A look back at the top stories of the 2016 Packers season
Mike McCarthy stood in front of a large media contingent on July 25, 2016. And McCarthy uttered words that he’s said time and time again during his 11 years as Green Bay’s head coach.
“No. 1 it’s about winning the world championship,” McCarthy said of the Packers’ goals. “It’s part of our everyday fiber here in Green Bay.”
Every day, every year, it’s ‘Super Bowl or Bust’ in Green Bay. And while the Packers had a respectable 12-7 season that saw them win the NFC North and reach the conference championship game, they’d all agree it wasn’t enough.
Atlanta destroyed the Packers, 44-21, in the conference title game. And Green Bay knows reaching the NFL’s Final Four isn’t good enough.
“It’s always championship or bust with us,” Packers linebacker Joe Thomas said. “We feel like we have the team that can win it. We came up short this year, but we fought to get back in position and I’m proud of that. We’re close man. Really close.”
Here’s a list of top-10 Packers stories of the year, as voted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Packer Plus staff:
No. 10: HAIL MARY III
Green Bay’s offense was headed nowhere fast.
The Packers led the New York Giants, 7-6, late in the first half of their wild-card game last month. And with Jordy Nelson out with broken ribs, Green Bay needed a lift.
Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb delivered.
On the final play of the first half, Rodgers sent a high-arcing ball to the back of the end zone. Cobb snuck behind three Giants defenders, somehow kept his feet in bounds and hauled in a miraculous 42-yard touchdown that gave the Packers a 14-6 lead.
Green Bay went on to rout the Giants, 38-13.
“My job on that play is to kind of box out and give our jumper a little space to jump,” Cobb said. “But I got behind the defense and was able to nudge a guy and make the catch.”
Many Hail Mary passes are tipped, then hauled in for scores. This one, though, was a clean strike between Rodgers and Cobb.
“Yeah, I haven’t seen that,” Rodgers said. “Usually there’s some sort of tip. When it’s that high it’s tough to judge for the receivers and defensive backs. And because there was a cluster there, Randall just kind of slipped through and slipped to the back.”
Amazingly, it was Rodgers’ third Hail Mary completion for a touchdown in just 13 months.
Rodgers hit Richard Rodgers with a 61-yard Hail Mary on the final play of a 2016 win in Detroit. Rodgers also connected with Jeff Janis on a 41-yard Hail Mary strike on the final play of regulation to force overtime in the 2016 NFC divisional playoffs.
“That’s three in the last, you know, calendar year or so, a little more than that,” Rodgers said. “It’s fun. Every single time it’s fun. I think we’re starting to believe any time that ball goes up there we’ve got a chance. I can throw it pretty good, but it’s got to happen on the other end as well.”
It happened on both ends. And perhaps Packers defensive end Letroy Guion summed it up best.
“Well, when you have a legend throwing the ball, anything can happen,” Guion said.
9. DRAFT PICKS HAVE LOTS TO PROVE
The lifeblood of Ted Thompson’s teams are players he drafts. The Packers GM likes his team to consist of players he knows, trusts and that are developed in Green Bay.
That approach requires Thompson to bat at an extremely high clip with his draft picks. Today, it doesn’t look particularly promising for Thompson’s 2016 draft class.
The group of defensive tackle Kenny Clark, offensive tackle Jason Spriggs, outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell, inside linebacker Blake Martinez, defense end Dean Lowry, wideout Trevor Davis and offensive tackle Kyle Murphy offered minimal contributions, at best. Green Bay’s top undrafted free agent was wideout Geronimo Allison.
Clark, the 27th overall pick in the 2016 draft, had a respectable rookie year, but was far from dominant. Clark finished the year with 21 tackles, had two fumble recoveries, two passes defensed and zero sacks.
Martinez made nine starts and finished with 69 tackles, an interception and four passes defensed. Allison caught 12 passes, two touchdowns and was in Green Bay’s top four wideouts by season’s end.
The rest of the class showed little, though.
8. COOK HIGHLIGHTS FREE AGENCY MOVES
Ted Thompson traditionally sits and watches during the free agency period. In 2016, though, Thompson got off the bench and took a few shots.
Interestingly, Thompson drilled most of them.
Thompson’s signing of free agent tight end Jared Cook gave Mike McCarthy’s offense the speedy, stretch-the-field player it had lacked for nearly three seasons. Cook was a massive upgrade from Richard Rodgers and helped McCarthy’s offense resemble the unit it once was with Jermichael Finley.
“I’ve talked about it since I got here, the fastest way to the end zone is through the middle of the field,” McCarthy said. “So the bigger target you have going down the field the better it is for your quarterback, particularly more athletic, bigger throwing radius and all of that. Jared Cook has all of those attributes.”
