Every season brings renewed excitement and vigor in an NFL team, players returning from offseason work feeling better than ever and coaches coming with scheme tweaks they’re sure will push their team to the next level. Over the better part of the last decade, the P Green Bay Packers have returned each July believing they were just fingertips away from getting their hands on the Lombardi trophy. That was literally true in 2014 (We’re looking at you, Brandon Bostick).
But 2018 brought substantive, even paradigmatic changes to the organization. Mark Murphy quite literally overhauled the structure of the Packers flow chart and replaced Ted Thompson with Brian Gutekunst. Mike McCarthy turned over both his major coordinators, ousting Dom Capers in favor of Mike Pettine and bringing Joe Philbin back into the fold.
Every time Pettine holds a press conference, he finds a new way to impress. To a man, the Packers defense feels energized by the leadership change and the word “accountability” has been ever-present in any discussion about the unit. Filling the leadership vacuum with Pettine and a veteran like Tramon Williams may be just as essential in turning around this defense as any personnel changes.
But Gutekunst prioritized youth and athleticism on that side of the ball as well. After shipping off Damarious Randall, Gutekunst added two first-round talents at cornerback, while netting an extra first-round pick in 2019. Jaire Alexander worked his way into the starting group before an injury and a strong preseason may just bust down the doors for Josh Jackson to join him there.
Second-year cornerback Kevin King shined before his own injury, but his return to the field should be a reminder of the team’s caution with injuries, not King’s propensity to get hurt. Had this been the regular season, we already know King will play through the pain. His battles with Davante Adams in camp have been among the highlights of the preseason work.
Speaking of injury, the Packers head into the season with 10 of 11 preferred starters on defense healthy, the lone exception being Jake Ryan. Rookie Oren Burks may even have won that job—or at least extended playing time—given how he’s looked in the exhibition games. It’s possible the most talented 11 players will be starting, particularly as Nick Perry comes off the PUP list. Even just a replacement level defensive coordinator should spur significant improvement from this group and Pettine has a track record of being well above that bar.
On offense, the Packers should have a full compliment of offensive starters healthy for the start of the season as long as Justin McCray’s ankle injury heals as planned and Bryan Bulaga stays on track. Aaron Jones would be the lone exception, but he may not even have been the preferred starter and his absence will be a suspension not an injury.
Oh, and nearly 500 words into this, we haven’t even mentioned Green Bay returns the best player in the league, the two-time MVP, and an All-World quarterback capable of carrying teams the way no other player in the league can. Aaron Rodgers looked back to his old tricks in the preseason, already building a connection with his new toys.
Jimmy Graham caught on quickly (no pun intended), and already looks like he’s running downhill in this offense. Meanwhile, Davante Adams should make the leap to star receiver status this season, having already shown himself to be one of the best route runners and after-the-catch players in the game. This is opportunity to prove himself and from what we’ve seen the last two years plus, he’s absolutely ready for it.
Whether the offense actually looks any difference remains to be seen, but the preseason brought more spread formations, more four-wide looks, more personnel groupings, and formational versatility and creativity. It’s hard to see a more adaptable group of skill players in the league between the backfield, receivers and tight end group.
This skill group is so deep, in fact, the question in camp right now is how can the Packers fit all these guys onto one roster?
None of this makes the Packers locks for the Super Bowl. There’s no such thing. But there’s reason to believe the team has taken steps to address the failings that subverted their championship chances in the past. Schematic stagnation addressed with new coaches. Lack of leadership and veteran presence addressed with free agents and coaching culture. Last of speed and athletic ability addressed with freaky draft class.
The process was sound, an exciting notion in itself. Will it translate to wins? We’ll have to wait and see but the excitement should be there. Green Bay is doing this the right way, setting about to fix the institutional problems as well as the micro issues that creep up on every team.
Plus, they still have Aaron Rodgers and he’s pissed off he missed a chance to win a Super Bowl last season in a wide open NFC. What else do you need to be excited?