Over the past couple of years, the Packers defense has worn what might be the most insulting label in football — Soft.
Now, the concept of toughness in the NFL has been chewed on plenty, but before the season begins, I think it’s worth revisiting. With the Packers in particular, people have often cited their lack of toughness as the primary reason their defense has been ineffective.
The reason this is wrong is because pointing to the Packers’ lack of physicality or "meanness" would imply they are merely a more hardened disposition away from being a good defense. If you’ve watched that defense in the last two years, you know that’s not exactly the case. Brad Jones isn’t Patrick Willis sans the mean scowl and intimidating physique. By all accounts, Tony Mandarich was as tough and mean and filthy and disgusting and whatever-adjective-you-can-think-of as they come. Some of that rage may have been synthetically induced, sure. But when Mandarich got to the NFL, all that hulk smash aggressiveness he played with didn’t mean jack when everyone discovered his footwork, technique, speed and ability to grasp complex NFL defensive schemes all sucked. He had all the toughness you could want, and yet none of the talent.
The same argument could be made for many of the players on the Packers defense. While it’s easy to look at players who aren’t producing and attribute it to their lack of "physicality" or toughness, let’s not forget the league they play in. You know, the one that glorifies the gladiator mentality. That pressures players to play through immense pain, and even worse — to try and dupe team doctors in fear of losing playing time at the risk of suffering potentially crippling long-term physical side effects and mental senility. And remember, the NFL isn’t their first foray into football. They’ve likely all been faking cognizance after a big hit, abusing their bodies and suffering the wrath of froth-mouthed, lunatic coaches who illuminate (and even fabricate) a player’s weakness with the intent of extracting just a bit more "toughness" since high school. Basically, players don’t make it to the NFL by being pussies. They’ve already passed that test.
So what is then with so many of the Packers defensive players? A rewind of the last two years brings to mind no mentions of Clay Matthews’ manhood or Charles Woodson’s resolve. No questioning of Desmond Bishop (when he was healthy) or Ryan Pickett’s backbone. But that’s not because these players escape criticism or played more physically than other players. They just played better.
Just like the adage that "winning solves everything" so does individual talent. Clay Matthews doesn’t get the ‘soft’ wrap because Clay Matthews happens to be strong as hell, runs really fast and consistently tackles opposing quarterbacks. This doesn’t make Clay Matthews necessarily tougher than, say, a third-string, rent-a-body linebacker you’ve never heard of. It just makes him a superior football player.
And when you have more of those kinds of football players on your team, well, it doesn’t take breaking out the DVOA machine to figure out that in general, your defense is going to be much better. Maybe even more physical.
Looking back, it’s hard not to notice the timing of the Packers defensive struggles with the injury to who was, in retrospect, perhaps their single most important player — Nick Collins.
In 2010, the Packers defense was if nothing else, extremely opportunistic in forcing turnovers (two of which helped win them the Super Bowl). At the time, we knew Nick Collins was a vital part of how Dom Capers’ players could be utilized, but since then, they’ve been an entirely different unit. Looking undisciplined, slow to identify and react to plays, and in general, just a bunch of individual players as opposed to the perfectly synched army of cyborgs that San Francisco rolls out.
Whether newcomers like Datone Jones or Nate Palmer, or second year emerging players like Casey Hayward can turn the defense back into a formidable presence remains to be seen. But if they do, it won’t be because they’re playing with any more toughness or metaphysical BS (nasty streak, mean intentions, etc.). Instead, they’ll be a better defense for many of the things so many fans overlook in favor of their bloodthirst for devastating hits – gap discipline, defensive cohesion, play recognition and quite simply, players who are just better and smarter than everyone else on the field. That stuff doesn’t always equal tougher or more physical play. But it most definitely equals more of something: