As training camp approaches for the Green Bay Packers it seems an appropriate time to examine the strengths that make the team a contender to play in Glendale, Arizona next February for their fifth Lombardi trophy. Also, let’s briefly consider potential barriers to earning a record fourteenth World Championship. Finally, I’ll take a stab at predicting the likely win total for the season as well as offering a floor and ceiling in win totals. As always, feel free to comment and offer your predictions as well.
Any serious analysis of the Packers’ hopes for the season begins with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Entering his seventh season as the starter, Rodgers has achieved the status of an elite signal caller and is widely viewed as among the top three quarterbacks. His combination of arm strength, shiftiness in the pocket, and ability to throw receivers open are unparalleled in the league. His presence alone ensures the Packers will field a competitive team for every game and almost certainly produce a winning season.
The emergence of Eddie Lacy last year provides the jab to Rodgers’ right hook that gives the Packers a lethal one-two punch on offense. Teams must now pick their poison and decide who represents the biggest threat they must defend. Defensive coordinators can no longer play two-deep schemes that leave only seven men in the box because Lacy will make them pay, and pay dearly. A full season of Rodgers throwing darts all over the field and Lacy running roughshod over defensive backs offers an electric offensive combination that should excite Packer fans.
The offensive line improved last year in pass protection and in opening holes for Lacy. That trend should continue as left tackle Bakhtiari has bulked up in the offseason and now possesses a full year of experience. Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang represent one of the premier pair of guards in the league with Sitton punishing defenders on the left side at an All-Pro level and Lang performing on the right side at a solid, though not yet elite, level. Bryan Bulaga returns to right tackle after missing last season with a knee injury and likely improves that position over the serviceable Don Barclay.
To defend in a league that emphasizes the pass and against a schedule that includes quarterbacks Brady, Brees, Cutler, Wilson, and Stafford, the Packers need strong play from their cornerbacks. Fortunately, that represents the primary strength of this defensive unit. Sam Shields demonstrated enough talent to earn a sizeable contract in the offseason and should operate as the shut-down corner for the Packers this year. Tramon Williams returned to his 2010 form in the second half of last season and expects to replicate that for a full year this season. With ball-hawk Casey Hayward manning the slot, Capers has the talent to keep opposing signal callers in check.
So what potential landmines lie under the surface that might prevent this Packer team from hoisting the Lombardy Trophy in Arizona?
Injuries represent the unknown most likely to jeopardize the Packers season. Untimely injuries to one or two elite players or half a dozen starters could send the team home for the playoffs. It is critical that core players remain healthy for the season if the team hopes to fulfill its objectives in the post-season.
Also, there are several positions that have not yet had a starter identified including center, tight-end, and the safety spot opposite Morgan Burnett. While it appears a solid starter for each role exists on the Packers roster, that expectation must be fulfilled when the pads come on and the game whistle blows. If Coach McCarthy’s staff can plug those openings with players who perform at even an average level this year, then the team will be well positioned for sustainable success. If not, opposing teams may exploit those weaknesses, which risks unraveling the Packers’ season.
Next, the defense needs to get its anger on. The past couple years this team has lacked an aggressive, mean approach to business. The talent appears to exist but something gets lost in the man-to-man confrontations in the trenches. That trend cannot continue if this team hopes to play in the forty-ninth Super Bowl. Fortunately, defensive tackle Mike Daniels recognizes this and has already begun establishing expectations for his teammates and demanding that as a unit they play angry. If he succeeds in getting the defensive unit to adopt that mentality game-in and game-out, then the season becomes promising on that side of the ball.
Finally, the team needs to avoid any regression from core players – as happened with Morgan Burnett last year – and two or three young players need to take their performance to the next level as Mike Daniels and Jarrett Boykin did last year. If no one emerges from training camp with amplified skills from last year, then the chance to go deep in the playoffs lessens.
Now it is time to make a prediction that I will have to stand by for the next six months. I believe the Packers likely will finish with eleven or twelve wins and have a ceiling of fourteen and a floor of ten (barring serious injuries). They will win their fourth consecutive division title (though it will be closer than most think) and will play in the conference finals. They certainly have the talent, depth, and experience to earn a spot in the Super Bowl but so do four or five other teams in the conference. That said, 2014 promises to be an exciting, enjoyable season for Packer fans as long as the injury bug does not bite again, and has the potential to be something very special. A fifth Lombardi trophy and fourteenth World Title is certainly a realistic possibility.