Clock ticking on Packers' potential

Pete Dougherty
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Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy yells at the referee, disputing a call against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field in Detroit  on Dec. 3.

Mike McCarthy says he’s tired of the negativity around the Green Bay Packers.

He has a point.

His team is 10-5 and a win or tie away from its fifth-straight NFC North title. It’s heading to the playoffs for the seventh straight year and might host a game in the wild-card round.

No matter what happens in the playoffs, in 10 or 20 or 30 years this season will blend in with a sustained golden era in Packers history that dates to 1992.

But it’s just as true that the standards for the 2015 Packers are justifiably high, and that their offensive shortcomings are constantly picked apart in the news for good reason.

Their standard should be high because McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson have a rare opportunity. Teams with premier quarterbacks have a head start every season in the race to the Super Bowl. With Aaron Rodgers, who’s one of the three or four best in the league, the Packers should make a run at multiple championships. As great as the Brett Favre era was in Green Bay, the franchise has to be disappointed it didn’t yield at least a second Super Bowl title, and possibly more.

That’s clearly the mindset in Indianapolis since the Colts drafted Andrew Luck in 2012. After winning one Super Bowl (and losing another) in Peyton Manning’s 14 seasons, owner Jim Irsay has made public his mandate to win at least two Super Bowls in the “Luck era,” as he called it last spring.

Yes, that’s a high bar, and even one Super Bowl can be difficult to win with a Hall of Fame quarterback. Dan Marino and Jim Kelly are among the Hall of Famers who won a lot of games but never a title.

But another franchise, the New England Patriots, has shown the possibilities. In Tom Brady’s first 15 seasons, New England has won four Super Bowls and lost two others. In this, Brady’s 16th season, the Patriots remain a contender despite a horrible run of injuries that puts the Packers’ injury issues in perspective.

The Patriots are on their fourth left tackle of the season. They’ve played six games without their best wide receiver, Julian Edelman, and two more without another starting receiver, Danny Amendola. They lost their exciting third-down back, Dion Lewis, to a season-ending knee injury in early November. And their second-most important player, tight end Rob Gronkowski, has been hobbled by a sprained knee since late November.

Also, three of their best defensive players — Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower and Devin McCourty — have missed anywhere from two to four games because of injuries.

Yet the Patriots are 12-3 and a win away from attaining the top seeding in the AFC. They’ve been one of the best offenses in the league — No. 3 in scoring and No. 4 in yards — which bodes well for their postseason hopes if their health improves, as expected.

Seasons like this bolster Brady’s argument for best quarterback in league history. Regardless, he and the Patriots have set a standard for which the Packers and Colts should be shooting.

Remember, the Packers are a team that after winning the Super Bowl in 2010 looked poised for multiple titles. They had a young team — of their seven best players at the time, only one, Charles Woodson (34), was older than 27.

Yet five years later and no more Super Bowls. Rodgers now is 32, and the chances are dwindling.

This looked like a promising season going in for a team that was a botched onside-kick recovery from going to the Super Bowl last year. It returned essentially everyone from an offense that led the NFL in scoring.

Jordy Nelson’s knee injury in the preseason was big, no doubt, in a league where not much separates the best from the rest. But a deal breaker? Hard to think so.

Rodgers, after all, is a two-time MVP who’d operated nothing but highly rated offenses since his first season as starter. In the seven full seasons since he replaced Favre in ’08, the Packers never finished out of the top 10 in scoring — they ranked in the top five in five of the seven years — and finished out of the top 10 in yards only once, 2012.

Even in 2013, with Matt Flynn at quarterback for almost half the season, McCarthy found a way to finish No. 8 in scoring and No. 3 in yards. That makes this season look astonishing.

With or without Nelson, the Packers’ persistent floundering on that side of the ball is a very big deal. Yes, they’re 10-5, but they’ve given little reason to think that this Super Bowl-or-bust season is headed for anything but bust. Everything ultimately will be decided on the field, but this offense consistently has underperformed, with only a couple of exceptions, for the last three months.

The Packers’ No. 13 ranking in points and No. 24 in yards accurately reflect the struggling state of their offense only a week before the start of the playoffs. Rodgers’ No. 31 ranking in average gain per pass attempt speaks volumes to the dearth of playmaking in their passing game.

Of course recent injuries, most notably to tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga, haven’t helped. But those are short term, and this offense had plenty of issues when both were healthy.

So yes, the Packers have spoiled their fans since their revival in the ‘90s – they have the NFL’s second-best winning percentage (.638, behind only New England’s .648) since 1992. Anyone who followed this franchise in the ‘70s and ‘80s knows this is hardly the norm and just how bad things can get.

But with their head start at quarterback, the Packers also have a chance to be exceptional. So the standards for Thompson, McCarthy and Rodgers should be high. That might not always yield titles, but either way, the floundering offense of 2015 hasn’t come close to meeting the mark. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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