We are five weeks into the NFL season and folks in Wisconsin are casting gloomy looks at one another over heinous portions of beer. This has been a time of agonizing reappraisals, and more than a few are starting to doubt if the Packers were ever as good as the analysts said they were. After all, two years ago there were pundits telling anyone who would listen that this was a dynasty in the making.
That was a long two years ago. A brutal history has sprung up between now and then, and in any street in Wisconsin you can find filthy refugees who have since lost the once unshakable faith.
Up and down East Washington you can find men with thick shaking beards and cheap flannel jackets barely concealing their soiled Super Bowl XLV t-shirts, wandering in a cheap stupor, pondering the strange price of success and wondering if they will ever see the sun again. In every dingy corner you will find terminal drunkards, muttering confused platitudes about Ray Nitschke and Real Dynasties.
But all of that is merely the wreckage. What we are concerned with is the crash. How did we get to this point? What cruel explanations will do?
The Packers are suffering from several major issues. Their roster isn’t as robust and talented in many areas as has been suggested, the league has caught up to their offense schematically, and they have consistently displayed a less than championship attitude in the face of difficulties.
Last year the narrative on the Packers was fairly clear. A historic offense was often undermined by a historically leaky defense. The Packers addressed this in their typical fashion, and spent nearly every draft pick on defensive players. The Packers defense has shown flashes of improvement, though recent outings have been eerily reminiscent of the 2011 campaign. If nothing else, the defense can bank on the fact that it is laden with young talent that should only improve as the year wears on.
However, the price of the defense heavy draft was little influx of talent to the offensive side of the ball. While the Packers still boast one of the best quarterbacks in the league and probably the deepest receiving corps, their running game is simply atrocious. The line seems incapable of creating running lanes. Even with the acquisition of Cedric Benson, the running backs are a forgettable bunch. Benson is out at least eight weeks with a Lisfranc foot injury, but even when he was the workhorse of the bunch he only managed a meager 3.5 yard average, with an 11 yard long, and a lone touchdown. James Starks has fallen so far that he has been a healthy scratch for several weeks. Alex Green hasn’t earned the trust of the coaching staff, as was clear when McCarthy completely abandoned the running game after Benson was hurt.
The passing game has suffered because the Packers have not made any schematic shifts and because they lack any reason to keep a defense honest, as Michael Lombardi pointed out on NFL.com. As he details, the Patriots had a similarly pass-happy offense in 2011, but realized that teams would key in on this, and would need an effective counter.
In response to this realization the Patriots made several offseason investments to help bolster the run, and it has paid off. Against the Packers, defenses simply play two men high to prevent the deep passes the Packers lived off of in 2011, get physical with the receivers at the line of scrimmage, and have their pass rushers pin their ears back without fear of a running game.
Their offense has remained static since last year, and even historic units cannot afford to do that. They never addressed their one major weakness, an absent running game. Kevin Seifert of ESPN came up with some interesting stats. Since 2010, the Packers are 2-8 when they drop back on at least 70% of their passes, and 29-3 when they drop back less than 70%. (Somewhere there are old football heads laughing themselves to death at the idea that after gallons of ink has been spilled over the passing explosion that teams still need to run the ball as much as ever.)
Aside from the weakness of the offense and the fact that the league has seemingly caught up to McCarthy and company, the Packers have consistently displayed a poor attitude in dealing with adversity.
After their loss to the Giants in the playoffs last year, Clay Matthews expressed the opinion that the Packers had beaten themselves and the Giants were an inferior team. After the season-opening loss to the 49ers, Jarrett Bush (perhaps a perennial special teamer isn’t exactly the pulse of the locker-room, but still) suggested that the 49ers hadn’t beaten the Packers, the Packers did. The common theme in these games, aside from the retroactive complaining, has been that the Packers were totally dominated at the line of scrimmage, and the offense was not versatile enough to take advantage of the pass-specific looks that were given to them.
Last week an “unnamed Packer” went so far as to suggest that the officials were out to get the Packers. It’s laughable that two different sets of officials have decided to undermine an NFL team. Even if there was one incident (I think you know what I’m referring to) where the officiating did directly contribute to a loss, it would be absurd to suggest that the difference between this year and last year is referee prejudice. Furthermore, you would be somewhat hard pressed to think of a championship team so eager to shift the blame for losses to officials and some sort of strange self-flagellation routine.
It seems the Packers are coming to the grim realization that they aren’t the team they or anyone else thought they were. It is one possible explanation for all the rotten and accusatory noise issuing forth from Green Bay. It’s time for Come-to-Jesus meetings in Wisconsin. Let’s see if they will take.