New year, new outlook for Packers Bob McGinn

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New year, new outlook for Packers Bob McGinn

Postby JKB » Mon Sep 14, 2009 5:25 am

New year, new outlook for Packers

Posted: Sept. 11, 2009

McGinn: New year, new outlook for Packers
Green Bay — It didn't take long this summer. Three practices in pads, maybe four or five.

Soon it became readily apparent that the Green Bay Packers were going to be vastly improved this season.

They didn't perform all that badly last year. Remember, their point differential of plus-39 in the 6-10 collapse was the best for any team finishing 6-10 or worse in the 29 seasons of the 16-game schedule.

That 6-10 record left general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy to analyze the detritus of one of the most underachieving clubs in franchise history.

Within that first week of training camp, the development of two players and the return to form of another became so obvious.

Tight end Jermichael Finley is ready to take the league by storm. Jason Spitz is playing at an entirely different level after his move from guard to center. And wide receiver James Jones is back where he was during the first 12 games of 2007, his rookie season.

Over the course of six weeks, other veterans took their games up a notch, as well. That list includes guard Josh Sitton, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, defensive end Johnny Jolly, inside linebackers Brandon Chillar and Desmond Bishop, and outside linebacker Jeremy Thompson.

It's hard to say a 32-year-old cornerback who has been selected for four Pro Bowls looked any better in his 12th training camp. But after watching Charles Woodson rush the passer for the first time in his career, and seeing him do it with such stealth and aggressiveness, he's my pick as NFL defensive player of the year.

The key to this football business is acquiring more good players than anybody else. The scouts find the players, the coaches develop them and the organization creates an environment for them to succeed.

The roster is talented and deep. The defensive staff might be the best in Green Bay since the mid-1990s. The decision by management to spend millions building new Nitschke Field helped make this training camp one of the most beneficial in years.

If forced to hazard a guess, which this exercise demands, it would be that Green Bay finishes 12-4, gains a measure of revenge by beating the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game, advances to Super Bowl XLIV and then loses to the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Last week, an executive in personnel for an NFC East team was asked about Finley. The scout remembered Finley well from his two seasons at the University of Texas but admitted he hadn't seen much of him this summer.

Oh, man. If success doesn't go to his head, Finley could affect the balance of power in the NFC North, if not the conference.

Those 5-yard bootleg passes to Bubba Franks become 25-yard gains with Finley outflanking linebackers. Those seam routes to Donald Lee that don't quite time properly become touchdowns to Finley because of his remarkable athleticism, catching radius and speed. And those 6-yard stick routes easily become 10 because Finley can elude people.

Mike McCarthy says he intends to "play wide open now" with Finley. Mike Holmgren did that with Keith Jackson all the way to winning the Super Bowl 13 years ago.

Add Finley to the mix that includes Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and Jones and there probably isn't a team in the league with as much firepower.

Rodgers was finding the open man all summer long and drilling the ball to him. He knows that he hasn't arrived yet. As the pre-eminent offensive leader, he's more responsible for 6-10 than any other player. He also accepted that, worked tirelessly in the off-season to make amends and has never looked better.

If you make a position-by-position comparison with this squad and the champions of '96, it's not even close. But Holmgren's offensive line was by no means great back then, so the '09 unit has a chance to be as good, if not better.

Spitz is just an excellent player. It looks like Sitton is going to be fine, and Daryn Colledge is more than adequate. Chad Clifton always will perform well as long as his body doesn't break down.

Say what you want about running back Ryan Grant, and I have, but he is in incredible shape and dead-set on having a banner season.

But what happens if Allen Barbre, the new right tackle, goes in the tank? The Packers could lose a game, perhaps even two before they get him out of there. Breno Giacomini would need to be helped if he had to play. Trying rookie T.J. Lang or re-signing Mark Tauscher probably would be better options.

The Packers have been better offensively than defensively each year under McCarthy and appear to be so again, but that doesn't necessarily mean it will turn out that way.

