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Recklessly Optimistic: The Packers as Super Bowl Contenders

A lot would need to go right, but we shouldn’t discount Green Bay as actual contenders as soon as now.

Syndication: The Post-Crescent Wm. Glasheen/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin / USA TODAY NETWORK

This may seem a bit much, even for an optimist, but hear me out, because it’s not as crazy as you might think.

It’s human nature to see everything we do as part of an incremental process. Things tend to change slowly from one day to the next in almost imperceptible ways, and our major projects, be they at work, or as part of a home renovation, or any major life change tend to take time, effort, sweat, the grind, etc. The thing is, big changes happen more than we realize. Crises can change things in a minute. Tech advances can sometimes render the Pony Express obsolete overnight. And in the NFL, teams fluctuate wildly, especially upon turnover at the quarterback position. The changing of the guard in Green Bay is likely why we’re underrating the ceiling of the Packers (while I think we all have a firm grasp on the floor, which is indeed quite low.)

You don’t need to go far to find an example of a massive improvement over the span of a single year. In the Covid season of 2020, the Cincinnati Bengals, under rookie Joe Burrow, went 4-11-1, and ranked 29th in the league in points scored. Burrow was actually pretty good, completing 65% of his passes for 2688 yards, and 13 TDs v. 5 picks, but he missed 6 games, and the Bengals did not yet have Ja’Marr Chase, who would join the team the following year. The 2020 Bengals were awful. They were outscored by 113 points (only the Jets, Broncos, and Jaguars were worse in the AFC), and they finished dead last in a division where every single other team went 11-5 or better.

The 2021 Bengals made plenty of changes. They drastically improved their offensive line, they added Chase through the draft, who made an immediate impact, and they added Trey Hendrickson, who brought 14.5 sacks to the defensive line. These changes (and yes, a year of development from Burrow), had an immediate, drastic impact. The 4-11-1 Bengals won their division at 10-7, outscoring their opponents by 84 points, while the rest of the AFC North crashed and burned. The Steelers were unable to weather the decline of Ben Roethlisberger, who would retire at season’s end, while the Browns, who had been 11-5 despite a -11 point differential in 2020, were hit by good old regression to the mean, going 8-9 with a -22 differential in 2021. Injuries to Lamar Jackson, who missed 5 games, were enough to take out the Ravens.

More importantly for the Bengals, the improvement stuck, and with Joe Burrow established as one of the NFL’s elites, they went 12-4 in 2022 and are expected to remain a contender for the foreseeable future.

Last season, the Packers were a disappointing 8-9, and were outscored by a single point. Aaron Rodgers was worth .039 EPA/Play, just barely ahead of Justin Fields (Note: Rushing yards do count, yes). Rodger's defenders are quick to point to the host of extenuating circumstances, including a broken thumb, a bevy of brand new receivers in Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson, both of whom missed several games, and virtually no production from the tight end position. These are all valid excuses, but they are also conditions that don’t really exist anymore.

Taking these one at a time, it’s interesting how much health plus development may fix every issue. Much of this comes down to what you think of Christian Watson’s ceiling. I happen to think it’s elite, and that if he can stay healthy they will have one of the best big-play threats in the league at their disposal. If that’s true, it should lead to an immediate increase in offensive efficiency across the board compared to last season, where Allen Lazard, Aaron Jones, and Robert Tonyan led the team in targets.

Last season Randall Cobb played in 13 games and garnered 50 targets from the slot. Cobb may be a reliable veteran, but he’s no longer the explosive player he once was, and the slot position too often featured a mishmash of Allen Lazard and Bob Tonyan, among other “slot in name only” options. Almost every team generates more offense from the slot than Green Bay, and the addition of Jayden Reed may actually allow them to capitalize on the position for the first time since Cobb was young and spry. This is even more true with middle linebackers and safeties now also concerned about having to chase Luke Musgrave down the seam.

And Musgrave (And Tucker Kraft) also offers unique upside at a position that hasn’t been worth anything since Jermichael Finley, or if you want to be generous, half a season of Jared Cook. Musgrave can be a real game-changer, and we’ve already seen glimpses of it in preseason.

Whatever you think of Love and his prospects, there is simply more to defend this year than there was last year. When Ja’Marr Chase joined the Bengals, everyone benefitted from his presence. Tee Higgins, a good receiver in his own right, caught 5% more targets than the previous season, for a full additional yard per reception. Tyler Boyd went from 10.6 yards per catch in 2020 to 12.4 in 2021, and 13.1 in 2022. Chase is obviously an outstanding receiver, and some might think it foolish to compare anyone on the Packer roster to him, but I don’t think we should entirely discount a Watson blow-up into a genuine star, or Luke Musgrave getting to something like Travis Kelce’s level. These are low probably events and Luke Musgrave is much more likely to be Evan Engram than Kelce, but highly drafted, athletic, high-end talent sometimes does break out.

But what of the defense, you may ask. Fair. Joe Barry has never run a good one, and the team has no safeties, but even on defense there’s some cause for optimism. Getting Rashan Gary back so quickly adds a generational talent to the second most important position on defense, and given the outstanding play of the rest of the edge players on this team, and JJ Enagbare in particular, opposing quarterbacks are going to suffer major pressure every time they face Green Bay.

The most important position is corner, where the quick ascension of Carrington Valentine in addition to Jaire Alexander and Rasul Douglas (and perhaps Keisean Nixon) gives this team the ammo to play the aggressive style preferred by Alexander, which was so successful in the back half of last season.

If the corners and edge players are good enough, the rest is simply window dressing. The Packers were destroyed on the ground last season, but they almost can’t help but be better. Just on sheer size, the Clark/Wyatt/Slaton line should be more effective than any line featuring Dean Lowry. Quay Walker can’t possibly be as bad as he was last year, and has graded out well in the preseason. Even rookie Lukas Van Ness will likely add some run-stopping heft inside while Gary/Smith/Enagbare anchor the edge.

Being a true Super Bowl contender isn’t easy, and if you don’t have Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, or Josh Allen, it’s a low-probability event, and yes, the Packers have holes. The fact is, they’re not bad holes to have, and they have so much upside at the offensive skill positions that a massive leap is not out of the question. More than anything, Love can get there by simply using his new weapons and staying within the offense. In 2021 when Joe Burrow led the Bengals to the Super Bowl, he averaged .186 EPA per play, which made him one of the most efficient passers in the league. There were six quarterbacks who posted a better number: Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady, Matthew Stafford, Justin Herbert, and Jimmy Garoppolo, who had one of his best seasons with .203 EPA/Play. Jimmy’s 49ers knocked off the Packers, and just barely lost to the eventual champion Rams in the NFC title game. I think the Packers, via scheme, line play, and offensive talent, can match the efficiency of Jimmy G. If they can pull that off, they’ll be much better, much faster than anyone thinks.