GREEN BAY, Wis. — There is a working theory beneath the surface here, one spoken only in the most hushed of voices, that perhaps the Green Bay Packers really did die that brutal Sunday in Seattle two years ago.
That perhaps the window to win a Super Bowl has closed on a team that might never reach those heights again after failing to reach a Super Bowl that day despite leading 19-7 with a little more than two minutes left.
Last season proved to be fool’s gold early — a 6-0 start despite losing Jordy Nelson — once the 5-11 San Francisco 49ers showed the design of how to short circuit the Packers’ once-feared offense: daring the Packers to throw by playing press coverage with a single-high safety.
That plan in the hands of a master like Wade Phillips and with a defense as dominant as the Denver Broncos made it clear that the 2015 Packers were a shadow of their former selves. But most players we spoke to Tuesday and Wednesday dismissed the idea of a Seahawks hangover plaguing the team as the reason why they took a step back.
“I don’t think so,” Packers guard Josh Sitton told Shutdown Corner. “It’ll be a game that we’ll probably never truly get over. But I don’t think it had anything to do with last season. I don’t think it lingered. Once you’re back on the field, doing what you do, you don’t have time to worry about the past.”
So what about 2016? Hope is high here two days into training camp, and on the surface it’s obvious why. Head coach Mike McCarthy said Rodgers is in the best shape of his life, something Rodgers agreed with. The line, when healthy, is a good group (even if free agency breaks up the group after this season). Eddie Lacy looks slim and trim and put together two good days catching and running the ball.
Even drop-plagued Davante Adams has stood out, reminding people of his talent while Nelson’s left knee (not the torn ACL one) continues to heal. Adams and fifth-rounder Trevor Davis — your new Jeff Janis-esque folk hero? — have been impressive early and could add some juice in the yards-after-the-catch department, which was a huge letdown last season.
Throw in a schedule that, while tough in the division, is considered one of the league’s easiest and you can see a path back to glory.
“Our window hasn’t closed,” Sitton said. “We feel like we have that chance to do big things here. We’ve seen what it takes. We know what we have to do. There’s no reason to think we can’t keep climbing. I don’t think we’ve peaked if that’s what you mean.”
Getting Nelson back is huge, but the concern level right now feels about at Defcon 4 — he said the goal is still to be back for the start of the regular season and there’s no reason to question that right now. Nelson’s absence hurt, and one big byproduct was that it rendered the play-action pass — the most dangerous element of this offense in years past — relatively ineffective.
“A lot of that was predicated on Jordy Nelson,’ Rodgers said. “We had a lot of single-receiver or two-receiver max-protection plays with him taking some shots down field. And when you’re hitting those 60-, 70-, 80-yard chunk plays, it’s going to make your play-action stats and averages and touchdowns look a lot better.
“So getting him back, and also getting some other guys to do some of the same stuff — so the pressure isn’t all on him to run those same routes — is going to help us get back to where we need to be, because the run game has been pretty consistent. We had a good two-headed monster last year with James [Starks] and Eddie, and it starts with that in order to make play-action well.”
Real talk: Rodgers struggled through poor stretches last season, missing easy throws he used to make in his sleep. The receivers dropped catchable passes. The offensive line struggled to adapt to injuries. The running backs, namely Lacy, were disappointing overall. The tight ends — save for Richard Rodgers’ Miracle in Motown catch — were barely a factor in the passing game.
Aaron Rodgers said that there’s been a bit of embarrassment with the entire offense’s statistical production last season — did you realize the Packers ranked 29th in yards per play in 2015? — and that it’s their goal not to tax the defense by having such a spotty, start-and-start offense.
“We have a standard we’ve set around here,” Rodgers said. “We all, myself included, came up short last year. We came up short in those categories. So we’ve got to back to doing what we do best on offense: being consistent and take some pressure off our defense.”
Defensively, there appears to be a glass ceiling: The unit can be good, very good perhaps, but unlikely great. It kept opponents to 20 points or fewer 11 out of 18 games (including postseason), and the high point totals allowed to the Carolina Panthers and Arizona Cardinals were perhaps a bit misleading to the naked eye. If the Packers only slightly improve on that side of the ball, that should be ample — but that’s assuming the offense returns to its pre-2015 levels.
“There’s no reason it can’t,” Sitton said. “We have the goods. We just need to put it all together and not let things like injuries sidetrack us. I think all of us expect very good things this year.”
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