The Packers also re-signed their own notable free agents in linebacker Nick Perry, kicker Mason Crosby and defensive end Letroy Guion. Green Bay’s biggest loss in free agency was cornerback Casey Hayward, who was named to the Pro Bowl with San Diego.
7. MONTGOMERY KEEPS PACKERS RUNNING
Eddie Lacy was supposed to be Green Bay’s bellcow in the backfield this season. That didn’t happen as Lacy suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Week 6.
James Starks had been a reliable backup for years. Not in 2016, though, when Starks was a shell of his former self before suffering a season-ending concussion.
Green Bay’s running back situation in 2016 was a mess. Fortunately for the Packers, Ty Montgomery was around to put a band-aid on a bullet wound.
Montgomery led Green Bay with 457 rushing yards and finished the year with three rushing TDs. Montgomery also caught 44 passes — most coming out of the backfield — for 348 yards (7.9).
Montgomery, who hadn’t played running back since his freshman year in high school, displayed terrific vision and timing through the hole. And the Packers believe with an off-season of fine-tuning, Montgomery could have a bright future at the position.
As Montgomery left Green Bay at season’s end, he told head coach Mike McCarthy he wanted to change his number from 88 to one worn by a running back. And Montgomery’s off-season will be spent trying to build up his lower body to handle the pounding running backs take.
“Talking with Ty in his exit interview, he’s a running back,” McCarthy said. “So he’ll spend the whole off-season clearly working at the running back position. Obviously the ability to flex out and play receiver and those types of things will be his secondary responsibility. But he’ll be on the depth chart as a running back.”
The Packers don’t have much else at the position right now. So they’ll certainly add depth via free agency or the draft.
For now, though, Montgomery appears to be the future.
“I wouldn’t say it surprises us,” Packers offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said of Montgomery. “I think going into it you knew he had the toughness and that’s the starting point, the attitude of it.”
6. NELSON, PASSING OFFENSE RETURN TO FORM
Jordy Nelson was coming off a devastating knee injury that took away his entire 2015 season. Davante Adams had flopped miserably in his bid to step into Nelson’s shoes.
As a result, Green Bay’s passing offense in 2015 was a disaster, plummeting to No. 25 in football. That was the Packers’ poorest ranking since the 1987 strike-shortened season.
What a difference a year makes.
Nelson enjoyed a memorable return, led the NFL with 14 touchdown passes and won Comeback Player of the Year honors. Nelson also finished fifth in the league in receptions and sixth in total yards (1,257).
Adams finished second on the team in receptions (75) and receiving yards (997). Adams also tied for second in the NFL with 12 touchdown receptions.
Green Bay jumped to seventh in passing offense (262.4) and scored 432 points after scoring just 368 in 2015.
Not only were the Packers greatly improved at wideout, they made substantial gains at tight end.
Jared Cook, a free agent acquisition last March, gave the Packers their best tight end since Jermichael Finley. The Packers went 10-3 this year when Cook played and 2-4 when he didn’t. In Green Bay’s final six games (including the postseason), Cook had 31 catches for 417 yards and two touchdowns.
“We made a lot of improvements from last year, no doubt about it,” Adams said. “But I think this group will still get a lot better. I’m excited about it.”
5. DANCING ON THE LINE
The NFL cutdown day in Green Bay is typically a predictable time. Ted Thompson rarely makes trades at the cutdown deadline. Thompson almost never makes surprise moves.
That’s why Sept. 3, 2016, will stick with people for a while.
On that day, Thompson released Josh Sitton, Green Bay’s best offensive guard since Gale Gillingham more than 40 years ago. The decision to release the 30-year-old Sitton — a three-time Pro Bowler who’s still near the top of his game — ranks as the greatest shocker in Thompson’s nearly 12-year run in Green Bay.
Afterward, Thompson hid from the media, forcing head coach Mike McCarthy to do his wet work.
“Josh obviously played a lot of excellent football here for the Packers,” McCarthy said. “We enjoyed a lot of success together over the last eight years. But with that, there’s a lot of things that go into this decision. This wasn’t just one thing. With that, it was tough.”
Sitton was immediately signed by NFC North rival Chicago. And career backup Lane Taylor was inserted into the starting left guard spot.
The Packers certainly weren’t better without Sitton, who had been their highest-rated lineman since 2009. But Green Bay’s front five went on to deliver a sensational season.
Green Bay’s offensive line allowed just 211/2 sacks. And on average, Aaron Rodgers had more time to throw than any quarterback.
Thanks in large part to the play of the offensive line, the Packers ranked seventh in passing offense (262.4), eighth in total offense (368.8) and a serviceable 20th in rushing offense (106.3).
Left tackle David Bakhtiari, who signed a four-year, $49.7 million deal one day before Green Bay’s regular-season opener in Jacksonville, had a brilliant season. Bakhtiari, 25, has added strength without sacrificing quickness and allowed a career-low 19 pressures this season. Bakhtiari also finished as Green Bay’s highest rated lineman, ranking No. 3 among all tackles by Pro Football Focus.
