In the wake of a 44-21 blowout loss to Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game — the second time in three years his team had come up one game shy of a return trip to the Super Bowl — Aaron Rodgers issued a not-so-subtle public plea.
“I don’t think we need to rebuild. We need to reload,” the Green Bay Packers quarterback said that evening in the Georgia Dome. “We’ve just got to make sure we’re going all-in every year to win.”
While Rodgers chose his words carefully, comedic actor Keegan-Michael Key’s “Anger Translator” character needed just one word at the NFL Honors awards show a few weeks later.
Did an offseason that saw general manager Ted Thompson take an uncharacteristic dive into the deep end of the free-agent signing pool and the arrival of a 10-player draft class designed to fill specific roster holes constitute getting the two-time NFL MVP quarterback help? Rodgers wouldn’t say. But he struck a hopeful chord when the team returned to work for the offseason program, knowing that at age 33 — and with designs on playing into his 40s — it’s time to bring another NFL championship to Titletown.
“We’re going to wait and see how everybody looks moving forward, but I like the pieces we’ve put in,” Rodgers says. “I like our squad. It’s just going to be about building that cohesion and chemistry in the locker room and on the field. We’ve got to make some leaps and bounds this offseason and obviously into training camp, but I feel like we’re going to be really tough to stop on offense.”
With Rodgers at the controls, that’s usually the case, and with the free-agent arrivals of tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, Packers coach Mike McCarthy spent the offseason in his mad-scientist lab concocting new formations to reinvigorate the passing game. But it’s the defense that’ll need to pull its weight, and Thompson’s decision to use his first four draft picks on that side of the ball showed what a priority it is.
“I think we have a chance to be a better overall football team, and that’s really the goal each and every year,” McCarthy replied when asked after the draft if the defense was better. “The goal is to ... be two wins better than we were last year.”
As Rodgers goes, so go the Packers. When he was less than stellar to start last season, the offense sputtered and suddenly critics began whispering about his magic being gone. Then he uttered his “run the table” remark, the Packers won their final six regular-season games and a pair of playoff games, and all was right with the world as Rodgers finished the season on perhaps the best run of his career. In the final seven regular-season games (six wins, one loss), he completed 69.7 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and no interceptions (120.0 rating) — reminding everyone that he’s one of the game’s best.
The free-agent additions of Bennett and Kendricks, combined with holdover Richard Rodgers, will create intriguing wrinkles to an offense that still has Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and the emerging Davante Adams at wide receiver. The passing game will have to be its high-flying self, however, given the unproven situation at running back, where two-time 1,100-yard rusher Eddie Lacy left in free agency after last year’s season-ending ankle injury. Converted wide receiver Ty Montgomery is the starter, but with three draft picks at the position, that could change.
The ongoing debate when it comes to the Packers’ offense is whether McCarthy truly wants an authentic running game to pair with his otherworldly quarterback. While Rodgers surely can carry this team, as he did down the stretch last year, the group was at its best during his second MVP-winning season in 2014 when a robust ground game led by Lacy forced defenses to pick their poison and lightened Rodgers’ load. With more two-tight-end sets creating run-pass uncertainty for defenses, perhaps Montgomery or one of the rookies will prove capable of creating similar production in the run game.
The Packers lost guard T.J. Lang in free agency but landed former All-Pro Jahri Evans, whose arrival saved the Packers from having to start a rookie — or other unproven player — at right guard. The strength of the group is at tackle, where David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga are coming off their best seasons and might be the league’s best twosome. Center Corey Linsley, in a contract year, has Pro Bowl ability.
When they won Super Bowl XLV in 2010, the Packers had a top-five unit in both scoring defense and total defense. They haven’t ranked that high in either category since, and last year’s group was the second worst in the league against the pass. Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins, the team’s top two draft picks in 2015, dealt with injuries and inconsistent play last season, and the Packers’ hope is that spending their top two picks on defensive backs again — Washington cornerback Kevin King and NC State safety Josh Jones — will make up for the release of No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields (concussions) and the free-agent departure of Micah Hyde. The Falcons exploited the Packers’ secondary, and another promising season will be undone without significant improvement on the back end.
McCarthy and his staff preach the importance of players making first- to second- and second- to third-year jumps, and that’ll always be the case with their draft-and-develop methodology for roster building. One reason last year’s defense failed was that Randall and Rollins, after coming on late as rookies in 2015, regressed. How much injuries factored into their struggles is hard to say, but they’ll have to rebound — even if King and Jones are instant contributors.
McCarthy has vowed to move his one-time defensive star, Clay Matthews, around his defense, rather than lining him up exclusively outside. Matthews’ move inside in 2014 stabilized the defense that year, and he’ll be spending time inside again this season. For it to work, though, the Packers will need $60 million man Nick Perry, the team’s sack leader (11) last season, to prove to be more than a one-year wonder and for Jayrone Elliott and Kyler Fackrell to elevate their games.
Up front, Mike Daniels remains the anchor, but he needs help. The hope is that free-agent pickup Ricky Jean Francois and last year’s first-round pick, Kenny Clark, provide it. In the back end, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix went to the first of what figure to be many Pro Bowls. A chance meeting at the Hall of Fame game with Packers legend Charles Woodson inspired Clinton-Dix to be more like the man who wore No. 21 before him, and he’s well on his way to being the team’s defensive leader.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby has put together four straight excellent seasons after his inexplicably bad season in 2012, and his clutch kicks at the end of the team’s playoff win at Dallas were yet another reminder of his elite status. The punting situation didn’t significantly improve when Jacob Schum replaced Tim Masthay last year, and the Packers’ return game remains largely a non-factor. Losing Hyde was a blow there, but getting Cobb involved in the return game could be a game changer.
Two NFC title game berths in three years have not been enough to placate the team’s passionate and demanding fan base, nor have eight consecutive playoff appearances. McCarthy is fond of pointing out that coaches and players are measured solely based on championships, and as 2010 recedes further into the rearview mirror, NFC North titles are insufficient. No one is on the hot seat per se, but only six players remain on the roster from the last title team, and while the 33-year-old Rodgers claims he can play another decade, the clock is ticking.