It’s easy to pick out single games or seasons from Packers history that we wish would have gone differently. Super Bowl XXXII, that one game in Seattle (you know the one) or any loss to the Bears are easy examples. The entire 2017 and 2018 seasons also come to mind.
But drilling down to specific plays is a little tougher. How do you determine which one had the most consequences? Which single moment truly made the difference?
This is our small attempt to do just that. Here are three plays from recent Packers history we’d like to change.
Evan “Tex” Western - Nick Collins’ neck injury
I’m sure plenty of people will think back to the 2014 NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl XXXII and find valid plays to change, but to me one specific moment provided a death blow to the Packers’ defense for nearly a decade. That moment came in week two of the 2011 season.
The Packers were fresh off winning Super Bowl XLV behind a stifling defense and the culmination of Aaron Rodgers’ brilliance at quarterback. The 2010 team finished tenth in points scored and ninth in yards gained, but the defense was even better, ranking second in points and fifth in yardage against. One of the biggest reasons for that performance was safety Nick Collins, who made his third consecutive Pro Bowl that season and had a critical pick-six in the Super Bowl.
But in week two of the 2011 season, Collins tried to make a tackle on Carolina Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart, but hit his head on Stewart’s leg. Collins remained down on the field, eventually being taken off on a stretcher. He never played another down in the NFL, forced to retire as a result of the neck injury suffered on that play. The 2011 season saw the Packers’ defense finish dead last in the NFL in total yards and passing yards allowed, and despite a 15-1 record and Aaron Rodges winning the MVP award, the Packers lost in their first playoff game.
In the succeeding years, the Packers tried to replace Collins, but to no avail. His ability to line up the defense and make the calls on the field was missed greatly. Mid-round draft picks like Jerron McMillian and UDFAs M.D. Jennings couldn’t replace even a fraction of his production, and even when GM Ted Thompson did try to fill the free safety spot with a high draft pick, 2014 first-rounder Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was underwhelming.
Perhaps GM Brian Gutekunst has finally succeeded in finding the smart, playmaking replacement for Collins in first-rounder Darnell Savage, a player who profiles very similarly to Collins. But if Collins never suffered a career-ending injury in the first place, I’m confident that the Packers would have made at least another one or two Super Bowl appearances in the years since and that Collins would be under serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Jon Meerdink - The most costly drop of Jordy Nelson’s career
To say the 2014 Packers cruised through the latter half of their schedule is quite an understatement. After a tough outing in New Orleans, the Packers emerged from their bye week a renewed team, winning seven of their next eight games. Four of those seven wins were by double-digit margins, including back-to-back wins of thirty or more points.
But the lone blemish on their second half schedule, a 21-13 loss to the Buffalo Bills, was tremendously costly. And had but one play been changed, the entire Packers’ season might have been different.
Late in the third quarter, the Packers trailed the Bills 16-10. On a 2nd-and-6 play with just 31 seconds left in the quarter, Aaron Rodgers saw Jordy Nelson break free on a double move down the right side of the field and hit his favorite target in stride.
But Nelson dropped it.
Virtually all alone in the Bills secondary, Nelson had a clear path to the end zone and a late lead for the Packers. Instead, the Packers slogged on for ten more plays before Rodgers was picked off on a throw to Jarrett Boykin. On their ensuing drive, the Bills kicked a field goal, extending their ultimately insurmountable lead and completing what turned out to be a ten point swing.
The drop was just a small part of an uncharacteristically quiet day for Nelson, who was in the midst of his only Pro Bowl season in Green Bay. Nelson managed just five catches for 55 yards on twelve targets that day, his third lowest yardage total of the season. He later struggled to explain the drop.
“It’s one of those baffling things. I just short armed it for whatever reason,” he told WISN. “I watched it go right off my fingers.”
To be fair, he wasn’t the only Packers receiver who struggled that day. The entire offense was bogged down by a bad case of the stone hands. But Nelson’s was perhaps the most crucial drop, given the high leverage situation in which it took place and the potential (even likely) outcome of the play had he managed to reel in that pass.
Now, in most circumstances I think it’s borderline ridiculous to pin huge consequences on a single play. There are literally thousands of plays in a typical football season and it’s often far too simplistic to hold just one up as the reason later events turned out the way they did.
But in this particular instance, I think it’s justified. The Packers ended up losing that tight game to the Bills, and as a result finished with a 12-4 record, equal with the Seattle Seahawks. By virtue of their better win position, though, the Seahawks were awarded the top seed in the NFC Playoffs, meaning that the 2014 NFC Championship game would ultimately be played in Seattle.
One routine catch could have changed all that. And given that the Seahawks were just 5-3 away from home in 2014, it’s hard not to wonder if the outcome of that horrific game wouldn’t have been different as well.
Peter Bukowski - Aaron Rodgers’ calf injury 2014
Pick a million plays from the ‘14 NFC Championship Game to go a different way, the Packers win and get a shot to beat a Patriots team they’d already handled earlier in the season (still Mike McCarthy’s pièce de résistance).
But let’s back up for a minute. It was a calf injury suffered late in the season that, to my mind, altered the entire course of this season including and especially that Seahawks game. The original injury likely lead the the calf tear, which caused Rodgers to play essentially on one leg in Week 17 against Detroit. Though he sliced and diced the Cowboys defense, there may have been no controversy around the Dez catch had he been healthy for that game.
And we’ve seen what a healthy Rodgers can do against the Seahawks since that game. They won at home in 2015 and 2016, including in ‘15 without Jordy Nelson, thanks in large part to Rodgers’ ability to extend plays and stress than vaunted Seattle zone. If he’s healthy for their tilt in Seattle AND the defense comes to play like it did (certainly no guarantee) they win that game without having to worry about Brandon Bostick or fake field goals.