Right guard T.J. Lang ranked No. 8 among all guards by PFF, center Corey Linsley ranked 12th at his positional group, right tackle Bryan Bulaga ranked 16th among all tackles and Taylor finished 42nd among all guards.
Sitton was set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2016 season, and the Packers would have likely received a lucrative compensatory draft pick when he departed. For 2016, though, the Packers handled Sitton’s loss better than anyone could have imagined.
4. FAVRE HEADS TO THE HALL
They came from near and far. They had stories to tell, highlights to recapture, and a celebration of all celebrations to share.
Brett Lorenzo Favre, widely considered the greatest player in Green Bay Packers history, took his place among football immortals when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last August. Favre was also flanked by thousands of his friends.
Many former teammates and coaches who went to battle with Favre descended onto Canton, Ohio, where the NFL was founded in 1920. A sea of green also took over the town, as Packer fans packed 23,000-seat Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
“It’s almost like there’s no one else being inducted,” Packers president Mark Murphy said during the induction ceremony. “It really shows the passionate fans that we have. It’s just a great, great turnout.”
Favre became the 24th member of the Packers to take his place among the game’s all-time greats. That’s the second-highest number in NFL history, behind only Chicago (27).
In typical-Favre fashion, he wasn’t short, as his speech lasted 36 minutes, 28 seconds. Amazingly, Favre didn’t use a single note card, yet never seemed to miss a beat or stray from his message.
Favre was folksy, informative and entertaining. His speech was more about a football life than football itself. And to the surprise of no one, he stopped on four different occasions to fight back tears.
A large number of Favre’s former teammates came to Canton for the weekend’s festivities. Several current Packers including Murphy, Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy and players Aaron Rodgers and Mason Crosby came for the festivities, as well.
Favre played in an NFL-record 321 consecutive games (including playoffs). He set countless passing records during his time. And he did it his way, which captured the hearts of one of the NFL’s most passionate fan bases.
“What makes me most proud is how I played the game and being real, authentic and spontaneous,” Favre said near the end of his induction. “Loving the game to me is what it was all about.
“When I look back over my 20 years, I can honestly tell you … there was never one time where I did not give it all I could. I’ve said this to my daughters, and I’ll say it to any young person out there who is playing sports: Don’t ever look back and regret not doing your best. Lay it all on the line, and whatever happens, happens. But you won’t look back in regret.
“I don’t regret anything. It’s not to say I was perfect. I don’t regret anything, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
There was plenty to be proud of during a memorable Hall of Fame weekend.
3. SECONDARY IN SHAMBLES
Sam Shields was supposed to be the type of lockdown cornerback every NFL team needs. Youngsters Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins were expected to make the necessary steps towards becoming legitimate NFL starters.
None of those things happened. And Green Bay was left with one of the NFL’s poorest secondaries.
The Packers finished the year ranked No. 31 in passing yards allowed per game (269.2), 32nd in yards per completion (8.1) and 26th in opponent quarterback rating (95.9).
“It was a tough go at the cornerback position,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “We just really never had any consistency as far as who we were playing with in multiple weeks.”
According to Pro Football Focus, Rollins ranked No. 86 among 112 corners. Gunter ranked 98th and Randall was 109th. No NFL team had a trio that graded out poorer as a unit.
Gunter, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.67 seconds coming out of college and went undrafted, was asked to follow No. 1 receivers much of the year. For the most part, he was overmatched.
In 1,055 regular-season snaps, Gunter allowed eight touchdowns and didn’t have an interception. Opposing quarterbacks also had a 112.4 passer rating throwing at Gunter.
Randall, Green Bay’s No. 1 draft choice in 2015, gave up a team-high 10 touchdowns in just 692 snaps. Opposing quarterbacks completed 63.6% of their passes against Randall and had a 113.4 passer rating.
Rollins, a second-round pick in 2015, allowed seven touchdowns in 2016 after giving up zero as a rookie. Foes also had a 133.8 passer rating against Rollins and completed 71.4% of their passes.
The most dependable player was defensive back Micah Hyde, who will become an unrestricted free agent next month.
No. 2: A ROUGH ENDING
Deep down, Green Bay’s coaches, players and everyone associated with the team had to know they were playing with fire.
The Packers’ defense was a mess. Green Bay’s No. 1 cornerback was undrafted. The Packers’ No. 2 and 3 corners would have never sniffed the field for most playoff teams.
Green Bay survived its defensive shortcomings in playoff wins over the Giants and Cowboys. But the Packers’ defense was exposed in a 44-21 loss to Atlanta in the NFC title game.
“We just didn’t play good football at all,” Packers outside linebacker Julius Peppers said. “We didn’t execute very well. These are the kind of results you get when that happens.”
