It’s been a seven-and-a-half year wait for the Green Bay Packers to clinch another conference title.
The door to a once-imagined dynasty this decade has nearly closed, as the Packers have come up short each year since that glorious January 23, 2011 day at Soldier Field in which Green Bay reached Super Bowl XLV. Of course, it hasn’t been for a lack of drama, as wildly successful subsequent seasons have come to gloomy endings.
The Packers have seemingly been a player or two, or a defense away, from getting over the edge in that timeframe. Still, sweeping changes to staff and players this offseason bring hope that this is the year Green Bay puts it all together once again and reaches the promised land.
As we get set to embark on a new season with fresh philosophies and playmakers inside 1265 Lombardi Avenue, here are four reasons why the Packers can and can’t win the NFC.
Why They Can
1. Aaron Rodgers is Back
This might be stating the obvious. The ultimate MVP for his impact on a team’s performance, Rodgers has helped previous Packer rosters make deep postseason runs despite poor defensive play and mounting injuries. His ability to improvise and make plays under pressure has been a lift to the team that was noticeably absent with Brett Hundley under center. The chemistry with Jordy Nelson when plays break down surely will be missed in the beginning of the season, but a rising Davante Adams and steady Randall Cobb return. And he finally has a viable run game to support him. If even one rookie receiver can emerge from the group and show consistent hands and route-running, the Packers’ offense will flourish. Fingers crossed for a healthy season.
2. Best Tight End Group in Years
It’s no secret that Head Coach Mike McCarthy values the tight end position. Unfortunately, that group has not been of value to McCarthy and the Packers since the days of Jermichael Finley.
Enter Jimmy Graham, who will directly benefit Rodgers as a tight end most similar to Finley. Graham can line up outside, stretch the inside of the field, and make plays in the red zone with his size and speed. Then there is Marcedes Lewis, a well-rounded veteran who can also help in the red zone while improving the team’s run blocking from the position. The Packers suddenly have two very good tight ends that hurt defenses in different ways. And don’t forget about Lance Kendricks, whose balanced skillset could be overlooked by defenses keying in on Graham and Lewis.
The Packers’ stable of wide receivers is a bit unknown, but there is a bit more of a sense of security with the tight ends in Joe Philbin’s return as Offensive Coordinator.
3. The New Defensive Personnel
It’s becoming fairly typical to add high-end cornerback draft picks to the Green Bay defense. But there’s a different vibe about Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, two athletic ballhawks in college that were well-regarded and have shown elite instincts. It doesn’t stop there. As a unit, the cornerbacks will have a new look with a fully-recovered Kevin King and wily veteran Tramon Williams. For the first time in many seasons, there is really, really good competition in this group.
The defensive changes can’t be discussed without Mike Pettine, a proven Defensive Coordinator who should breathe new life into a defense that looked confused, fatigued, and out of position the past two seasons. If Pettine can get a healthy Nick Perry and Clay Matthews to be effective in his scheme, the Packers’ pass rush should be much better. He also gets to develop the young Vince Biegel and Reggie Gilbert his way, while bringing back one of his prized former players in Muhammad Wilkerson to make a great defensive line even better.
There’s a level of excitement about this defense that hasn’t been felt in a while, and even a middle-of-the-pack unit gives Green Bay a real shot at contending.
4. A Running Game for the Winter Months
This was touched on above, but Rodgers will enjoy a slew of talented playmakers in the backfield. The rookie cast was productive last season and their numbers should only climb in 2018.
In many of the Rodgers years, the Packers’ offense has been a major strength despite being fairly one-dimensional. For a brief moment last season, specifically in the Dallas game, a Rodgers-led aerial attack paired with a 100-yard rusher was a lethal combination. There is no telling how many more points would have been scored, how much more time of possession would have been owned, or how many games would have been won with this balanced attack all season. Assuming the Packers make the postseason, this balance could pay dividends in the midst of cold weather or windy conditions that make throwing the ball tougher.
