The Green Bay Packers’ 2015 season still haunts me in my dreams every so often. When looking back as to when the Packers probably should have won, or at least played in a Super Bowl, the 2014 choke job against Seattle is high on the list, but the 2015 season should be right there with it. Dom Capers actually rallied the defense late in 2014, making creative use of Clay Matthews as a read-option stopper and generally getting them to play well enough to support the number one offense in the league.
Capers’ changes carried over into 2015 as the defense put up one of its best performances since Capers took over. Capers coaxed one more additional outstanding campaign from Julius Peppers, Sam Shields anchored a young secondary with Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward supporting the development of rookies Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, and Clay Matthews continued in his role as all-purpose chaos dispenser. The defense was, per Football Outsiders’ DVOA, the 9th best in football, and the sixth best defense against the pass.
Had the Packers maintained their level as the number one offense in the league as they were in 2014, they would have been heavy Super Bowl favorites in 2015, but that didn’t happen and it only took one cog to undo all of that good work. That cog was Jordy Nelson, who suffered an ACL injury in a preseason game in Pittsburgh and would never be the same. Nelson dominated in 2014, racking up 1519 yards on 98 receptions to go along with 13 touchdowns. Nelson’s dominance also helped to open things up for slot receiver Randall Cobb, who nearly matched Nelson with 1287 yards, 12 TDs, and a 14.1 Y/R average. Davante Adams was still a young project and didn’t offer much, but Eddie Lacy chipped in a 1000-yard campaign with a 4.6 y/c average. Aaron Rodgers was, of course, dominant.
In 2015, the offense returned almost everyone, and Rodgers played all 16 games, but without Nelson the passing offense tanked. The team called in former Packer and hoodie-wearer James Jones to take Nelson’s spot, but while Jones posted an impressive 17.8 yards per reception, he only caught 50% of his targets. Randall Cobb saw the most targets, but his per reception average plummeted to 10.5, and with Adams development stalling out (due to nagging injuries that affected him all season long), there was simply no one to reliably move the sticks. Lacy and Starks combined to provide an adequate if unspectacular 1300 yards at 4.1 yards a clip, but the running game doesn’t really matter, and so this all added up to the 16th best passing offense in football. With Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, that is inexcusable.
In the glory days of the Packer offense, the skill positions were fully loaded. James Jones, or someone of his caliber, was the third best receiver on the team and Jermichael Finley manned the TE position. Those teams could withstand an injury or two and still function (like losing Finley five games into the 2010 Super Bowl season). I see the soon-to-be 2018 squad, on the other hand, being extremely vulnerable for the same reason the 2015 team wound up doomed. This season it’s Davante Adams or nothing.
Adams is Nelson, almost
The only star receiver on the Packers is Davante Adams, and as great as Adams is, he hasn’t been as good as either Nelson or Greg Jennings were in their primes. He may still develop into such a receiver, but his highest yards per reception so far is just 13.3, and he still has yet to crack 1000 yards in a season. We should keep in mind that even the very good current version of Adams still has never had as good of a season as the best seasons of Nelson, Jennings, Randall Cobb, or James Jones.
Now consider just how similar this wide receiver corps is to the 2015 version anchored by Nelson. Without Nelson that team was anchored by check-downs to Randall Cobb, a rookie in Adams, and retread James Jones off the waiver wire. If Adams were to go down this year, the situation would be essentially the same with Cobb still manning the slot, third-year pro Geronimo Allison starting outside, and a host of unproven young players and late round draft picks vying for the other outside starting spot. Trevor Davis, DeAngelo Yancey, or any of the recent draft picks would all be candidates, but none really inspire confidence. Even if you believe 4th round pick J’Mon Moore is a future star, rookie wide receivers rarely make an impact, especially day-three draft picks.
Some may argue that Jimmy Graham would fill the role of outside receiver, and in the distant past Graham has proven more than capable of supporting an offense, but this is wishful thinking. Graham is coming off his worst season as a professional averaging just 9.1 yards per reception and catching under 60% of his targets. Some of this can be blamed on Seattle’s offensive line issues, but Graham warrants some skepticism as he’s been frequently injured throughout his career, and is no spring chicken at 31 years old.
The other reason to worry is that Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been as good over the last three seasons. After consistently registering above eight yards per attempt or better for his entire career, he hasn’t cracked 7.5 in the last 3, and while he’s still a master in the red zone, this offense has struggled between the 20s due to a lack of big plays. Even when it has been good, recent Packer offenses can’t hold a candle to the 2010-2014 era. Losing a cog from one of those teams may have hurt them, but they still would have remained elite. Losing a yard per attempt when you’re averaging nine is manageable. When you’re hovering around seven, that hurts a lot more.
Many are looking for Davante Adams to take a step forward this season, and he’s talented enough to crack the list of the top ten receivers in football, but he’s also the only thing separating this receiving corps from incompetence. If Adams were to go down at any point, I’m worried that the offense would be worse than the 2015 group that so disappointed. After Rodgers, Adams is the most important player on the team, and that’s an indictment of the front office. The football gods tried to teach them this lesson once, and they did not heed it.