Dougherty: Expect Packers to regain punch

Pete Dougherty
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The Green Bay Packers will go as far as coach Mike McCarthy’s offense takes them.

Green Bay Packers tight end Jared Cook (89) during training camp at Ray Nitschke Field August 23, 2016.

That’s the way they’re built. Their quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, is a premier player at the position that matters most, and he’s paid like it. He counts for 12.6 percent of the Packers’ salary cap. The next highest is Clay Matthews at 9 percent.

The Packers have been built this way for years. They have the NFL’s second-best winning percentage since 2009 (.692, behind only New England’s .759), and they’ve ranked in the top five in scoring in five of those seven years, and in the top 10 another season.

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The time they didn’t? Last year, when they were No. 15 in points and fell all the way to No. 24 in yards and No. 26 in passing yards. That didn’t cut it then for a team that wins on its quarterback’s arm, and it won’t in 2016.

According to this week, the Packers have the best odds of winning the Super Bowl – they’re the favorite at 6-to-1, just ahead of New England (7-to-1), Seattle (9-to-1), and Carolina, Arizona and Pittsburgh (all 10-to-1).

But to have a good shot at winning it all, they’ll need to be back among the league’s scoring machines. And from what we’ve seen in training camp, there’s reason to predict they will be after last year’s hiatus.

“I think we can accomplish everything we set out to,” coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “I’m not as worried about being No. 1 in scoring – I mean, you work to score as much as possible, but I think we’re doing a better job as a football team of playing to one another.”

By playing to one another, McCarthy meant his emphasis in camp on the running game, which theoretically conditions the defense better for stopping the run and allows for more rest if McCarthy’s offense can control the ball on the ground.

But the main reasons for thinking the Packers can put the fear back in defenses, like they did as the top-scoring team in 2014, are Jordy Nelson and Jared Cook.

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Not much needs to be said about Nelson’s return. His absence last year proved he’s the team’s best receiver. The question is how close he’ll be to the ’14 Nelson (98 receptions, 15.3-yard average, 13 touchdowns) coming off knee-reconstruction surgery at age 31.

He didn’t return to team drills until the final two practices of training camp, and that was on scout team. So that’s not much for outside observers to go on. But he appeared to be running fine and made a couple tough catches.

We also don’t know how much he’ll play early in the season, considering he missed all of 2015 and most of the training camp this year. My guess is he’ll play maybe half the snaps at Jacksonville on Sunday, and be back to full time shortly after the bye in Week 4.

If Nelson is anywhere near the player he was before the injury, the Packers get better immediately. Along with the playmaking, there’s the domino effect in coverage, with Randall Cobb drawing less attention from defenses. And if Rodgers and Nelson show they still can connect on a few deep shots, defenses will have to scheme to take that away. That’s something they didn’t have to worry about last year.

But even if Nelson isn’t quite the same, training camp revealed Cook as a new weapon. The free-agent tight end more or less underachieved his first seven years in the NFL, but as has been well documented, he also never has played with a good quarterback in his prime. Certainly never with anyone in Rodgers’ class. That can make all the difference.

He also has a reputation for becoming moody and disengaged if neglected in game plans. McCarthy and Rodgers should do what they can to keep him engaged. His working on a one-year contract and for the first time with a title contender should help as well.

After missing the first two weeks of camp while recovering from offseason surgery on his foot, Cook galloped through the secondary creating space and catching balls enough to think he can make a difference regardless of whether he puts up big numbers. It’s a given at age 29 that he’s no longer the 4.49-second 40 runner he was coming out of college in 2009, but he’s still plenty fast and is a big (6-foot-5) target over the middle of the field. That threat makes it tougher for defenses to double cover on the outside.

This has all the signs of an offseason signing that makes a difference.

Then there’s halfback Eddie Lacy. If he’s back to the player he was in 2013 and ’14, the Packers really will be in business. But I’m less prepared to predict anything there.

We can go only by the eyeball test, and as the offseason turned to training camp, and training camp to final cuts, Lacy appeared to slowly add some of the weight he’d lost working out on his own. By the end of camp he looked a little lighter than in ’15, but I’m not sure it’s by all that much.

Whether he’s actually in better shape, and quicker and faster, well, he didn’t play enough in the preseason to tell. The games will reveal that, as they reveal all.

But the pieces are there for McCarthy and Rodgers to lead a top offense again. Full disclosure, last year at this time I said the same thing. The Packers were coming off a season in which they’d led the league in scoring, and they returned all their starters. Then Nelson got hurt, Lacy ballooned and the offense bombed.

And sure, they could falter again. In fact, the offensive line might have a tough go early in the season after guard Josh Sitton’s abrupt and unexpected release on the cuts to 53. New starter Lane Taylor doesn’t have Sitton’s timing with the starters, knowledge of defenses and pass-blocking skills.

But over the long haul of the season, Rodgers has more playmaking talent around him this year with Nelson and Cook. And don’t forget about second-year receiver Ty Montgomery, either. If ankle surgery late last year didn’t diminish him, he could help too after missing the final 10 games last season.

The Packers probably won’t be the NFL’s most explosive offense – that likely will be the Arizona Cardinals. But in the big games, they should have the firepower to go toe to toe with the league’s best teams. And that gives them as good a chance as anyone to win the Lombardi Trophy.

— and follow them on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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