GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Almost immediately following what some viewed as the changing of the guard in the NFC North -- the Minnesota Vikings’ Week 17 win at Lambeau Field that ended the Green Bay Packers’ four-year run atop the division -- an NFL scout offered this warning to anyone who dared write off Aaron Rodgers & Co.:
“They had their worst year offensively, and they were still playing for the division [title] on the last week of the year,” the scout said. “They’ll get [Jordy] Nelson back next year, and I bet they add a weapon or two in the offseason.”
It’s true, the Packers fielded their worst offensive team in the Mike McCarthy era, ranking 23rd overall and 25th in passing. Still, they managed a 10-6 regular season -- just one game worse than Minnesota's best season since 2009.
And they were once again ravaged by injuries, Nelson’s preseason torn ACL being the biggest one, yet still they were one of the last eight teams playing on divisional playoff weekend.
If you believe Nelson and those who watched him rehab his knee, he should return as good as (if not better than) ever. The coaches still are high on young receivers Ty Montgomery (who did not play after Week 6 of his rookie year because of an ankle injury) and Davante Adams (who had a disappointing second season). And then there’s Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis, who barely got on the field in the regular season yet produced in last weekend’s overtime loss at Arizona.
You’d expect a different Eddie Lacy after McCarthy set an ultimatum by calling him out for being overweight and then firing his position coach, Sam Gash. With Lacy heading into a contract year, it’s reasonable to expect he will play more like he did in his first two years, when he put up consecutive 1,100-yard seasons, than he did in 2015 with just 758 yards.
And if the scout was right and the Packers give Rodgers another weapon, say a stretch-the-field tight end, that could be the final piece necessary to return the offense to what it was just two years ago, when Rodgers won his second MVP.
Based on what McCarthy said at his season wrap-up news conference, it sounds like he will urge general manager Ted Thompson to find one.
“Philosophically, to me, to have a successful passing game you have to have big targets that can run through the middle of the field -- whether it’s a tight end, whether it’s a big receiver,” McCarthy said. “You look at the production of Jordy when he went inside [to the slot position], now you’re dictating to the defense what coverage they can play to you. When you don’t have that element or the element to complement that, you see what we saw this year.”
Sure, it’s reasonable to look at the Packers, who won their lone Super Bowl with Rodgers five years ago, and conclude that their window is closing.
However, this team is just a year removed from an NFC Championship Game appearance, and it finally has a defense good enough to win a title as long as the offense reclaims its place among the NFL’s best.
“We won, what, 10 regular-season games this year?” Packers defensive back Micah Hyde said. “Won a playoff game. But man, this has been the toughest winning season I’ve ever been a part of. Week in and week out, win or lose was brutal, and I really don’t understand it. I don’t know if it was just the mentality that we should be doing better than what we were or the whole outside world saying we should’ve beat this team by more or stuff like that.
“I think all that adversity we had this year is going to help us out in the future. We thought it was going to give us a longer playoff run, but it came to an end.”
As McCarthy said in wrapping up the season, the Packers were “a successful football team this year; we just did not reach the level of success that we wanted to attain.”
A 10-6 record and a playoff win might not be a sign of a decline but rather a remarkable accomplishment in a so-called down season.
“You look back and reflect, and it was a tough year,” veteran kicker Mason Crosby said. “We had to battle a lot and kept working. You can’t teach that kind of stuff. You can’t put that into people through words. The group we have here is special. Obviously every year at this time it’s hard because you’re looking around and you’re like, ‘What is this team going to look like next year?’
“It could look different but hopefully we come back next year, and it’s that same tenacity and that same desire. If you have that, you’re going to win games and be successful. You just have to hope everything falls into place a little bit differently.”