D'Amato: For the Packers this season, the goals haven't changed
Almost every year since Brett Favre ascended into the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the NFL in the mid-1990s, the Green Bay Packers have started the season with a realistic chance to make it to the Super Bowl.
Some years the roster has been deeper and more talented than others, but for the most part playing into late January has been an expectation – in the locker room and among the team’s far-flung fan base – for a quarter-century.
Nineteen playoff appearances, 21 playoff victories and just two sub-.500 seasons in 25 years constitute an astounding run. Packers fans born after 1985 are spoiled. They have no idea what it’s like to cheer for a bottom-feeder.
In contrast, the Cincinnati Bengals haven’t won a postseason game in 26 years, the Buffalo Bills in 21 and the Cleveland Browns in 19. The Detroit Lions are 0-9 in playoff games since 1991. And 15 franchises still have not won a Super Bowl.
You can criticize Mike McCarthy, Ted Thompson and/or Dom Capers all you want – and many do – but continuity and consistency are tenets of success in the NFL. In Green Bay, there is a long track record of good drafting and salary cap management along with solid coaching and player development.
And, of course, it doesn’t hurt to have had Nos. 4 and 12 under center.
The Packers go into the 2017 season with the same lofty expectations. It’s perhaps McCarthy’s most-talented team, one that should win the NFC North Division for the sixth time in seven years.
The Packers’ two-deep is not without holes, but the same can be said of every team in the league. Depth (quality, not quantity) on the offensive line is the biggest concern, followed closely by the defense’s ability to get to the quarterback and, by extension, cover receivers on the back end. The running game is a mystery.
On many teams the strengths aren’t enough to offset the weaknesses, but that’s not the case in Green Bay.
Aaron Rodgers is coming off a 4,428-yard, 40-touchdown season and is a master of McCarthy’s version of the West Coast offense. At 33, he’s still at his physical peak.
Rodgers can distribute the ball to three starting-caliber tight ends, NFL comeback player of the year Jordy Nelson and essentially two other 1,000-yard receivers in Randall Cobb and Davante Adams. The group is so good that Thompson cut fifth-round draft pick DeAngelo Yancey and seventh-rounder Malachi Dupree.
The offensive line ranks among the top four or five units in the league, as long as tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga stay healthy.
Caught short at running back last year, Thompson drafted Jamaal Williams, Aaron Jones and Devante Mays and all made the 53-man roster. Converted receiver Ty Montgomery is the nominal starter.
None of them is Eddie Lacy, but the Packers don’t need a 1,000-yard rusher in order to score a lot of points. They need someone who can pick up the blitz, hang onto the ball, catch passes out of the backfield and grind out 2 yards on third and 1.
McCarthy talks a lot about the importance of the ground game and while he undoubtedly means what he says, it doesn’t carry over to the way he calls plays. Last year the team’s running backs averaged 18 carries a game, a number not likely to be exceeded in 2017.
The defense might be only marginally better than it was last year, when it ranked 31st against the pass and looked overmatched some weeks and out of sorts others. Capers’ “nitro” package might help and if Ahmad Brooks offers something as a pass rusher, all the better.
But the defense just needs to be adequate because the Packers are built to outscore opponents. They scored 432 points last year and it’s not unreasonable to expect them to exceed that total this year.
Barring a spate of injuries to the wrong players, anything short of the NFC Championship Game should be viewed as failure.