THANKSGIVING VICTORY 37-26 TIME TO REFLECT Jerry Gilbert
There are probably very few fans of the Green Bay Packers who did not either see the Lions game or, at least, benefit from many highlight films and print accounts. I will devote this article to discussing some of the reasons for the improbable reality that the Packers boast a record of 10-1, have almost clinched the Northern Division Championship, and are in a position to virtually guarantee home field advantage in the playoffs with a victory next week in Dallas.
This is a team that, as the season began, had major question marks at several positions, and, amidst much criticism, had not added a single major free agent. Now, ten impressive victories later, it is time to give a great deal of credit to General Manager Ted Thompson and Coach Mike McCarthy for their success in selecting and developing talent. The Green Bay Packers we have seen the past couple of weeks are a group of very talented individuals who combine their skills to produce a very good team. They make plays on offense defense and special teams, and even as players go down with injuries, the team performs well enough to win. How was this team put together?
For all the discussion about building through the Draft, Ted Thompson has effectively used trades and free agency to add significant players. The defense would be far less effective without nose tackle Ryan Pickett and cornerback Charles Woodson who were brought in last season as free agents. The star of the special teams has been free agent Tracy White. Another valuable free agent addition was punter and sometime running back Jon Ryan. A player of growing impact is veteran free agent Koren Robinson. This season, a trade has provided a running attack with the addition of Ryan Grant, who has replaced the injured Vernand Morrency who was acquired by trade last season.
Street free agents have also made a big impact. In the defensive backfield, Atari Bigby has filled a hole at safety, and Jarrett Bush is the third cornerback. Tramon Williams is the next cornerback off the bench followed by veteran free agent Frank Walker. It is correct to say that the draft has added comparatively little to the group of corner backs and safeties. While they have been with the team for a couple of seasons, defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins, Colin Cole and Jason Hunter began their careers as street free agents. On offense the most significant free agent contributors are receiver Ruvell Martin tight end Donald Lee, and fullback john Kuhn. Without the contribution of these players, it would have taken another two or more years to get to this level using only the draft. While Ted Thompson has not been active with high profile trades and signings, he has nevertheless added many valuable contributors to the Packers.
The impact of the draft is seen on defense at linebacker where all three starters are recent draft choices. Similarly, except for the players already mentioned, the defensive line of Kampman, Williams, Gbaja-Biamila, Jolly, Harrell; and Montgomery were all selected in the draft. On the other side of the ball the offensive line rotation is entirely composed of draft choices. The top three wide receivers have also come from the college draft.
There is more to the story. The type of player chosen by Thompson is a tough guy who is athletic and fast. Sit back and wait safeties, such as Mark Roman and Marquand Manual, have been supplanted by aggressive players named Atari Bigby and Aaron Rouse. Nick Barnett, as demonstrated on national television before and during the Lions game, is the "in your face' leader of the defense and his mates A.J. Hawk and Brady Poppinga are similar athletes. Aaron Kampman leads the league in sacks because he never stops pursuing. A relentless KGB is in second place in number of sacks. Al Harris and Charles Woodson will happily mug any receiver at the line of scrimmage, and then shadow them all over the field.
On offense, the young offensive line, that last season needed help to protect the quarterback, is now capable of picking up any stunt and almost any blitz, and the five of them are alone in pass protection much of the time. This is particularly noteworthy because eight players have played at some point with little drop in effectiveness. If a starting five can play together the rest of the way, the unit could be very good by the end of the regular season. The offense would also be less effective had not Donald Lee improved so much as a blocker and receiver at tight end. Rookie Receiver James Jones and fullback Korey Hall are also important reasons for the 10-1 record at this point.
Coach Mike McCarthy and his staff deserve much of the credit for the outstanding play of this team. Johnny Jolly and Mike Montgomery have become much better players in the line, and the improvement in Jarrett Bush, Tramon Williams and Atari Bigby is being seen week by week. On offense the entire line, Donald Lee and Ruvell Martin provide evidence of solid coaching. The togetherness displayed by the special teams is emblematic of their improved performance. Even the running game is beginning to make an impact after much emphasis in practice. On an individual and unit level, these players generally play hard and under control. One only need watch receivers on other teams juggle passes, to realize that the Packer receivers are a special group who have been taught well.
For me, two of the highlights of the season have been punter Jon Ryan's improvised run for a first down and Tramon Williams' hustling touchdown saving tackle against Detroit on Thursday. In each case, an athlete willed himself to do what was needed to make the play. Ryan bobbed and weaved through would be tacklers. Williams simply found the speed to overtake a speedy return specialist.