The Packerscreed, by David Benjamin
Three (or four) mistakes that haunt the Packers
MADISON, Wis. — If you’re reading the experts’ reviews of the Green Bay Packers, you’ve noticed that they’re distinctly underwhelming. The consensus among the best NFL writers in Wisconsin, Bob McGinn at the Journal-Sentinel, Pete Dougherty of the Press-Gazette and the State Journal’s Tom Oates, is that this is a mediocre team, weakened by injuries and fully worthy of its 4-4 mid-season mark.
Whether you agree or not, you can’t deny that most fans have quietly lowered their (Super Bowl) expectations for the Pack.
From my view, the Packers’ disappointing half-season has exposed three key mistakes made long before the opener in Jacksonville.
First, let’s admit that the Eddy Lacy experiment is a bust. I hate to say this. My wife loves Lacy, especially when he’s healthy and bulldozing his way through linebackers and safeties on one of those rare but awesome 20-yard rampages.
They key word here is “rare.” Lacy does not run with power consistently because he’s fat. He’s fat because he seems to lack the personal discipline to push away from the smorgasbord. Remember those photos of Lacy last winter after he signed into Tony Horton’s P90X boot camp to slim down and muscle up? Remember how, after his P90X graduation and a couple months of his mom’s home cooking, he reported to training camp looking pretty much like the old roly-poly, lead-foot Eddy of 2015?
Although I’m a little pudgy myself, I don’t empathize with overweight NFL halfbacks — mainly because they don’t last. Yes, there have been exceptions. Jerome Bettis comes to mind. But, in almost every case, fat is fatal. A fat back has little speed. He lacks stamina. His weight puts extreme pressure on all his connective tissue — knees, shoulders and ankles, especially ankles. Because big, fat runners are hard to wrap, tacklers tend to hit them low. They aim for the ankles — which, inevitably strain, sprain and snap. Eddy Lacy is hobbled again, stuck on injured reserve, because he was a big fat guy, running into other big guys on a couple of skinny little bones that can’t be braced, muscled up or padded.
They say Eddy’s being a good do-bee, attending meetings and rehabbing dutifully. He might even play the last game. But don’t expect Ted Thompson to re-sign Lacy. As nice as he is, Lacy has a history gaining weight, getting hurt and not really caring terribly much about the game that’s made him a millionaire.
By misplacing their faith in Lacy, the Packers have ended up with a revolving door in the backfield. Guys lining up behind Aaron Rodgers have included four wide receivers, two tight ends, an undrafted rookie from the practice squad, and an over-the-hill castoff from Kansas City. And the Packers most dangerous runner? Rodgers.
Second: The Packers have an abundance of nice wideouts, but for the second straight year, the NFL’s best quarterback is operating without a true No. 1 receiver. Last year, after Jordy Nelson tore his ACL, nobody rose from the ranks to assume the role of Rodgers’ go-to guy. This year, Nelson is back but without his pre-injury explosiveness, nimbleness and ability to separate. Nevertheless, Rodgers continues to treat Nelson as his mainstay, targeting him more than any other wideout.
As a result, Rodgers is throwing too often to a Nelson blanketed in coverage. He’s overlooking wide-open receivers not wearing number 87. There might indeed be an emerging No. 1 among current Packers. It might yet be Nelson — or Ty Montgomery, Trevor Davis, Jeff Janis, even Geronimo Allison. Or, it might be somebody on another team — one of those receivers in the 2016 Draft class whom Thompson overlooked because he believed the Packers were “loaded” at the receiver spot. Besides, Jordy Nelson was coming back — better than ever, right?
Third, everyone agreed that the strength of the Pack defense was its young, talented secondary, featuring high draft choices Damarious Randall and Quentin Rollins, speedy veteran Sam Shields, solid young safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and a gang of versatile backups led by Micah Hyde.
Everyone was wrong.
From the start, Packer DBs didn’t live up to their billing. Then, one by one, they staggered into the infirmary, leaving LaDarius Gunter as the last standing Green Bay cornerback, trying to deal with passers like Matt Ryan and Andrew Luck.
Meanwhile, the Packers’ biggest predicted pre-season weakness — the interior defense against the rush — has been the team’s saving grace. Thanks to immovables like Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion, rookie Kenny Clark, and linebackers Joe Thomas, Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez, the rush “D” leads the NFL.
With a porous secondary and a pass rush that has disappeared in the absence of “Hamstring” Matthews, the guys in the trenches represent the Packers defensive backbone, and the reason the team’s won-loss record isn’t worse.
Finally, this season has exposed another key mistake. The Thompson/McCarthy mantra is “draft and develop.” This philosophy has reaped a winning percentage consistently for years. But the Super Bowl has now eluded the Pack for five, going on six, years. In the playoffs, Green Bay has lost to teams less committed to drafting and developing, teams closer to the Al Davis’ what-the-hell philosophy of loading up on “star” players who make splashy plays.
Today, the Packers have two acknowledged stars. One of them, Clay Matthews, has chronic issues with his hamstrings. In critical games at critical moments, Matthews always seems to be — unlike, say, Reggie White — standing on the sidelines nursing another twinge or pull somewhere in his abundance of poster-boy muscles.
The other star, Aaron Rodgers, is expected to work miracles with a cast of journeymen and fifth-round choices who have tons of youth and potential but not an ounce of razzle-dazzle.
Ergo, four wins, four losses. And the Titans look, well… titanic.