New defensive coordinator Dom Capers, 59, has been an NFL coach for 23 years, one more than the late Fritz Shurmur was as a 64-year-old in '96. Capers' breadth of experience is pronounced compared with the résumé of Bob Sanders, the man hired by McCarthy in 2006 even though he had never been a full-fledged coordinator at any level.

Not only did McCarthy hire Sanders, he compounded his mistake by saddling him with some ineffective assistants.

Capers is wedded to the 3-4 just as Shurmur was to the 4-3. What's interesting is that Shurmur wanted nothing to do with undersized defensive linemen or edge pass rushers, and neither does Capers.

The Packers' top four defensive linemen - ends Cullen Jenkins and Johnny Jolly, nose tackle Ryan Pickett and swingman B.J. Raji - have an average weight of 329 pounds. No team in the league can match that size, which is significant in the 3-4.

On paper, at least, Jenkins is the only player up front who consistently can rush the passer. Jolly didn't show it in practice but did apply some pressure in exhibition games, as did Raji.

The onus for disrupting quarterbacks will fall as always on Aaron Kampman, only this time from a brand new position, and Capers.

Early in the season, Capers will have to be at his fire-zone blitzing best because Brady Poppinga, the other starter outside, is a non-factor rushing. Clay Matthews is a better all-around player than Thompson, but one of them quickly must become a rush threat outside, either as a starter or situational substitute.

Chillar and Bishop are superb backups worthy of sub-package time behind Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk. Woodson will be Capers' featured blitzer from the secondary, but everyone will get chances.

The 3-4 is not a panacea for a sickly pass rush that forced one measly fumble from the quarterback in approximately 600 drop-backs last year. Don't forget that Sanders' press-man style challenged every pass, limited opponents to the fourth-worst passer rating (71.9) in the NFL and produced a club-record seven defensive touchdowns.

Nevertheless, the timing for the return of the 3-4 couldn't be better. The last team in the NFC North to play it was Detroit in 1994, and Dallas, Arizona and San Francisco presently are the only other 3-4 teams in the NFC.

Green Bay enters the season worried about its depth behind Al Harris, Tramon Williams and Woodson. Some teams are fortunate to have even one cornerback that good.

Asked if Capers could get away with taking him out of coverage to blitz, Woodson replied, "We got two other very, very, very, very good corners."

Don't be fooled. There will be games in which receivers will be running scot-free through zone coverages that haven't been perfected yet. Championship contenders can ill afford to be picked apart often. Capers must compress the break-in period.

The special teams under Mike Stock were poor in two of his three seasons and there hasn't been noticeable improvement under his successor, Shawn Slocum. McCarthy had chances to hire a coach with NFL coordinator experience but promoted Slocum instead.

Other than an onslaught of injuries, what could waylay the Packers' title hopes?

Rodgers doesn't have Brett Favre's track record for durability, and backup Matt Flynn, who is pretty good if his shoulder is sound, has almost never played.

Then there's special teams, right tackle, insufficient pass rush, a third straight season of runaway penalties and age at cornerback.

But every team has holes. It's how you cover them that counts.

Minnesota has a weak head coach, untested first-year starters at center and right tackle and a soon-to-be 40-year quarterback who has faded four straight seasons but still hopes to play well despite not having put in any of the hard work.

Already held back by a defense that has been better days, Chicago has laid its hopes on Jay Cutler, a rifle-armed competitor who has made too many killer mistakes.

Both the Giants and Philadelphia have had to replace exceptional defensive coordinators. The Eagles might be as explosive on offense as the Packers but aren't as good on defense. The Giants are loaded on defense but lack Green Bay's weapons on offense.

McCarthy has tried to make his team more physical, partially perhaps to beat the Giants if they meet again. He and his team generally seem hungry, having been embarrassed a year ago.

The mix in Green Bay just seems right. Nineteen of the 22 positions will be manned by players entering at least their third year as a starter, so this is not an inexperienced team, as it was during the championship push two years ago. It's a team and a coach that should remember how to win. And the schedule looks soft.

From here, it looks like the Packers are headed for their second dramatic turnaround season in the last three years.
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