(Before we begin: Our “Friendly Fire” training camp battles series begins Tuesday.)
Before this week’s over, it will begin.
The two-a-days. The position battles. The fights. The heat – my God, the heat.
No more guessing will be necessary. Okay, there will still be some guessing – but not as much. Before this week’s over, training camp for the 2010 NFL season will officially get underway. We will finally start to get some answers regarding this year’s version of our beloved Green Bay Packers in what appears to be one of the most highly anticipated seasons in recent memory.
(I’ll give you a moment to let the chills subside.)
With today marking the start of training camp week, it seemed like a good time to tackle the question everyone has been asking, in one form or another, for roughly six months now: What kind of team will the 2010 Packers be?
It’s a topic Gene and I discussed at length in a recent phone conversation and one that will have to be addressed again before the start of the regular season. But, frankly, I couldn’t wait – I had to give my take now.
In short, this team’s going to be good. Strike that – really freakin’ good. Many have gone so far as to say the Pack will be in Dallas on February 6. As of now, I can’t argue with that standpoint that much. At the very least, they’ll have a major say in who makes it to the Taj MaJerry for Super Bowl XLV – that much seems certain.
To quote Judas himself: The pieces are in place.
While they will not live-or-die with it, the 2010 Packers will make their mark via the offense, a unit that already rivals those of the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts as one of the best in the league.
Aaron Rodgers is on the verge of top-five status as a quarterback. At his disposal? An extremely talented group of playmakers, one that’s still (for the most part) young and improving. The receivers need to be more consistent and this is the year that happens. It’s year five for Greg Jennings, year four for James Jones and year three for Jordy Nelson. This is the section of the career arc where wideouts solidify themselves and the Packers just happen to have three guys hitting that moment all at once. Oh yeah – Donald Driver, healthy knees and all, is still there too, ready to continue defying time.
Most quarterbacks would be more than satisfied with those four alone. Rodgers? He has more, in the form of an ultimate X-factor: Tight end Jermichael Finley. Much has been written about Finley finally growing up, both as a man and as a player, ready to take his place as an elite tight end. That’s happening this year. I’ve said it to anyone who would listen and now I’ll tell you: If he puts up 75-1050-12 this season, well, don’t be surprised.
Then there’s the forgotten man – running back Ryan Grant. Grant is dogged by many Packers fans. Hell, I’ve done it myself a time or two. But Grant turned a corner in the second half of 2009. He ran harder, more determined. That’s going to carry over. And Grant has never killed this team with fumbling – can’t say the same about the running back on the team that plays out my way, the only back with more yards than Grant since week eight of the 2007 season, by the way.
The 2009 Packers were, especially early in the year, brought down by poor offensive line play (and, boy, don’t the “experts” like to bang that hammer over and over, huh?). But none of these “experts” ever mention that the group improved dramatically in the second half. Tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher were brought back and each has at least one more run in them. Rookie Bryan Bulaga – seriously, how the hell did that guy fall to pick No. 23? - will provide crucial depth as he can seemingly play either tackle spot should one of them get hurt.
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, our days of watching Daryn Colledge at tackle are over. And, finally, head coach Mike McCarthy seems intent on having five starters and five backups. No more sliding guys over should an injury occur. If the right tackle’s hurt, in goes the backup. Done and done. Hallelujah.
The majority of the question marks lie with the defense, which finished last season No. 2 in the league (No. 1 against the run) before being Upper Peninsula-tire fire torched in the wild card loss. The depth appears to be lacking in certain spots, I’ll admit, mainly at cornerback and outside linebacker. But overall, the confidence is high in that group.
Even without defensive end Johnny Jolly, the unit will continue to stop the run this season. That’s due to the talent and scheme, yes, but I’ve always believed that playing the run in the NFL is mostly about a mentality, a mindset, an imposing of your will. This particular set of Packers defenders finally gained that mindset last season. That won’t be lost.
A big reason for that is the presence of inside linebacker Nick Barnett. Some fans spent years dogging Barnett, underrating his skills. Well, we saw what happened when Barnett got hurt in 2008 – the defense just isn’t the same. He’s the guts of the operation there. And it never hurts to have the considerable guts of one B.J. Raji in front of you. Can’t wait to see how good Raji’s going to be once healthy for a full season.
If you want to score on this defense, you’ll have to do it through the air. That could happen, of course as, again, the corner group provides some cause for concern - especially when you factor in the possibility of Al Harris missing the first six weeks on the PUP list (a near-lock, in my mind). It’s impossible to know if one of the untested youngsters, Pat Lee or Brandon “Crusin’ Chubbies” Underwood, will be able to step up. Will Blackmon will be a corner/safety hybrid this season, so he’s another option if he stays healthy. But I won’t lie to you – we’re just going to have to hope here for now.
But all hope is not lost. The reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Charles Woodson, still plays corner for this team (talk about defying time). As does Tramon Williams. A top five corner tandem? I’d say so, wouldn’t you?
And the last line of defense? Nick Collins and either Morgan Burnett or Atari Bigby. Yeah, not bad at all. So, in other words, yes, you may be able to pass on this team somewhat. But don’t think you won’t get picked off a time or two, because you almost certainly will.
The pass rush also has some doubting. We all love Clay Matthews, but some are unsure of Brad Jones. I’m not one of those people. I think Jones will be fine. He struggled at times, but also showed many flashes…as a rookie seventh round pick. And there will be some mixing and matching at Jones’ spot, too, as the Packers will rely on their depth in order to target the right plays at the right times.
And it’s the guy doing the mixing and matching that, ultimately, gives me the most confidence in that group: Defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
After a wretched 2008, Capers lifted the defense to new heights in ‘09. He did so with a group of players he largely didn’t know, a group of players going through a scheme change. If he could get those types of results seemingly on the fly, imagine what he could do this season, with an entire offseason of fully knowing the talent at his disposal. In some ways, the defense could just be getting started, a scary thought for Green Bay’s opponents. And fear not: Capers learned his lessons about being too soft on experienced QBs last season. That won’t happen this time around – bank on that.
I won’t say much about the special teams; I did that Thursday. The group has to be better. It could be a major design flaw if it isn’t.
Alright, enough with the background stuff, let’s really answer the question: What kind of team will the 2010 Packers be?
Answer: They’re going to be a team that scores in bunches. That will put major pressure on the opposition to keep up. The run defense will ensure that opponents will not be able to turn games into grind-it-out, clock dragging affairs. So, in order to hang with this team, opponents will have to look to the passing game. And although there are some questions in the secondary, there are also some big-time playmakers who can kill you. Even if opponents have success throwing the ball and matching the team score-for-score, that won’t ensure victory. Remember, Nasty Ben threw for over 500 yards and still needed a last-second touchdown pass to beat the Pack last season.
Throw in a good veteran coach (McCarthy) who has officially seen every up-and-down a coach can see – and a coach that now has full confidence in his group of maturing youngsters - and you come away with a formula that, simply put, should work. Injuries can wreck such a formula, but those can never be predicted. It’s pointless to try.
But what isn’t pointless is the excitement you should feel as a fan of this team today. This year’s going to be a special one.
And before this week’s over, it will begin.