GREEN BAY - It was the day after the Green Bay Packers’ divisional playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals in January and cornerback Damarious Randall was reflecting on the season he and fellow 2015 draft pick Quinten Rollins had just completed.
Randall’s season had ended with a glaring error that contributed to the game-deciding touchdown in overtime and Rollins’ had ended with a string of solid performances in place of injured Sam Shields.
Both had learned a lot in their rookie seasons.
“We just have to take it one year at a time because you never really know how guys are going to progress and develop,” Randall said as he cleared out his locker. “Just from the look of things, I think we both had a very, very successful rookie year.
“And I mean, each year in the NFL is different. Just looking forward, I’m excited about the future and just kind of looking forward to it.”
As the Packers’ top two picks in the 2015 draft – Randall in the first round and Rollins in the second – there was reason to believe the two of them would be cogs in the most talented secondary the team has had since Super Bowl XLV.
Ten months later, they’re part of the worst injury epidemic at a single position the Packers have had in years.
And it’s a big reason the Packers are 4-5 and in crisis.
Shields (concussion) is on injured reserve, Randall (groin surgery) is probably two weeks or so away from returning and Rollins is playing catch-up after missing offseason workouts (thumb) and the better part of three games (groin) in the middle of the season.
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“We obviously weren’t practicing in the offseason for us three to be out,” Randall said Wednesday. “I mean, that’s a tough assignment to ask any defense, you take away their top three corners in the middle of the season.”
The Packers couldn’t ask much more from another second-year corner, LaDarius Gunter, who has taken over Shields’ spot, which had been handed off to Randall and should have been handed off again to Rollins. But with Demetri Goodson (suspension) out for the first four games and then suffering a concussion in his third game back, the secondary has been paper-thin.
Opposing quarterbacks have been cleaning up on what’s left.
Only three teams have allowed a higher opponent passer rating than the Packers’ 101.4 mark. Opponents have connected on 32 pass plays of 20 or more yards (tied for ninth most) and six plays of 40 or more yards (tied for 12th most).
During the Packers' three-game losing streak, opposing quarterbacks have thrown eight touchdown passes and two interceptions.
The only cornerback with an interception is Randall (one).
“The guys, they’ve been fighting through it and the coaching staff, they’ve done a great job making adjustments,” Randall said. “We’re going to continue improving and see how it goes.”
There’s no question it wasn’t supposed to go like this.
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Losing Shields probably has been more damaging than anything else this season because of the pressure he took off the other secondary members as well as the pass rush. When Shields is in the lineup, the safeties can help others because they know the veteran corner won’t need it.
Randall was drafted to be Shields’ complement, but when he was put in the shutdown position after Week 1, he struggled. He hurt his groin in Week 2, so it’s possible he would have settled into a better place as the season wore on, but he’ll be starting over when he returns.
“I don’t think I’m going to miss a beat,” countered Randall. “Once I’m back, I’m going to be back. There’s going to be no (seeing how) the injury goes.”
In the meantime, the Packers need Rollins to play like he belongs.
The coaches knew it would take him longer to show who he was going to be because he played only one year of college football and so missing the offseason workouts and then having his season interrupted have set him back.
In his two games back, his performance has been disappointing. He was benched in favor of Goodson in the 47-25 loss Sunday at Tennessee after giving up a 33-yard touchdown. It wasn’t the way he responded last year when filling in for Shields.
“Good things are going to happen to you, bad things are going to happen to you, that’s just how life goes,” Rollins said. “It’s about what you do after, how you respond. I’m a pretty even-keel guy. Not too much is going to rattle my cage.
“I just want to continue to progress. There’s going to be growing pains, which I’m going to fight through. There’s a reason you go through it, you get through it and you learn from it.”
Asked if he thought this season felt disjointed given the offseason injury and the midseason injury, Rollins said that was the wrong word.
He said it’s been “weird.”
“Obviously, everyone wants their season to run smooth from beginning to end and just have an amazing year,” Rollins said. “Nine times out of 10 that’s not the case; you’re fighting through something.
“The splash hasn’t been there this year like it was last year, but that’s part of the growing process. That’s part of becoming a pro. It's part of dealing with the ups and downs.”
The question that remains is whether Rollins can straighten out his inconsistencies and Randall can rebound from injury in time for it to matter. Time is running out with road games against Washington and Philadelphia staring the Packers in the face.
This corner thing has to get solved fast because Kirk Cousins, Carson Wentz and all the quarterbacks on the Packers’ schedule after that are just salivating over the chance to pile on to what Dak Prescott, Matt Ryan, Andrew Luck and Marcus Mariota have done over the past five weeks.
“It’s never too late,” Randall said. “We still control our own destiny. Nobody said you have to be 15-1 to make the playoffs, nobody said you have to be 14-2 to win the Super Bowl. So, that being said, all of our goals are intact.
“This injury just unfortunately happened. It was a setback and hopefully once I get through it I’m going to finish out the year strong. It’s not how you start the season, but finish.”