Although a stronger Aaron Jones will sit the first two games, Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery are capable of picking up the slack and combining for 100-yard rushing performances. All three bring different skillsets to the table, but all can help in the passing game. The defense will love the offense’s ability to chew up the clock and leave them fresher for the fourth quarter. By the time the playoffs roll around, this will be an advantage.
Why They Can’t
1. Lack of a Pass Rush
The numbers were not in favor of the Packers’ pass rushers a year ago. While it’s hard to blame the Packers for not bolstering that area with the lack of impact free agent and draft options available, it’s tough to watch the group stay almost remotely the same and expect a large difference.
Every NFC team to reach the Super Bowl since the Packers’ last appearance has had a strong, unyielding pass rush, including the Philadelphia Eagles last season. Outside of Matthews and Perry, there is nothing proven about the Packers’ outside linebacker corps which makes up a great deal of a prominent 3-4 attack. The expected strong push from the defensive line should benefit edge players, but are Biegel, Gilbert, Chris Odom, and Kyler Fackrell legitimate, transformational players in Pettine’s system?
I will have to see it to believe it. Right now, I’m not buying.
2. A Young, Inexperienced Secondary
I know - I gave the cornerbacks a thumbs up just a little bit ago. But that is with the expectation that this group is much-improved and brings heightened third down and turnover numbers this season. Even with that educated guess, the unit is startlingly young with Alexander, Jackson, and King taking on large roles. Expecting a season without a few penalties and coverage breakdowns is unrealistic.
Added to that scare is the departure of stable veteran Morgan Burnett and a startling 2017 disappointment from Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at safety. The Packers could have young bodies ready to replace Burnett in Josh Jones and Kentrell Brice. But we don’t know that yet, especially with Jones spending a good chunk of his time with the linebackers last season. The depth behind those two isn’t any more comforting.
If the young cornerbacks get beat or make mental errors and the safeties can’t offset those shortcomings, the defense will be in no better position than before. This is especially so when considering teams such as Atlanta that have torched the Packers through the air in recent postseasons. I would have liked to see a one-year free agent deal this offseason with one of the veteran safeties still on the market.
3. An Unknown Right Side of the Offensive Line
It may not be a contract year for Jason Spriggs or Kyle Murphy, but it’s shaping up to be a money season regardless. If Bryan Bulaga can’t go the first few games as anticipated, the third-year players will battle for a starting spot with free agent Byron Bell. Right now, there are significant concerns as to how that adjustment will go, especially during the date with Minnesota in week two. And while the Packers get some confidence that Justin McCray can help at guard after a merry-go-round season of injuries on the offensive line last year, was that performance a flash in the pan or an indicator of long-term success? Heading into training camp, we still don’t have a clear-cut idea of who the starters at right guard or right tackle will be in week one.
What we’ve learned over the past five years is that the Packers’ season falls on the shoulder of Aaron Rodgers and one hit is enough to end it. Green Bay’s left side of the line figures to hold up its end of deal, but will the right side do its share as well? If not, the issue could lead to a long season of drive-halting sacks and season-ending injuries.
4. The Brutal Schedule
Ranking each of the top position groups in the NFC North division a few weeks ago proved to be a challenge in its own right, as it will be a competitive division in 2018. The Packers will play an NFC Championship Game caliber Minnesota squad twice in addition to a rising Detroit team. Even Chicago figures to be better than it was a season ago, making the road to the playoffs all that much harder.
On top of a rocky schedule within the division, there are plenty who feel the Packers’ schedule is the toughest in the entire league, with a combined opponent winning percentage of .539 during the 2017 season. A brutal road trip to Los Angeles and New England in back-to-back weeks after the bye will be an imposing stretch, while home games against San Francisco and Atlanta present their own challenges.
Even if the Packers overcome the gauntlet to make the postseason, the scheduling certainly could impact Green Bay’s seeding. While Green Bay’s last Super Bowl run evolved from a wild card spot, it is not the easiest, most efficient way of winning a conference title.