Primed and Loaded for a New SeasonŃMaybe Jerry Gilbert
The defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers enter training camp as a strong contender to repeat. The coaching staff lost only its wide receiver coach. The head coach and his coordinators return, and they will be teaching basically the same offense and defense that were more than adequate to win every playoff game last season. In addition, the offensive and defensive schemes will be implemented by basically the same players.
Many things could go wrong, and the depth and special teams present unanswered questions, but the 2011 Green Bay Packers are better positioned than most teams to compete for a spot in the playoffs.
On offense, the only significant loss was durable but mediocre left guard Daryn Colledge. If no one steps up to play as well as Colledge played last season, there will be a problem, but the team has more than one candidate with the physical ability to do the job. At the head of the class could be a second year lineman who made the team as a rookie free agent last season. Nick McDonald 6-4 316 Grand Valley State impressed the coaches last summer with his size and potential. As the season progressed, Mike McCarthy and Joe Philbin were impressed by his improvement. Because he played only left tackle at a small college, it would be big jump to see his first action as a starting left guard in the NFL. Time will tell. On the other hand J.T. Lang started a game or two at the position last season, and only an untimely injury may have prevented Brian Bulaga from beating out Colledge last year in training camp. Because Bulaga is the starting right tackle, he would have to be replaced. Derek Sherrod, 6-5 324 Mississippi, this yearŐs first round selection is also available to compete at left guard or right tackle. He began training camp playing left guard.
As training camp opens, every other position on offense is manned by the Super Bowl starter. Along with Bulaga, Chad Clifton, Scott Wells and Josh Sitton return for the offensive line. Aaron Rodgers is at quarterback along with Donald Driver, Greg Jennings Jordy Nelson and newly signed James Jones at wide receiver. The signing of John Kuhn means that he returns at fullback. Two positions are actually in better shape because of players returning from the injured list. James Starks returns at running back, but Ryan Grant is the presumed starter. At tight end, Jermichael Finley is significantly better at this point than Super Bowl starter Andrew Quarles. Grant and Finley are two additional potent weapons for the Packer offense.
The only end of season starter missing from the defense is defensive end Cullen Jenkins, and his talent will be missed. On the other hand, Jenkins was unavailable due to injury for much of the season and a tandem of Howard Green and O. J. Smith were pretty effective until he returned. Green was actually the starter at the end of the season on running downs. Mike Neal missed his entire rookie season, but he was drafted as a potential replacement for Jenkins. With Green, Neal and Smith having another year in the Dom Capers defense, and the continued improvement of nose tackle BJ Raji, there is a decent chance that the inside pass rush which Jenkins provided can be replaced by other players.
Ryan Pickett completes the defensive line at end, and all four starting linebackers, Clay Matthews, Desmond Bishop, A.J Hawk and Frank Zombo also return. Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Charlie Peprah and Nick Collins will again comprise the secondary although Peprah may resume his role as a quality reserve, because Morgan Burnett, who started at the beginning of the season, is another player who returns from injured reserve. The Green Bay defense was good enough last year to win it all, and they have the same players who will try to do it again. The three specialists also are the same as last season, kicker Mason Crosby, punter Tim Masthay and long snapper Brett Goode, who is also known as the Ňgood BrettÓ to some Packer Fans.
It goes without saying that nobody wins a title on paper. The Green Bay Packers lost six games last season and came way too close to not qualifying for the postseason. The games must be played, and however promising the roster may look, an injury or a bad level of play affecting the wrong player could detour the playoff run at any time. Last season the team was dominating the Washington Redskins, but ultimately lost the game after Clay Matthews was lost to injury. Last year this defense, in addition to losing players for a game or two, was permanently deprived of the services of an inside linebacker two defensive ends and a safety. Bishop Peprah and Green stepped in and played at a high level.
With the release of Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar this week, there is no heir apparent if one of the inside backers goes down. The defensive line is also as thin as it was last season. I think they can replace Cullen Jenkins, but an injury to any key player could really hurt and a player the caliber of Howard Green is not always available on the waiver wire. The secondary has some depth, but another quality cornerback needs to step up to provide a level of comfort from the standpoint of depth. Outside linebacker has one star and a number of role-players. No one is ready to replace the star.
On offense, the team was able to win without Mark Tauscher at tackle, Ryan Grant at running back and Jermichael Finley at tight end. With the exception of Aaron Rodgers, the team as now constituted appears to have sufficient depth to absorb the loss of any one skill player without a notable drop-off in effectiveness, unless that player would be Aaron Rodgers. The loss of Greg Jennings would also hurt, because no other receiver on the roster appears ready to be the umber one guy. Driver is past that point in his career, and neither Jones nor Nelson has given any reason to suggest that they can be any more than a complimentary receiver. On the other hand, tight end Jermichael Finley has the ability and attitude to be the number one guy, which he arguably was prior to his injury. If Nelson and Jones were to play at the level they did last season, with fewer drops, the team could play without Greg Jennings and still have a potent offense.
In the line, Jason Spitz was the primary reserve at center and guard, and he is gone. Brian Bulaga has played only one year and he has more game experience than any reserve offensive lineman on the roster. At offensive tackle, while there are several possibilities, including Derek Sherrod who was drafted in the first round in the most recent college draft, no one has shown he is ready to step in at left tackle. The coaches are looking for quality depth from T.J Lang and Marshall Newsome and at least one of them needs to show that he is read to start at some position in the line. If Newsome is ready to play left tackle, other issues would be comparatively easy to resolve. He is getting his chance to shine in the early days of training camp. In addition, if players are not developing as hoped, or if a key injury occurs, it would not be a big surprise to see a call go out to Mark Tauscher if he has not already signed elsewhere.
Another issue is the lack of a third down back, a role filled well by Brandon Jackson until the free agent signed with Cleveland. A tight end may be used at times, but there is great pressure on the running backs for one of them to fill that role most of the time. Alex Green is a candidate, but he is a rookie and trusting a rookie to provide Aaron Rodgers with the last line of defense requires a leap of faith. John Kuhn is likely to be part of the solution.
Finally there are the intangibles. Nick BarnettŐs reckless style of play was a motivator for others. Brandon Chillar was the best pass defender among the linebackers. Mark Tauscher was an acknowledged leader in the locker room. Certainly these players were well liked by others One can never be sure what will be the total effect of releasing a player. It certainly is not a total positive, and the short time frame for making these decisions meant that the player releases were not handled in the best way possible. As time goes on, this could have some impact on the players who remain.
On the positive side, several factors will help the defending champions prevent over confidence. First, they were not exactly world-beaters most of the year. They had to scratch and claw to make the playoffs. Second, some key performers, such as Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley missed out on the experience of playing in the Super Bowl. They will not let a teammate become complacent. Finally, Coach McCarthy is boring but effective. He will still be telling players that they know nothing about pad level if the team wins three Super Bowls. McCarthy believes in fundamentals, no one is ever fundamentally perfect, and that is how he will coach this team all season.