentum fell flat, and Packer fans were left with the faded glory of a 15-1 regular season and a lot of questions coming into 2012.
While all of the above explanations of why the Packers have looked so bad so far can easily be true and reassuring, it may also be a simple truth that the Packers are slowly succumbing to a system designed to chip away at and weaken the elite teams. The Packers aren't going to get a double-dipping first round draft like they did in 2009, when they came away with Clay Matthews and BJ Raji. The Packers are running out of disposable veterans to show to the exit door, with the Cullen Jenkins departure coming at a much higher cost than perhaps Ted Thompson expected (or hoped).
But the biggest disparity between the pre-Super Bowl Packers and the post-Super Bowl Packers is the amount of money that has to be thrown at your quality starters. As a higher and higher percentage of the salary cap money is tied up in your starters you want to keep (TJ Lang, Jarrett Bush, Jermichael Finley, Mason Crosby, and Tim Masthay), other veterans are allowed to leave (Scott Wells, Matt Flynn). The depth that you once cherished is suddenly much more thin, and declaring "Next Man Up" when Nick Collins or Desmond Bishop gets hurt becomes a dicier proposition.
An ill-addressed position, like defensive end or running back, suddenly has Thompson breaking from his normally iron-clad commitment to building "Packer People" from within, taking chances on players with checkered pasts like Anthony Hargrove and Cedric Benson.
And there is absolutely nothing out of the ordinary about this, gang. This is the way that the system is structured, and why parity is more prevalent now than perhaps at any other point in the history of the NFL. In other words, whether we like it or not, it's bound to happen someday. I'll be totally honest in saying I really hope it isn't right now, that the Pack is simply off to a rough start, and McCarthy is going to start working on those pad levels again really soon.
What strikes me is the previous Super Bowl team back in 1996, a team that captured our imaginations and brought Green Bay glory with an exciting offense and a dominant defense, just like the 2010 version. In 1997, the Packers dominated the regular season again, with talk of going undefeated early on (despite finishing at 13-3). But the Packers deflated that year in the Super Bowl, despite having all of the momentum and all of the expectations of an easy win en route to another Lombardi Trophy.
But, in that second year after the Super Bowl, the Packers became a doppelganger of the team they once were. It didn't matter that most of the names and jerseys were still the same. Favre was still throwing to Freeman, White was still rushing the quarterback, and Butler was still patrolling the backfield. Despite all that star power, the Packers finished with just an 11-5 record and laid an egg in the first round of the playoffs.
It was the quick end of what many were predicting just a year earlier would be a dynasty. That year, the head coach and most of his coaching staff made an exodus for Seattle, and the undisputed soul of the team, Reggie White, retired.
It didn't matter than the revered Ron Wolf was still general manager, or Brett Favre was still quarterback, or that the Packers were still hailed as the class of the NFC. In two short years, the Packers went from the pinnacle of the NFL to living through a season with Ray Rhodes as head coach.
Now, please don't divine from my comparison that the Packers are on the verge of collapse because of a few preseason losses. It's not my point, nor am I rooting for it to happen. I am acutely aware of the financial cliff the Packers would be in if they were to suffer a few losing seasons with the economy still struggling. Face it: the plummeting of playoff tickets prices against the Giants meant several fine folks were able to attend the game for well below face value. That's good news for those few lucky fans, but it isn't good news for the Packers' organization or the halo of local commerce that relies on the good karma brought on by a successful team with high hopes year in and year out.
But the natural path of the rise and fall of a team doesn't mean that the Packers are going to turn into the Detroit Lions. It could simply mean a few years of average play, perhaps missing the playoffs or sneaking in as a wild-card. It's not unheard of, even under Thompson's reign. It is, however, something that would feel like a bit of a sock in the gut after seeing the Packers go 21-2 in their last 23 games (post-season included).
But even if that does happen, there isn't a GM in the league I trust more to restock and reload a roster than Ted Thompson, nor a coach who can do more with what he's given that Mike McCarthy. In the end, this is a team that has been built for the long-haul. It doesn't mean that the Packers will be the Super Bowl favorite year in and year out. Even the vaunted Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since 2004, but have remained in the running almost every year since.
It's far to early to write this team off, and I truly believe that anyone who starts talking like the Packers have to plan for the future instead of playing for the present because of a few injuries has a screw loose. Anything can happen in this league, and many players who were unknown at the start of 2010 stepped in and became pivotal players on the road to the Super Bowl.
Let's continue to rationalize why we shouldn't panic and continue to have the highest expectations for Mike McCarthy and crew. It's far better than the alternative, which is why it remains that question we don't want to ask.