Packers hoping a healthy Aaron Rodgers can lead them back to the playoffs
David Bakhtiari has now endured two brutal seasons in which the Green Bay Packers had to live without their star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers -- 2013, his rookie year, and last season. But the way the Packers’ franchise left tackle figures it, if Rodgers comes back in 2018 the way he did after his last injury-derailed season, it’ll almost have been worth it. “I’m obviously just excited,” Bakhtiari says. “In 2013 when he missed a lot of games and he came back, that was his [second] MVP year. If history repeats itself, he should be in for a good one.”
Last season, the Packers saw their eight-year streak of playoff berths come to an end with a 7-9 thud. Rodgers missed seven games with a fractured right collarbone, came back with the team’s postseason hopes dangling by a thread, showed some rust in a Dec. 17 loss at Carolina that eliminated them from playoff contention, then sat out the final two games to give his surgically repaired clavicle more time to heal.
By the time the offseason program kicked off in April, Rodgers proclaimed himself back to full health. But while he has repeatedly said he intends to keep playing into his 40s, the Packers are now seven seasons removed from their Super Bowl XLV title. At age 34, Rodgers may be staving off Father Time, but he can hear the footsteps.
With the return of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, who held that same role from 2007 through 2011, coach Mike McCarthy decided the time was right to overhaul the playbook, taking what he called a “scrub-brush approach” to the scheme. The resulting new terminology and new ideas created new challenges for Rodgers.
“It puts a greater strain on guys like myself who have been in the same offense for 14 years. I’m looking at formations today that we’ve called five different things now,” Rodgers says. “So, it’s a good thing ultimately. It’s just going to take some time.”
But whatever they call the plays, it all starts with Rodgers, who at the time of his injury last season had thrown 13 touchdowns against three interceptions while leading the Packers to a 4-1 start. With the cost-cutting release of Rodgers’ favorite receiver, Jordy Nelson, and uncertainty on the injury-riddled right side of the offensive line, Rodgers will again have to be on top of his game -- and remain healthy. The offseason addition of five-time Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham should help, especially after last year’s disastrous Martellus Bennett signing. Graham caught 10 touchdowns for Seattle last season -- all of them in the red zone. He figures to be Rodgers’ go-to guy in scoring situations.
Second-year running backs Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones flashed vast potential as rookies and can make Rodgers’ life easier by delivering a consistent ground game. Williams led the team with 153 carries but averaged only 3.6 yards per attempts. Jones averaged 5.5 yards on his 81 attempts and had six carries of 20-plus yards -- twice as many as any other player on the team. In early July, it was announced that Jones has been suspended for the first two game of the season due to a violation of the NFL's substance abuse policy. Former starter Ty Montgomery is a weapon thanks to his ability to catch passes out of the backfield.
Up front, the left side of the line (Bakhtiari, guard Lane Taylor and center Corey Linsley) is locked up through 2020 and should keep Rodgers safe while veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga battles back from an ACL tear.
No. 1 wideout Davante Adams is poised to join the league’s elite after catching 74 passes for 885 and 10 TDs despite suffering two concussions and playing for a large part of the season with backup quarterback Brett Hundley.
After the defense couldn’t make up for Rodgers’ absence and delivered yet another underwhelming season, McCarthy made the decision to move on from Dom Capers after nine years as defensive coordinator. McCarthy hired Mike Pettine, whose units with the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills never finished outside the top 10 in total defense. McCarthy also raised the expectations, saying he wanted his defense to be “better than” the Rodgers-led offense.
“To be honest, it’s got to be a mentality,” McCarthy says. “I’m sick and tired of our defense feeling like the stepchild. I mean, how many times do you have to tell them, ‘You’re not the stepchild’? That’s a blatant statement, and it’s not a cure-all. But it’s definitely a starting point.”
Devoting their top two draft picks (Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson) to the problematic cornerback position should help the defense, and having four capable defensive linemen -- Mike Daniels, Kenny Clark, new addition Muhammad Wilkerson and Dean Lowry -- will give Pettine options as he morphs between 3-4 and 4-3 concepts.
But generating a pass rush will be crucial, and the Packers can’t afford to merely rely on Pettine’s scheme. Having not added a pass rusher in the draft -- rookie GM Brian Gutekunst traded out of the No. 14 spot, where New Orleans took edge rusher Marcus Davenport -- the team will again cross its fingers and hope Clay Matthews and Nick Perry stay healthy while backups Kyler Fackrell, Vince Biegel and Reggie Gilbert make huge leaps.
“You have to have a dominant pass rush,” Gutekunst says. “You look at the teams that have been successful, that’s where it starts.”
That may be where it starts, but improving in the back end matters, too. The inconsistency of 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall -- a player who McCarthy admitted should have played safety instead of cornerback -- led to an offseason trade to Cleveland, and 2015 second-round pick Quinten Rollins’ comeback from a ruptured Achilles tendon leaves his future in question as well.
The Packers brought back two veterans who had been starters for them in the past -- 35-year-old Tramon Williams, who left as a free agent after the 2014 season, and Davon House, who spent two years with Jacksonville before returning to Green Bay last year -- in hopes of shoring up their coverage group. But Kevin King, the team’s top draft choice last year who battled a shoulder injury all year before undergoing season-ending surgery, might be the key to the group with his length and gritty attitude.
At safety, former Pro Bowl pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix must bounce back from a self-described disappointing season and take on a greater leadership role after the free-agent departure of veteran Morgan Burnett.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby has been solid as a rock with five top-notch seasons after his inexplicably bad season in 2012, but last year was a challenge as he dealt with a new holder and three different long-snappers. That explains why Gutekunst took Alabama punter JK Scott to upgrade that position and invested another draft pick in Mississippi State long-snapper Hunter Bradley, saying special teams “was something I wanted to make sure that we put a stamp on” during the draft. Meanwhile, the search for an impact returner continues for a team that hasn’t had a regular-season kickoff return for a touchdown since 2011 or a punt return for a touchdown since 2014. Montgomery or Alexander may be able to change that.
A few folks inside Lambeau Field wondered aloud after last season if such a painful step backward without Rodgers might be just what this team needed to move forward after NFC Championship Game losses in two of the previous three seasons. A healthy 16 games from Rodgers virtually guarantees a 10-6 finish at minimum -- the Packers are 94-46 in games Rodgers started and didn’t leave with a broken collarbone over the past 10 years. Whether Rodgers gets to the second Super Bowl of his career, however, depends on whether his younger teammates elevate their games, and how many contributions the rookies can make.