So, training camp is officially underway – thank the Lord - and the Green Bay Packers have a few practices already under their collective belt (no real injuries yet – whew).
Last season, we ran a “Training Camp Stew” series in which we gave our thoughts on the most interesting bits from the practices. The thinking, as of now, is that that series will return. I want the Packers to get a couple more practices in the books before I start that, though, so I don’t have to overreact to the results of a few sessions.
That being the case, I’ve decided to write a counterpoint post to something I did 11 days ago. In that post, I talked about some under-the-radar things that could bring the 2010 Packers down.
Today, I’m going to list some things that could potentially give the team an extra boost. As always, I’l spare you the “Team stays healthy” storyline. Barf.
In no particular order:
- A legitimate pass-catching threat emerges from the running backs
Last season, the Packers backfield (running backs and fullbacks) totaled just 65 catches for 513 yards (7.8 average) and three touchdowns. That might not sound awful at first glance, but when you look at it this way, the struggles become clearer: Every week the backs were averaging roughly four catches for 32 yards. Not good enough.
(The New Orleans Saints’ backs, by comparison: 107 receptions, 781 yards (7.3 average, albeit lower than Green Bay’s) and seven touchdowns.)
You could argue the Saints feature backs more prominently than the Packers do, but you’d only be half-right. Head coach Mike McCarthy clearly wants to involve the backs in the passing game; he just hasn’t found someone to go to like Sean Peyton has.
If he can do so this season, it’d provide a massive boost to an already lethal offense. So, who could that player be?
It won’t be a fullback. I’m certain of that. I doubt it’s Ryan Grant – he’s more of a pure runner and, honestly, if he could be that threat, he’d have done so by now. Brandon Jackson? Perhaps – he’s certainly shifty and able to work his way through a defense, at times. But he’s more of an occasional pass-catcher and his real value comes from his skills as a blitz-buster.
James Starks, the team’s sixth-round pick? Yeah, now we’re talking.
In his last full season of college ball – 2008 – Starks caught 52 balls for 361 yards. He’s still recovering from the shoulder injury that cost him all of 2009, but once he returns, he should be the guy. Clearly he’s got the skills in that area and, with Grant handling the bulk of the handoffs, Starks can really focus on honing his pass-catching.
With the Packers already loaded at receiver/tight end, Starks – or whoever steps up – wouldn’t have to be a gamebreaker, per se, just someone defenses needed to account for (opponents simply did not worry about this element of the Pack’s offense last season).
- A pair of inside linebackers make themselves known
A.J. Hawk and Brandon Chillar are both decent players. Perhaps not outstanding – but definitely decent. There’s certainly worse, anyways.
But “outstanding” needs to be associated with the pair more this season. It’s as simple as that.
It’s year five for Hawk now. Many seem to have just accepted the fact that Hawk is who he is - not terrible, but certainly not great. I’m not willing to accept that. Hopes were through-the-roof for him as the No. 5 pick of the 2006 draft. He’s, well, been a letdown, hasn’t he? He records tackles, but many of them are downfield (that is, when he’s not taking poor angles or playing too high). And he brings almost nothing to the table as a playmaker (two interceptions, one sack and one forced fumble last season).
He’s making $4.1 million this season – he needs to play like that type of big-money guy. Remember, his salary for next season is $10 million and there’s no way he’s coming back – even at a greatly reduced rate – unless he has a monster season. No more excuses, A.J. It’s time.
Chillar, unlike Hawk, actually shows flashes of being a true playmaker, at times. He’s quick and possesses great athleticism. He just needs to show these things more often. He was hurt for a portion of last season, so I’ll give him a pass somewhat. But he still played in 12 games and didn’t do a whole lot (just two sacks and 29 total tackles). What’s worse was that he was not very good in coverage, usually his strong suit. And, like Hawk, he’s a big-money guy, too, signing a four-year, $21 million extension last December.
The biggest thing both need to do is bring an improved presence on the inside pass rush. Nick Barnett is good in that department, but the team needs someone to compliment him. That would greatly decrease the pressure on the OLBs, even Clay Matthews. If these two can step it up a notch, Dom Capers’ defense could take a major step forward in year two of the 3-4.
- When you’re playing the best, remember the odd-numbered quarters
While researching this piece, I decided to study how the Packers did when they played the best-of-the-best (i.e., other 2009 playoff teams).
In six games – sorry, I’m not counting the first Arizona game as the Cards simply did not care about that one – against Cincinnati, Minnesota (2), Baltimore, Dallas and the playoff loss to Arizona, Green Bay owned the second-and-fourth quarters, outscoring those opponents by a 104-78 count.
In the first-and-third quarters, though? The Pack were outpaced on the scoreboard, 87-58. In other words, this team didn’t start games well and it didn’t come out of the break well against top-notch opponents.
The fact that Green Bay was able to bounce back after such deficits shows resiliency – a major positive and a sign of a young-and-hungry group. But the early deficits are also a sign of a young team, and if the Packers are going to take the next step towards greatness, they simply need to do better in these stretches of games. There’s a mentality a team needs to have in order to do so, which brings me to my final point…
- Develop a “Next” mindset
In “The Genius,” David Harris’ excellent book about legendary San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh, former Niner Randy Cross talked about a “Next” mentality developed by the 1984 San Fran team. Quoting Cross from the book:
“We knew we were better and whoever we were playing knew we were better, too. It was just a matter of how much we were going to win by and who was next in line to lose to us.”
That team went 18-1 and crushed the Miami Dolphins, 38-16, to win Super Bowl XIX, by the way.
I’m not suggesting the Packers could rack up a similar record. But I am saying that we’ve heard over-and-over about how this team truly believes it can win it all this season. Barnett went so far as to say it’s “Super Bowl or die” for the 2010 Packers. That’s nice – really, it is.
But don’t just tell us that. Show us. And show everyone in your path, too.
Play with that type of mindset. Make your opponent feel like they’re in for an all-day beating before the game has even started. The great teams are able to do this week-in and week-out. Not the up-and-coming teams full of youngsters – the great teams, full of established vets.
The Packers claim they’re ready to be this type of team. If that’s the case, playing with a “Next” mentality should be no problem at all.