All I know is that I know nothing.
Words that no doubt inspire confidence in a new writer for Cheesehead TV. Bear with me.
This time of year, another season down with the best quarterback to ever play (yeah, I said it) and no championship to show for it, we Packer faithful try to piece together just what happened — and what’s needed to get over the hump. It’s a natural inclination for all fanbases whose cities don’t rhyme with Schmeveland, Schmufallo or Detroit, but the stakes feel higher for us. The window for a championship seems to be open only as long as No. 12 has legs and a right arm — and if the Packers are within a score and 65 yards of the end zone.
But it’s worth remembering that football is a game of constant change. Clubs get just 16 chances, and then hopefully more, to prove themselves when it matters. All along the way the violence of the game claims victims left and right. Evolution in pro football occurs rapidly. What we know to be true one month seems like a distant, if ridiculous, memory a short stretch of games later.
Remember when Aaron Rodgers’s struggles at midseason had him thusly written off by perfectly credible football minds and analysts? There were valid reasons to know what we knew then, but how’d the rest of the season shake out? Rodgers looked, again, otherworldly and put the skeptics firmly in their place with an impossible throw here, a Discount Double-Check there and another Hail Mary for the ages.
The point here is to remember what we know is fluid and subject to rapid change. I invite us all to look back to what we confidently thought going into last season as well as we knew to be true a couple of months in.
Let’s start with a non-Packer example. Did anyone in their right mind think Matt Ryan was even capable of the historic season he turned in? In every meaningful statistical category he improved monumentally from 2015 to 2016. He more than doubled his TD percentage (7.1% of throws from 3.4 in 2015) while halving his INT percentage (2.6 to 1.3) and took his QBR from 61.79 to a league-leading 83.3. Ryan threw for 353 more yards while attempting 80 less passing attempts. Matty Freaking Ice, folks. After averaging nearly 15 interceptions the past five seasons, Ryan threw for just 7 a season ago. Even if Ryan floated around top 10 status for much of his career, the consensus of those who thought he wasn’t elite — we got it wrong. Miracles can happen, if you don’t count the last quarter and a half in Houston. (Even as a supposedly neutral fan, that Super Bowl’s ending felt like being tied to a tree while watching an orphanage burn.)
So what did we know, or at least what could we reasonably deduce, about the Packers going into last season. Here’s what I remember.
Cornerback and safety were regarded as strengths of the defense.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett ended up turning in notable campaigns. The rest of the defensive backfield’s performance should prompt one to pour a stiff drink. (The exception being the on-and-off clutch play of Micah Hyde.) The unit finished 31st in pass defense and even the eight-game winning streak down the stretch was insufficient to erase the memory of how bad the unit was at giving up the huge play (always, it seemed, down the deep right sideline).
Stand here and blame Dom Capers if you will, or blame Thompson for letting go Casey Hayward if you must. But wasn’t it Hayward who was thought of as consistently injured and undependable? Was there much chatter last August about Shields being one unfortunate collision away from possibly hanging it up for good? Was it our lack of perception or was the writing even on the wall?
Should we have predicted substantial backward steps for the first two picks from 2015, first-rounder Damarious Randall and second-round pick Quinten Rollins? Both, after all, left the Packers with plenty of reasons to be excited about their sophomore seasons. Certainly no one predicted that LaDarius Gunter would finish the season as the team’s most reliable corner. Can Randall and Rollins turn the corner in year three? You tell me, but I’ll pose the following example as hope.
Nick Perry is a bust.
A perfectly valid inference based on the resume of a player riddled by injuries his first four seasons. In those years Perry never consistently played starter minutes. He failed to register more than 4 sacks. In 2016, not only was he a wrecking ball setting the edge against the run but he turned in 11 sacks despite missing two games and playing several weeks with a Bernardo Harris on his left hand. Perry was, without question, the team’s best all-around linebacker.
Datone Jones, another first rounder heading toward bust territory if you’d have polled Packer fans before the season, didn’t achieve the same statistical success but he more than made an impact in the pass rush. Meanwhile the aging Julius Peppers firmly outperformed Clay Matthews in big plays and overall impact. We know nothing, is all I’m saying.
Davante Adams ain’t the answer, Jordy Nelson isn’t the same player and Jared Cook is the opposite of clutch.
To be fair, the above contentions came more from outside of Packerland than from within. But none were without at least some merit.
The 31-year-old Nelson, coming off reconstructive surgery on his knee, maintained his nose for the end zone all season — but he didn’t really come into his own until the season’s second half. Adams followed a forgettable sophomore season with a knack for eye-opening grabs. He maybe missed too many of the easy ones, but we should all be excited for his continued growth. And Jared Cook, the bane of Titans and Rams fans for his unfulfilled potential and penchant for drops, hauled in the best catch of the season (one we can look forward to seeing for years should NFL Films choose to replay it). Cook was a go-to for Rodgers and down the stretch the team’s answer for a big play on third down.
The O-line will regress without Sitton; the run game can’t survive without Lacy.
Sitton toiled in Chicago, which makes me sad. That sadness is offset by Lane Taylor’s solid season. Remember Taylor’s name being mentioned this year? Me neither. For a lineman, that’s usually a good thing. No one would argue Taylor was better or even close to Sitton in his prime, but that’s a hard bargain for a backup filling the shoes of a perennial All-Pro.
(And wasn’t D-line among the presumptive weaknesses with Raji’s retirement and Pennel’s suspension? Turned out not to be the case.)
As for the run game, when Lacy went down and Starks looked instantly five years older — to say nothing of short-lived appearances by Knile Davis and Don Jackson — it seemed like the run game would never recover. Enter a slot receiver from Stanford donning No. 88. Ty Montgomery, arguably under-used down the season’s stretch, demonstrated vision, patience and occasional explosiveness. He’s in for a new number next season, and count this Packer fan amongst those who hopes he joins a re-signed Lacy as “lightning” to Eddie’s “thunder.”
So what do we know going into next season? For a team predicated on a build-through-the-draft approach, we’re never really in a position to know. The perceived weaknesses are: cornerback, an impact at inside linebacker, and pass rush as Perry’s in a contract situation and Peppers could retire. If the same logic holds — the what we know now can change in an instant — those question marks could well be considered strengths a year from now.
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