Green Bay has made the postseason eight straight years, winning the Super Bowl once in that time. But in the seven games where the Packers were eliminated, they’ve allowed a whopping 36.3 points per game.
On this night, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan finished with a passer rating of 139.4, the second-highest ever by an opposing quarterback in a playoff game against Green Bay. Ryan completed 27 of 38 passes (71.1%) for 392 yards, threw four touchdowns and didn’t have an interception.
Ryan’s numbers would have been even gaudier, but with the game well in hand, he threw just six passes in the second half.
“Today, they were throwing on us at will and we still didn’t break his rhythm,” Packers linebacker Clay Matthews said of Ryan. “That’s why they were able to put up points like that. We had some times where we were able to get him off the spot, but he made plays with his feet. He made plays out of the box. We just didn’t do enough.”
Green Bay’s offense wasn’t much better.
The Packers had chances to stay in the game early, but Mason Crosby missed a field goal and fullback Aaron Ripkowski fumbled deep in Atlanta territory. By halftime, the Falcons led, 24-0, and they eventually stretched that advantage to 31-0.
“It is definitely uncharacteristic of our football team,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of Green Bay’s early struggles. “Unfortunately, a game like this comes down to the little details. If you’re not on and you’re making little mistakes like that, it’s going to be tough to win against a really tough offense.”
The Packers were outcoached and outclassed, leaving them in search of their first Super Bowl title since 2010. Afterward, though, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy took the glass-half-full approach.
“They played the way they needed to play early and often, and we did not,” McCarthy said. “That’s really the reality — every year is its own season.
“This season, I’ll remember a lot more of the positives than the way it ended, that’s for sure. This was a hell of a season. This team provided a lot of great moments for me as a coach, for our organization, and hopefully our fans feel that way.”
No. 1 STORY: 'RUN THE TABLE'
The remark wasn’t off the cuff. Nothing ever is with Aaron Rodgers.
Green Bay’s quarterback chooses his words both carefully and prudently. And quite often, the message yields desired results.
That was certainly the case in 2016.
Rodgers stood at his locker on Nov. 23 with his Packers a disappointing 4-6 and a longshot to reach the playoffs. Green Bay had lost four straight games and its season was quickly slipping away.
Rodgers then surprised the large media gathering with a Joe Namath-like proclamation.
“I feel like we can run the table. I really do,” Rodgers said that day. “You just feel like it just takes one. We get one under our belts, things might start rolling for us and we can run the table.”
Run the table? Really?
Remember, at the time Rodgers made this statement, Green Bay was 9-13 in its previous 22 games. But sure enough, “run the table” is exactly what the 2016 Packers did.
Green Bay got red hot, won its final six regular-season games and rallied to win the NFC North for the fifth time in six years. The Packers also won their first two playoff games, before falling in Atlanta in the NFC Championship Game.
“We know the expectation, so we didn’t sit there at 4-6 and feel sorry for ourselves,” Packers center Corey Linsley said. “We didn’t reach our goals, but I am proud of how we responded when we responded to adversity. A lot of teams would have tapped out, but we never did.”
No, they didn’t.
Green Bay’s impressive run began with a 27-13 win in Philadelphia when it was a 4-point underdog. The Packers followed with home wins over eventual division winners Houston and Seattle, then got some late-game heroics from Rodgers and Jordy Nelson in a 30-27 win at Chicago.
Green Bay routed Minnesota on Christmas Eve, then defeated Detroit, 31-24, on New Year’s Day to win the division.
The Packers had run the regular-season table and entered the postseason as the No. 4 seed.
“This wasn’t just a shot in the dark,” Rodgers said that night in Detroit. “It was an optimistic belief in my teammates that we were going to start handling adversity better. I knew that started with the offense. We needed to play better, and I needed to play better.
“But I felt like if we can do that it would start to give the defense some confidence. And then ultimately if we just got one, if we just got that first win, then things could get rolling.”
Green Bay kept rolling in the postseason.
Despite the loss of Nelson to broken ribs, the Packers blew out the Giants, 38-13, in the wild-card round. Green Bay then stunned top-seeded Dallas, 34-31, in the divisional playoffs when clutch kicker Mason Crosby drilled a 51-yard FG on the final play of the game.
The fun ended one week later in Atlanta. But Green Bay’s “run the table” finish was a thrill for Packer Nation.
“I felt great about our football team the entire season,” Rodgers said. “We just went through some adversity and lost some games we should have won, which would have changed probably some of the playoff seedings.
“That’s what you have to do, you have to win those games in the regular season to give yourself an opportunity to host this (NFC championship) game, because it’s just so difficult to win on the road in this environment, against a hot team. So that needs to be the focus moving forward next year.”
Packer Plus is published 40 times a year by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.