Dougherty: Packers' time to make do

Pete Dougherty
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Injuries suddenly are crushing the Green Bay Packers.

Packers running back Eddie Lacy leaps over Cowboys cornerback Morris Claiborne in Green Bay's loss to Dallas at Lambeau Field.

For Thursday night’s game against the Chicago Bears, coach Mike McCarthy won’t have his top three cornerbacks (Sam Shields, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins) and best two running backs (Eddie Lacy and James Starks).  That hurts.

To which you can only say: So what?

The Bears are crushed by injuries as well. They probably will be missing two of their top three receivers (Kevin White and Eddie Royal), their best running back (Jeremy Langford), their top two cornerbacks (Kyle Fuller and Tracy Porter), two of their best pass rushers (Pernell McPhee and Lamarr Houston) and a starting defensive tackle (Eddie Goldman). They also won’t have quarterback Jay Cutler, though the net effect of his absence is debatable.

That’s life in the NFL. Injuries are common, and teams have to make do. Some do better than others. The Bears (1-5) are among the others, though their decades-long quarterback drought is the main culprit there.

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But look at another of the Packers’ NFC North rivals, the Minnesota Vikings. Their injured-reserve list includes a future Pro Football Hall of Fame running back (Adrian Peterson), their starting tackles (Matt Kalil and Andre Smith) and quarterback (Teddy Bridgewater). Yet they’ve adapted, made moves and are 5-0.

The Packers, likewise, can look to their own recent history for inspiration. In 2010, they finished the season with 16 players on injured reserve, including five starters, yet won the Super Bowl. You could even argue injuries helped galvanize that team.

That’s not to say roster depletion can’t ruin a season. It can. But more often than not, injuries can be overcome.

So far, Shields’ concussion has hurt the Packers’ the most. Going back to last season, whenever he has been out the Packers’ coverage has suffered. And so it has this year.

That said, the Packers should be able to handle his absence over the long haul – Shields won’t be eligible to come off injured reserve for eight weeks, and there’s no guarantee he’ll back at all. But the Packers were built for this. The reason general manager Ted Thompson let Casey Hayward walk in free agency was to get second-year pros Randall, Rollins and LaDarius Gunter on the field. They should improve through the long NFL season. Same for rookie Josh Hawkins and third-year pro Demetri Goodson. They’re on the team because of their potential to grow and grow fast. Now it’s up to them and the coaching staff.

Of course it will be tough against Chicago without Shields, Randall (groin) and Rollins (groin). But the Packers still have Mike Daniels and Clay Matthews and Nick Perry and Julius Peppers to rush the passer. And that passer (Brian Hoyer), well, let’s just say he’s no Tom Brady.

The loss of Lacy could be the bigger problem, depending on how long he’s out. If it's a few weeks, that's tough but manageable. But if it's a long time – the Packers reportedly consulted a foot specialist in North Carolina on Lacy’s test results – then that’s a big loss for an offense desperately looking for its identity.

Thompson’s move to offset the loss of Lacy and Starks was to trade this week for Knile Davis. All things considered, not a bad deal for a conditional seventh-round pick.

In 2010, Ryan Grant appeared to take the Packers' running game with him when his season ended in Week 1. But Starks returned from a hamstring injury for the playoffs and provided just enough to make a difference in the Packers’ title run. Whether Davis can do anything for this struggling offense, we’ll have to see there.

Like Lacy, he’s a big back (5-11, 227), though he’s much faster – Davis scorched the 40 in 4.37 seconds at the NFL scouting combine, compared with Lacy’s 4.6 seconds at his campus workout. But Davis, a third-round pick in 2013, never found a role with Kansas City because of fumbling issues and shortcomings in the passing game. He had fallen behind Jamaal Charles, Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West on the Chiefs’ depth chart by the time he was dealt this week.

“More of a straight-line, he’s not a wiggle-and-shake guy," a scout from the AFC West said. "He’s more hit the crease and go. He’s actually a better fit for the Packers (than Chiefs), closer to Lacy.”

The challenge for McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers already was steep. Their offense has been stagnant for a year, and Rodgers hasn’t been the player he was. Lacy was looking like he’d have to be part of any solution. So his absence hurts.

Thompson and McCarthy also are paying for their decision to keep only two halfbacks on the roster at final cuts, though I’m assuming they’ll promote Don Jackson from the practice squad Thursday to start against the Bears. Davis will have to play as well.

Either way, McCarthy now has some real coaching to do. He has almost no choice but to go all-in with his receiver corps. He and Thompson kept seven of them, it’s time to use them.

That could mean taking a page from Mike Holmgren’s book and substituting the West Coast offense’s short passing game for the run, as Holmgren did early in his Packers tenure in the 1990s.

The four- and five-receiver sets that we saw last week against Dallas probably will have to be a staple against the Bears and going forward. McCarthy isn’t getting much playmaking from the top of his receiving corps, so it’s time to get the ball into the hands of Ty Montgomery, Trevor Davis and Jeff Janis to see if they can make some big plays. Maybe that’s who this team will be, a constantly changing mix of receivers spreading the field.

In the end, though, much comes down to Rodgers. He wasn’t the only reason the Packers prevailed over their injuries to win the Super Bowl in the 2010 season, but he was the biggest one. And if they’re to do anything this year, his resurrection will have to be the biggest reason for that, too.

— and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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