WE ARE THE CHAMPIONS MY FRIEND Jerry Gilbert
To historians far in the future combing though the records, the 2011 Super Bowl will be understandable. Before the season began, the Green Bay Packers were a popular pick to make the playoffs and win the Lombardi Trophy. That is what happened. They won the super Bowl. So why are so many Packer fans existing in this state of stunned amazement? Why are players still saying that they cannot quite believe the reality of the victory? They really did it. The Green Bay Packers are champions of the National Football League. The team that lost to Washington and Detroit is the world champ. General Manager Ted Thompson will not be able to trade back in round one of the draft. His team earned him the last pick.
Historians who dig a beyond the most obvious facts will learn that final victory was far from assured. The defense was opening the season without cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby who were both put on the physically unable to perform list. Defensive end Johnny Jolly had his own problems that led to a one-year suspension by the league. The Packers responded. General Manager Ted Thompson used high draft choices at safety with Morgan Burnett and at defensive end with Mike Neal. There was also hope that former first round draft choice Justin Harrell might finally contribute on the defensive line because he had played well at the end of training camp.
Then the bottom started to fall out from under these best-laid plans. Justin Harrell was lost for the season on September 14, which was not a big loss, but starting safety Morgan Burnett joined him on October 7th. A week later they lost their leading tackler and a major playmaker as linebacker Nick Barnett went down. Late October was a particularly hard time for the injury riddled Packers. On October 26th both Mike Neal and an important reserve linebacker, Brady Poppinga were lost for the season. Starting outside linebacker Brad Jones was placed on IR a day later. One month later, Brandon Chiller, the only remaining source of proven depth at linebacker was added to the list.
That was not quite the end of the problems on defense. Super star Clay Matthews missed a game and a half and the team lost both contests. Defensive end and inside pass rusher Cullen Jenkins was hobbled most of the season. He missed a game and played with a cast on his hand for many weeks. Because of injuries on the defensive line, B.J Raji was the only available big defensive lineman in one game. In some cases, the replacements did not remain healthy. To shore up the safety position and special teams, the Packers re-signed two former players, safety Anthony Smith and tight end/linebacker Spencer Havner. Each only lasted a few weeks before joining their old teammates on injured reserve.
This hobbled defensive unit proved to be as good as any by the end of the season. How did they do it? It was a combination of starters playing better, reserves stepping up to play well and a couple of street free agents who were discovered by the Packer scouting department and schooled and motivated by the Green Bay assistant coaches. Notable among improved starters was inside linebacker A. J. Hawk who elevated his game along with flawlessly assuming the role of calling plays for the defense after Nick Barnett was injured. Tramon Williams had by far his best season as he has become a shut down corner. Nick Collins was already an all-pro, but his leadership and athleticism on the back end made the difference on many occasions. The best example of a reserve who blossomed played next to Hawk. Desmond Bishop who had not impressed anyone in previous opportunities as a starter, blossomed into a playmaker as a pass rusher and in pass coverage. Equally impressive was long time reserve Charlie Peprah who became a rock at strong safety, making tackles near the line and covering receivers down field.
The star among free agents began to impress coaches in training camp and continued to improve an every game until he was injured and had to leave the field in the last game. Sam Shields deserves to be the Packer rookie of the year. Signed the day after the NFL Draft as a free agent, Shields, a gifted athlete, dedicated himself to football to an extent he had never reached before, and he became a quality man-to-man cornerback.. His development allowed coordinator Dom Capers to free Charles Woodson from covering outside receivers, so that the gifted Mr. Woodson could surprise offenses in many different ways. Any time Charles Woodson is your third best cover corner, you have a pass defense that is scary.
Free agents also saved the day in the line and at linebacker. After enduring a game with only one big hog on the field, Ted Thompson reached down to Louisiana and signed Howard Green. It was Green who hit the arm of Ben Rothlisberger to set up the Ni ck Collins pick six in the Super Bowl. At outside linebacker it was a revolving door. After the loss of Jones and Poppinga, the Packers settled on Frank Zombo, a rookie free agent who immediately upon starting began to sack quarterbacks. As we might expect, Zombo succumbed to injury, but his successor Eric Walden was even more effective rushing the passer. After Walden was injured in the playoffs, Zombo returned for the Super Bowl. I think it was Larry McCarren who best explained how Dom Capers and his staff were able to plug in unknown players and maintain a successful defense. McCarren said that the young free agent has no ego. He knows he is not a gifted player but he wants to stay with the team. This type of player does what the coach tells him to do and he does it with enthusiasm. The entire defensive group bought into what Dom Capers was teaching, and together they created a championship defense while missing a number of fine players.
Injuries to defensive players had a domino effect on special teams. Some injuries eliminated quality special team contributors.. In other circumstances a special team regular became a starter on offense or defense and needed to be replaced on the return and coverage units. Some of the worst performances by the special teams occurred when they suffered the loss of a key player during a game. Having lost so many players, there were simply not enough veteran special team players to reliably fill in for an injury When Eric Walden is starting at linebacker the cupboard is pretty bare on special teams. Nevertheless, special teams were pretty solid in stretch run and in the playoffs. Most important, the kicker punter and long snapper never missed time. The totally reliable long snapper Brett Goode is an under appreciated contributor to this championship team Punter Tim Masthay got better as the season progressed, and was almost a weapon in the playoffs. At the same time, the injuries became less frequent at the end of the season and basically the same group was available for all the late games.
Injuries also plagued the offense, but the problem was quality rather than quantity, and the team adapted. The major losses happened right away. Tailback Ryan Grant was lost for the season on September 14th, and the Packers spent the entire year trying to find a way to replace him. By the end of the regular season, the combination of James Starks, Brandon Jackson, and John Kuhn gave Green Bay enough of a running game to win a Super Bowl. The most significant loss was tight end Jermichael Finley. Not only did the team lose this unique talent, but the entire offense had been built around him. It took several games for the offense to adjust to emphasizing Greg Jennings as the go to receiver and using Jordy Nelson to run the tight end routes. The final key offensive loss was right tackle Mark Tauscher. Fortunately Ted Thompson was ready. First round draft choice Brian Bulaga stepped in. He had some growing pains, but by the end of the season he was doing a fine job in pass protection and was possibly better then Tauscher as a run blocker.
Writers across the country are praising Mike McCarthy for holding the team together and adapting to the players they had to work with in all facets of the game. At the same time kudos go to the stars such as Rodgers Matthews Collins and Jennings and all the others who made enough plays at key times to secure this somewhat improbable championship. We are the Champions, and that fact is starting to sink in.