Sunday, February 22, 2015

Catching up with the Packers

The title of this post has a dual meaning. One, of course, is that other members of the NFC North have been trying to catch up with the Green Bay Packers for a while now. On that front, as the saying goes, no cigar. Good luck with that this coming season, too, by the way.

Another meaning of this post's title is that needs to catch up with the Packers. It's been a while since our last post...before the Super Bowl! But, as every green'n'gold-blooded Packer fan knows, not being in that game is still something that it's taking time to get past. Even head coach Mike McCarthy, at this week's NFL Combine in Indianapolis, said that the thought this last season's Packers team was the best team in the league. He is likely right. But the best team doesn't melt down with a lead in the NFC Championship Game with about 5 minutes remaining. That's the sad reality. Lucky teams only go so far. Dallas found that out playing the Packers. The Packers found that out playing Seattle. And Seattle found that out playing the Patriots...a team which, as we recall from the regular season, the Packers beat...and likely would have beaten again in a Super Bowl match up. But...not.

Soooooo....let's move on, shall we?

Speaking of moving on...
Among the changes for the Packers since the end of the season are some departures of note. Brandon Bostick, the tight end whose lack of playing his assignment on the now infamous onside kick coupled with his stone hands, resulted in the scoring opportunity Seattle needed to eventually win the NFC Championship, was released. Where did he wind up shortly thereafter? In the elephant graveyard of Packers' castoffs, of course: Minnesota.

Linebacker Brad Jones -- the designated target of abuse on Seattle's fake field goal turned touchdown -- was also released this last week. Jones was also the target of much fan ire over the past couple seasons especially. Every fan probably has his or her own memories of shouting "Jones!" at the TV screen whenever he was out of position, failed to make a play or caused a stupid penalty.

To be fair to both Bostick and Jones, that Championship Game should not have come down to either of those two plays. The Pack should have had the game salted away long before. Generating 6 points off 5 Seahawks turnovers isn't going to cut it. Neither is not going for it on 4th-and-1 from the 1-yard line. (OK, OK...moving on...moving on...)

The common denominator between both the above players, of course, was special teams...which, under the leadership of coach Shawn Slocum, has been among the worst performing special teams units in the league for years. The failures this season, however, were apparently even too much for friend Mike McCarthy to stand behind any longer. In fact, McCarthy has made it clear since announcing various coaching changes that he personally intends to spend more time working with special teams. Amen. About time someone actually pays attention to this unit. When its poor performance essentially costs you a trip to the Super Bowl, yeah, time to take notice.

Other coaching changes
Perhaps one of the biggest changes in the Packers coaching staff for this coming season has to do with head coach McCarthy giving up play calling responsibilities. He's turned that over to new associate head coach/offense, Tom Clements, who has served the last five years as the Pack's offensive coordinator. In addition, the Packers named Edgar Bennett offensive coordinator, Alex Van Pelt quarterbacks/wide receivers coach, Mike Solari assistant offensive line coach, Jerry Montgomery defensive front assistant, Ron Zook special teams coordinator and Jason Simmons assistant special teams coach. If you're sorting that out, two coaches were added to the staff and five get new titles. Solari and Montgomery are the two new kids on the block as far being part of the Packers organization goes. Note that Dom Capers remains as defensive coordinator. For a story with videos about the new coaching moves, go here. For the complete list of Packers coaches, see this page.

Free agency and the NFL Combine
The two biggest names on the Packers roster that will require immediate attention are WR Randall Cobb and RT Bryan Bulaga. There will be a push to get both of them signed, although Cobb would be considered the more critical of the two given his importance in the offensive scheme on multiple fronts. Bulaga, while certainly important to the overall cohesion and performance of the offensive line, has had a couple big injuries and the Packers could determine that his asking price is just too much given some of their re-signing needs, such as CB Tramon Williams, for example.

Packers General Manager Ted Thompson
Photo by Green Bay Packers

As Packers fans well know, it is not GM Ted Thompson's modus operandi to take wild shots in free agency. He prefers to keep players he knows, build from the draft, and only occasionally add a tested veteran, such as Julius Peppers, to shore up the mix. He will also let free agency play itself out a bit so that the market prices for players are set and he knows what he will and won't spend to get a player that doesn't immediately get picked up by another team.

Thompson and McCarthy also tend to view those players who were on the practice squad or injured reserve as a bit of an extra pool of resources to choose from. Cases in point for this season: WR Jeff Janis and QB Scott Tolzein. McCarthy said he expects Janis to make a big jump in his performance after what McCarthy refers to as Janis' "redshirt" season. Tolzein was active the last few playoff games because of the injury to QB Aaron Rodgers and McCarthy has said he views Tolzein as an ascending player. If you read anything into that, it might be that QB Matt Flynn will not have his services retained, and Tolzein will be the primary backup to Rodgers this next season. But we can and should also expect Thompson to draft a quarterback this Spring, something he hasn't done in the last few seasons. This would probably be a mid- to late-round pick. You can get a good player there. Case in point: Tom Brady was a 6th-rounder.

Also, let's not forget that NT B.J. Raji will also be coming off IR and if the price is right could once again prove to be a valuable anchor in the middle of the defensive line, particularly if Letroy Guion's days as a player are over following his bust earlier this month for marijuana.

What else will Thompson and McCarthy want to consider while attending this week's NFL Combine? Of prime importance -- at least to outside observors -- is an inside linebacker to replace A.J. Hawk who is also likely done in Green Bay. This has been a concern for the last two seasons, at least, and again it was a spot that became a glaring issue for the Packers until they moved Clay Matthews inside in the latter part of the season. Moving Matthews back to his normal outside role and getting an impact player on the inside will help the team considerably.

Another big need for the Packers is a tight end. Some project that if Maxx Williams, from the University of Minnesota, is available when the Pack drafts near the end of the first round, he could be the Packers pick. He is arguably the best tight end in the draft. Whether he lasts that far is anyone's guess.

2016 Super Bowl here we come!
So, Packer fans, this last season did not end with the Super Bowl trip, let alone victory, many of us thought was inevitable. But the good news is that a new season is just around the corner. The Packers are well positioned to once again remain the team to beat in the NFC North. In fact, the oddsmakers have already installed the Packers as 8 to 1 favorites to win the 2016 Super Bowl. The only team with better odds? Those birds from Seattle at 6 to 1. Think that game at Lambeau Field against the Seahawks this season won't be big? It will be huge, folks...epic!

It's great to be a Packers fan!

Go Pack Go!!!