GREEN BAY – Had the Green Bay Packers not enjoyed three of their first four games at home, benefited from a call or two or failed to get a couple of defensive linemen to fall for quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ hard count, they might be looking at the first quarter of their season a little differently.
But unlike their opponent Sunday, the Dallas Cowboys, who stumbled last Sunday against the Los Angeles Rams at AT&T Stadium, the Packers came out of an injury-filled September without an unexpected loss at home and owners of a 3-1 record.
Despite their 22 starters playing just 71.8 percent of a possible 5,676 combined snaps, the Packers head into a showdown against the Cowboys (2-2) in Arlington, Texas, tied with five other teams for the best record in the NFC.
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Had they not muscled through a tight game against Seattle or eked out an overtime victory against Cincinnati, they would be in a much worse position than they were last year heading into a Week 6 game against the Cowboys at Lambeau Field.
And that 30-16 loss was a turning point in their season, the first of five losses in six games.
The Packers are at similar crossroads this season, but what they should be most encouraged about is that they survived September despite:
» Having their starting tackles, David Bakhtiari (hamstring) and Bryan Bulaga (ankle), on the field for just 22.8 percent of the offensive snaps.
» Having a true tackle available to fill only 270 of the 437 (61.5 percent) of the combined snaps Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga missed.
» Having arguably their best defensive player, Mike Daniels, on the field for only 19.3 percent of the defensive snaps.
» Having their most veteran cornerback, Davon House, on the field for only 42 percent of the defensive snaps.
» Having their 2016 sack leader, Nick Perry, play just 54.9 percent of the snaps, 67 percent of those with a broken hand.
According to the website mangameslost.com, the Packers have the seventh-most games lost to injury of any team in the NFL with 30, including Don Barclay (injured reserve) and Vince Biegel (physically unable to perform). Of the seven teams with the most games lost to injury, New England (sixth, not counting Thursday night's game), Denver (fifth), Detroit (third) and the Packers are the only teams with winning records.
The overriding theme of the first quarter of the season has been survival for a lot of teams.
It’s something the Cowboys understand to some degree also.
Their best defensive player, linebacker Sean Lee, has been beat up and might not play Sunday. Another starter, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, hasn’t played a down this season. Imposing defensive end David Irving sat out the first four games because of suspension and left tackle Tyron Smith is dealing with back issues that have afflicted him before.
“Like every team in the league, you're going to have guys who are in the lineup and out of the lineup for a variety of reasons,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said. “Hopefully you've (shaped) your roster in such a way you can just put the next guy in and have confidence in that guy.
“The nature of the NFL is that sometimes it's hard to have experienced veteran backups at every position, so when guys go out hopefully you have an experienced guy that you like or a guy that you're excited about who gets the first opportunity to play.”
Unquestionably, general manager Ted Thompson did coach Mike McCarthy a huge favor by adding veteran street free agents in the form of House, guard Jahri Evans, tight end Lance Kendricks, linebacker Ahmad Brooks and defensive tackles Quinton Dial and Ricky Jean Francois.
House helped limit the amount defensive coordinator Dom Capers had to depend on unreliable cornerbacks Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins; Evans made it so McCarthy wasn’t dealing with three spots on the offensive line manned with inexperience; Kendricks’ 51-yard catch on the first play of the second half helped turn the Cincinnati game around; and Brooks, Dial and Jean Francois have mitigated the loss of Daniels and Perry.
But McCarthy also swallowed his pride and gave his inexperienced tackles help throughout much of the first four games even though it watered down considerably the high-octane passing game and no-huddle tempo he favors.
Now that the team is getting healthy — it’s possible Bakhtiari, Bulaga, Daniels and House all will be available for the Cowboys game — McCarthy’s next challenge is to get all systems running at full capacity, something he couldn’t do until Week 12 last season when aspirations of home-field advantage turned into desperation to win the next game.
“When you're in a development and training, that's a very common pattern,” McCarthy said of having to restart the system. “You go into training camp feeling really good, then you have that dip, you're going to go through adversity.
“The most important thing is to keep the climb going into the most important part of the season. History will tell you that we've been able to do that.”
In many ways, the dip caused by injury has left the Packers as a team trying to find itself, although on the defensive side the emergence of rookie defensive backs Kevin King and Josh Jones has stabilized the secondary and given Capers freedom to play multiple personnel combinations.
Offensively, the Packers have not looked like the team that took off in the second half of the season last year. They rank 16th in total yards, 28th in rushing and 10th in passing.
Rodgers has three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, and has been sacked 15 times. He ranks eighth in passer rating (100.7), 16th in yards per attempt (7.2) and seventh in completion percentage (66.9).
Those are numbers he and the Packers will want to see improve, but they’re going to have to figure out what their offense is going to be and how they’re going to be more explosive with a short-area tight end, an oft-injured running back and no speed burner among their top four receivers.
“We’re still developing, we’re still improving,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “But some of the things that we talk about as far as the starting point, obviously creating that play style, I think probably more than anything else, that’s what we want.”
Having Bakhtiari and Bulaga return full time will go a long way toward the offense being free to find itself. But much still must be learned about Montgomery’s durability, Martellus Bennett’s productivity and the long-term health of the entire unit.
All of it is much easier to accept when you’re 3-1.
“This is a tough league,” receiver Randall Cobb said. “To be 3-1 after four is good for us, obviously with the injuries and not playing to full capacity. But it’s a long season and anything can happen over the next two-three months.”