Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers and head coach Mike McCarthy wait for the officials to review Jordy Nelson's touchdown against the San Diego Chargers during the game at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011. The call on the field, a touchdown, stood. / File/Press-Gazette
It seems like a simple question, but the answer isn’t so easy.
Are the Green Bay Packers better than they were last year?
Not even team members can provide a straight answer.
“It’s hard to tell,” said tackle Bryan Bulaga. “Last year’s team won it all. It’s hard to tell right now but it’s definitely moving in the right direction.
“We’re better than we were last year by this particular point. At this point I guess you could say yeah, but the end result, we don’t know yet.”
At 8-0, the 2011 Packers are better off than the 2010 team (5-3) at mid-season. But their success has fluctuated wildly between offense and defense.
The Packers are on pace to score more points and produce more yards than any other team in the history of the franchise. But they are also on schedule to give up more yards than any Packers team has ever allowed.
No wonder some players would rather avoid comparisons.
“I really try not to compare the two teams,” said center Scott Wells. “That was last year’s team, this is this year’s team. I think we have built off last year’s team and we’ve been able to carry some of that success into this year, but we’re by no means playing our best football yet. We’ve noticed each week that there’s areas we have to improve in all three facets of the game.”
Some areas need more work than others, based on key statistics comparing the 2010 Super Bowl champion Packers to this year’s unbeaten team.
Three starters have changed since the Super Bowl: left guard T.J. Lang replaced departed free agent Daryn Colledge, left tackle Marshall Newhouse is filling in for the injured Chad Clifton, and tight end Jermichael Finley is back from a season-ending injury. Receiver Donald Driver remains a starter in name only with Jordy Nelson getting more snaps and catches.
None of those changes, however, has boosted the offense more than the superior performance of Aaron Rodgers, who is threatening to produce the greatest season of any quarterback in NFL history.
Rodgers’ numbers are crazy good. If he keeps this up, he will break league records for passing yards, completion percentage and passer rating and will finish with 48 touchdown passes and six interceptions.
Sure, football is a team game, but Rodgers is proving that the impact of one player can overshadow inadequacies in other areas.
Remember the short-sighted fans in 2008 who said he couldn’t win? Rodgers has silenced those critics by leading the Packers to a 39-21 record (.650) in 3½ years as a starter, which has surpassed Brett Favre’s 173-103 career record (.627) with the team.
The offense is so much better than last year that the projected full-season statistics are best compared to the team’s all-time records:
• 550 points would smash the 2009 record of 461.
• 66 touchdowns would trump the 1996 record of 56.
• 6,662 total yards would shatter the 2004 mark of 6,357.
• 4,992 passing yards would surpass the 1983 record of 4,688.
“Those are great stories for you guys to write about but for us in this locker room, we’re more focused on just outscoring our opponent,” said Wells. “And trying to improve as an offensive football team.”
Two starters are different from the Super Bowl team. Safety Morgan Burnett has in effect replaced Nick Collins, who was lost with a season-ending neck injury, and Jarius Wynn serves as the replacement for departed free agent Cullen Jenkins.
Not all the problems can be blamed on the loss of Jenkins, but it was a major hit that could have been prevented had General Manager Ted Thompson been willing to pay to keep him.
It’s possible Thompson’s hand-picked successor to Jenkins, Mike Neal, will return from the injured list and make a significant contribution down the stretch. But that’s asking a lot for a player that has stayed healthy for just two games in 1½ seasons.
The loss of Collins, a three-time Pro Bowl player, was a huge blow that has produced a ripple effect throughout the secondary.
The defense is worse than last year — in some areas significantly so. The unit is projected to give up 6,394 total yards, which is just 9 yards shy of a franchise-worst 6,403 allowed in 1983.
The Packers are also on pace to surrender a shocking 4,794 passing yards, which would obliterate the franchise-worst record of 3,762 set in 1983.
Blame for the shortcomings of the pass defense goes beyond the secondary. The pass rush is lacking compared to 2010, with a projected 38 sacks falling nine behind last year despite opponents throwing more often.
The Packers have also slipped from No. 2 last season in points allowed to No. 17 this year, and their third-down defense has tumbled from No. 9 to No. 27.
The Packers would have to allow an average of just 7.6 points in their eight remaining games to match last year’s defensive point total.
Not all is doom and gloom, however. The Packers are on pace to intercept 32 passes, which would be the team’s highest total since 1943. They have also returned three picks for touchdowns, which is halfway to the single-season team record of six.
The Packers also rank No. 8 against the run. Plus, they have stopped opponents in the fourth quarter from scoring a tying or go-ahead touchdown four times.
The Packers’ first kickoff return for a touchdown in 11 years — by rookie Randall Cobb in the opener — was one of the bright spots.
The Packers’ return game has improved with the average kickoff runback jumping from 20.1 yards to 26.1 and punt returns improving from 7.9 to 8.3. But their coverage units have regressed on kickoffs (21.8 average by opponents to 25.3) and punts (11.0 to 17.5).
Overall, special teams are better this year because of Mason Crosby, who is 15 for 15 on field goals, including a team-record 58-yarder, and 29 touchbacks out of 54 kickoffs.
The Packers’ turnover margin of plus-11 ranks No. 3 in the NFL (No. 4 last year) and they are on pace to tie the team record for fewest turnovers in a season (16).
In another indication of a disciplined team, the Packers rank No. 1 in the NFL in fewest penalty yards (No. 3 in 2010).
Lofty rankings for turnover margin and penalties stem in part from solid coaching. The Packers are in good hands with sixth-year head coach Mike McCarthy, who is getting better every season and won’t allow his players to get too full of themselves.
Perhaps McCarthy’s sternest challenge yet will be to figure out how to improve on an 8-0 start.