One of Mike McCarthy’s primary points of emphasis last offseason was for his Green Bay Packers to get off to a strong start in 2015.
Mission accomplished. They were 6-0 heading into their Week 7 bye.
So much for that.
By late November, the 6-0 start was ancient history, and looking back it’s clear those early wins only camouflaged weaknesses that would be the Packers’ undoing. McCarthy’s team would go on to a 4-6 finish and ouster from the divisional round of the playoffs at Arizona.
As early as the team’s 17-3 win in Week 4 at San Francisco, the Packers’ receivers showed an inability to separate from press coverage. And James Jones’ six touchdown catches in the first six games helped convince the coaching staff it didn’t need to force Jeff Janis onto the field after Jordy Nelson’s season-ending injury in training camp. Janis’ performance (seven catches, 145 yards, two touchdowns) in the divisional-round loss showed how big an error that was.
And immediately after the bye, the Packers found out where they fit in the NFL’s 2015 big picture. In back-to-back weeks, they lost to the two teams that will play in next Sunday’s Super Bowl: a 29-10 blowout at Denver, and 37-29 at Carolina.
After those defeats, the Packers slogged through the rest of the season at 4-4 with an offense that finished No. 15 in points, No. 23 in total yards and tied for No. 25 in passing yards. That’s mind blowing for a team with a premier quarterback.
The Packers nevertheless head into the offseason with the look of a Super Bowl contender in 2016, most likely chasing the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers for supremacy in the NFC.
After watching the offense collapse without Nelson, general manager Ted Thompson is a good bet to add at least one and maybe two offensive weapons (tight end, receiver, running back) with high draft picks. Any help there will go on top of getting back Nelson and Ty Montgomery, a third-round pick last year who missed the final 10 games and playoffs because of an ankle injury.
That alone, at least in theory, should put the Packers back in the hunt. Though we saw this season what can happen to theories.
“There definitely will be a lot of adjustments,” McCarthy said at his season-ending news conference. “You do that every year, and frankly we’ve been fortunate enough that we’ve had a lot of success and there will be a lot of things that we emphasize and things that we continue to do and continue to carry over.
“Whether it’s offense, defense, special teams, the way we practice, the nutrition tied to the strength and conditioning in the training room … We can improve in a number of different areas.”
The stunningly poor performance on offense ended up costing two Packers coaches their jobs: Sam Gash and Jerry Fontenot, the running backs and tight ends coach, respectively.
Gash was fired mainly because he failed to cajole, browbeat or do whatever else was necessary to get Eddie Lacy into shape after the running back reported to camp several pounds over his 234-pound listed weight and ballooned to the mid-250s after an early season ankle injury. Lacy wasn’t the player he’d been his first two years in the league, and that was among the biggest reasons the Packers underachieved this season.
Fontenot coached the Packers’ least-talented position group (Richard Rodgers, Justin Perillo, Andrew Quarless and Kennard Backman). Rodgers, the starter, was among the team’s biggest disappointments in his second season when he showed no explosiveness after the catch and averaged only 8.8 yards on his 58 receptions.
Maybe most noteworthy was how quickly McCarthy made the moves. He has been deliberative on past firings and hirings, but he let go of Gash and Fontenot barely more than two full days after the team’s season ended and filled both positions by the end of the week. He hired former St. Louis Rams running backs coach Ben Sirmans for that job, and former Cleveland Browns assistant Brian Angelichio for tight ends.
Whether the moves are upgrades, who knows? But at minimum, the firings have put all players and staff on notice. Maybe a few people will be a little less comfortable than they’d been.
So the Packers head into the offseason looking to reload for another year. Aaron Rodgers is back at quarterback at age 32, so that alone gives them a good shot at contending.
They’ve already signed their would-be big free agent, Mike Daniels, to a long-term deal. The most important remaining free agents are kicker Mason Crosby and defensive lineman B.J. Raji.
The biggest question is whether this season finally gets Thompson to look more to free agency and maybe even trades to try to upgrade a position or two. We’ll see on that.
I thought Thompson might dabble in free agency last year after how well the signing of Julius Peppers worked out in 2013. He didn’t.
You’d think that a fifth straight season without getting back to the Super Bowl with Rodgers at quarterback would be enough to push him to do something more. But after watching Thompson sit out free agency for most of the last 11 years, you will get no prediction here on his plans.
History says he won’t be more active. The ticking clock makes you wonder if he will. But only he knows the answer to that one.