If the Packers Were a Song:
Lloyd Banks - "The First Me"
Who Are the Packers?:
Remember how early on we all liked this team as a potential dark horse for the Super Bowl? The Packers are offended that you think they need your condescending nods toward them being “potentially good” or “sneakily talented.” This team is great. It was built to be great. Hell, it was built to be obviously, over-the-top, scoreboard turning and headline grabbing great. Yet for some reason we all ignore all evidence to the contrary and relegate this team to some sort of feel good story, as if Aaron Rodgers needed our pity or Charles Woodson needed a pat on the back for being such a trooper in his old age. Except this isn’t a nice traditional team that plays the game respectably; rather, this is the same kind of unconventional, sometimes flashy and sometime infuriating behemoth that the Pittsburgh Steelers became en route to the Super Bowl last season. And make no mistakes, this team will have every right to be disappointed if they don’t see similar results.
We should start by getting the obvious out of the way: Aaron Rodgers is bigger than the Favre beef. Yes, Favre has put together an amazing season in Minnesota, but he also has a top tier offensive line, a big target to throw to, and either the best or second best running back in the league. Rodgers, on the other hand, has been sacked a league leading 50 times, doesn’t have a receiver over 6’1”, and is stuck with a mediocre rush attack that benefits from a spread offense and a lack of respect from defenses (Rodgers averaged more rushing yards per attempt than any of his backs, and had more attempts than all but one, Grant, who put up a pedestrian 4.4 yard average). Through all of that, Rodgers has put up 30 TDs to a ridiculously low 7 INTs (tied with, ha ha, Brett Favre for the lowest among full season starters), and has a 4th best yards per attempt average of 8.20 (and he threw more at least 27 more passes than everyone ahead of him). More importantly, he’s evolved over the course of the season from a QB with eyes bigger than his internal clock (many of the early sacks were as much his fault as his line’s) to a mobile, quick release field general who has learned to look for receivers breaking into open zones. Far from being an adequate Favre replacement, Rodgers is performing at a more efficient level than Favre could possibly have performed in Green Bay, and with each game since the Tampa Bay debacle has picked up the kind of swagger that comes with a mean chip on his shoulder.
Of course, Rodgers owes much of his success to one of the most underrated receiving units in the league. Certainly, nobody on this squad except for Jennings brings any elite skill to the table. Donald Driver is fast, but is 34, and the rest of the gang ranges from B to B+. Even Jennings lacks elite speed, though he makes up for it with quickness that still gets underrated by defenders. Yet taken as a whole, the result is something akin to a swarm of bees, overwhelming a defense by its lack of a defined focus, turning a million little stings into poison for coverage schemes and zone defenses. It’s almost a perfect reflection of the 2007 Patriots offense (Driver = Stallworth, Finley = Watson, Jones = Gaffney, Nelson = Welker) with the only exception being Greg Jennings. Before you point out what a big difference that is, watch what Jennings can do to closing corners and safeties after the catch or breaking into routes with a simple twist in his hips, and ask yourself if maybe his ability to work underneath makes him more fit for this offense than Favre’s much cherished Randy Moss.
The defense is an opportunistic nightmare for quarterbacks. The league’s leading rush defense dares offenses to take to the skies, only to find that the pass defense is equally talented (7th in the league overall) and thrives on the kinds of mistakes pass happy offenses inevitably make (1st in the league in INTs). The LB nightmare trio of Hawk, Barnett, and Matthews allows blitz schemes that most teams can only dream about. Meanwhile, Charles Woodson and Atari Bigby are out to prove just how soft receivers are, manhandling pass catchers and taking them out of position just long enough to beat them to their marks. Even with Harris injured, Bigby has more than stepped in to keep this secondary every bit as mean as when it was run by two grumpy old corners, something that bodes well for the future.
All of this has led to an 11-5 record that matches all but two teams in the NFC. Yet we doubt the Packers because they’ve committed the sin of being a traditional team that defies the league’s great traditions. Pass attacks are for the flashy showboats, not for the pillars of the shield (go ahead and look at the last few Super Bowl winners…it’s OK, I’ll wait). Oh, and without an offensive line, a quarterback doesn’t have the safety to comfortably sit back and plot out his attack, as all quarterbacks must do (ahem…BEN ROETHLISBERGER 2008...). Certainly, none of these criticisms are without merit. The ability to grind out a ball game helps in cold weather games…except the Packers may very well play every playoff game in a covered stadium. And for all of the woes at offensive line, Rodgers seems to have learned to excel within its unique (read: chaotic) framework. At the very least, this team has moved beyond being a right-way tourney entrant just happy to be there (see: Bengals). And whether they win or lose, lets all agree that we’re done talking about this squad as though they were anything other than a firework of a team, built for spectacles (see: the pass attack and the secondary) and not for sustained simple joy (see: the o-line and the injuries/age at corner). They’ve earned the right to be appreciated as the fever dream they are.