Can Aaron Rodgers and the Packers put last season's NFC Championship Game collapse behind them?
There’s a better chance of Mike McCarthy having a training-camp movie night showing of “Remember the Titans” on a VHS tape than there is of the Green Bay Packers coach pinning his team’s motivational hopes on its gut-wrenching loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.
In the wake of their 28–22 overtime loss to the Seahawks — in which the Packers held a 16–0 lead at halftime and had the ball with a 19–7 lead with less than five minutes to play in regulation — McCarthy insists he will not use the loss as the basis for his annual theme, something he presents to the players every year at the start of training camp.
“(Come) hell or high water, we’re not going to run out there and come up with some slogan, ‘Remember Seattle!’” McCarthy says. “I’m not going to do that.”
There’s no doubt that the loss, with a berth in Super Bowl XLIX on the line, was heartbreaking — arguably the worst in franchise history, given the stakes and everything that went wrong in a short period of time.
So how do the Packers channel their disappointment into something positive going forward?
“That’s the million-dollar question right there,” says quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who won his second career NFL MVP award in 2014. “We had a great opportunity right in front of us to do something special. That’s what makes it hard.”
It all starts with Rodgers. Not only did he throw for 4,381 yards with 38 touchdown passes and just five interceptions (112.2 rating) last season, but he also played through a torn left calf that initially occurred at Tampa Bay on Dec. 21 and plagued him the rest of the year. Back to full health in the prime of his career at age 31, there’s no reason to believe one of the league’s best quarterbacks won’t keep putting up those numbers — especially with the talent around him.
By re-signing wide receiver Randall Cobb (91 receptions, 1,287 yards, 12 touchdowns) and starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga in the spring, the Packers bring back everyone on an offense that led the NFL in scoring last season. Not only does Cobb return, but so do Jordy Nelson, who set the single-season franchise record for receiving yards (1,519) and caught a career-high 98 passes; and third-year running back Eddie Lacy, who has put together back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons during his first two years in the league. Lacy was healthier and more efficient (4.6-yard average) while not altering his bruising, physical style. Backup James Starks provides a more-than-capable No. 2 option in the backfield.
The offense should be even more potent if wide receiver Davante Adams, a second-round pick a year ago, and tight end Richard Rodgers, a third-round pick, make the Year 1 to Year 2 jump that the draft-and-develop Packers demand of their young, up-and-coming players. Adams flashed his ability with big games against New England in the regular season (six receptions, 121 yards) and against Dallas in the playoffs (seven receptions, 117 yards, TD) and has the look of another smart Ted Thompson pick at receiver. Rodgers the tight end, meanwhile, started slowly but caught 12 passes in the final four games (including playoffs), as his connection with Rodgers the quarterback — no relation — grew.
The consensus — from McCarthy to Aaron Rodgers to the offensive linemen themselves — was that the offensive success started with high-caliber play and consistency up front. Of the 18 games the Packers played, the same quintet — left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton, rookie center Corey Linsley, right guard T.J. Lang and Bulaga — started 17 of them. Bulaga, who’d suffered back-to-back season-ending injuries the previous two years, missed one game with a knee injury, but by season’s end he’d regained the form he had in 2012. Linsley, meanwhile, was a godsend as a rookie fifth-round pick who played every offensive snap, while resident tough guys Lang and Sitton played through leg injuries late in the year. This group will take on all comers and won’t cede the title of the NFL’s best line to the Dallas Cowboys.
The Packers had the league’s worst run defense until, in desperation, McCarthy and defensive coordinator Dom Capers moved four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews inside, where he played primarily in the nickel defense. It was a stroke of genius that saved the season and turned the unit around. While Matthews is hoping to spend less time in the middle this year — with the fourth-round selection of Michigan linebacker Jake Ryan and the coaches’ high hopes for Carl Bradford after essentially a redshirt year, Matthews could get his wish — having No. 52 inside will still be part of the scheme. He had 11 sacks and made his fifth Pro Bowl in that hybrid role, so he can be effective splitting his time.
Matthews’ move was made possible by the rarest of moves by Thompson — the signing of a big-name veteran. Outside linebacker Julius Peppers had a turn-back-the-clock season, recording seven sacks while intercepting two passes, both of which he returned for touchdowns. At age 35, it’s possible he could fall off the table, but he certainly doesn’t look like a player at the end of the line.
Up front, defensive tackles B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion came back on one-year deals and should anchor the middle. The two key players, though, are 2013 first-round pick Datone Jones, who has been a disappointment in his first two seasons, and Mike Daniels, who has had a greater impact each season. Youngsters Josh Boyd and Khyri Thornton have done little to this point and must contribute more.
The safety position has gone from a weakness to a strength with an improved Morgan Burnett and 2014 first-round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but now there are questions at cornerback with the departures of starter Tramon Williams and trusted backup Davon House. Casey Hayward is penciled in as the starter opposite Sam Shields, but nickel back Micah Hyde and draft picks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins will have something to say.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby is coming off two excellent seasons after struggling in 2012, while punter Tim Masthay had perhaps his worst season when the bottom fell out during the second half of the year. While Hyde has been excellent as a punt returner, the kickoff return game was abysmal and needs a boost. Perhaps rookie third-round pick Ty Montgomery, the all-time kickoff return leader in Stanford history, is the answer.
Four straight division titles are nothing to sneeze at, but the annual postseason disappointments have gotten tougher to bear for the Packers — the hardest being the way they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Seattle last January. With the offense intact and the defense still having room for improvement, the Packers deserve to be in the Super Bowl 50 conversation as long as Rodgers is healthy. The biggest question mark is coaching. McCarthy relinquished the play-calling duties during the offseason, so if the offense is still potent and allows McCarthy to pay more attention to the defense and horrendous special teams, it could be a game-changer.