Dougherty: Packers on playoff precipice
For a few weeks, I’ve been weighing whether the Green Bay Packers would be better off getting Eddie Lacy or Sam Shields back from the injured reserve list.
Now it looks like the question might be academic. And that’s a tough reality for a 4-4 team looking to make a run in the second half of the season.
All signs suggest that Lacy, who had surgery on his ankle, won’t be ready until January at the earliest, and perhaps not at all this season.
Shields, in the meantime, is recovering from his fourth concussion since entering the NFL, including one that sidelined him for a month late last year. This season’s came on an innocuous-looking hit that indicates he’s getting concussed more easily and severely, which is a bad sign for his future in the game. He appears to be at least as long a shot as Lacy, perhaps longer.
So that’s where we start when looking at the Packers eight games into 2016, and with eight games to go.
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The Packers have lost two straight, they’re 4-4 and they have health issues galore. Now the question is, where might they go from here?
I know pessimism is running high in the fan base, but I have to start by saying, I don’t know, and I still wouldn't dismiss them out of hand.
I’ve covered this league long enough (since 1993) to have seen that teams’ fortunes can turn several times from September through January. The Packers’ 4-4 has been ugly, but 22 of the NFL’s 32 teams have three, four or five wins. Only two clubs in the NFC (7-1 Dallas and 6-3 Atlanta) have won at least six games. And the Packers are only one game out of first place in the NFC North, behind a 5-3 Minnesota Vikings team that was undefeated three long weeks ago.
While all those three- to five-win teams got there by different routes, all that matters is that’s where they stand. This is the NFL, where not much separates the mediocre from the good. They’re all in the hunt. The Packers’ 4-4 feels weak because they’ve lost two straight games and would not be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
However, I have to caution against one of the great perils when assessing an NFL team: becoming a prisoner of what’s happened most recently. The playoffs still are two long months off.
You probably don’t remember, but Seattle was 3-3 in 2014 and went to the Super Bowl that year. Baltimore lost three straight in December 2012 and brought home the Lombardi Trophy. And the New York Giants were 9-7 but went on to beat New England for the championship in 2011. Even the Packers were 8-6 and coming off back-to-back losses before they went on their title run as a No. 6 seed in 2010.
These are the exceptions, not the norm, but the point remains. It’s not that uncommon for a team to look bad for a while and still go far.
That said, the Packers have provided reasons for doubt, starting with their identity-free offense. They’re going nowhere unless they find something they can fall back on there.
But whereas they’ve shown glimpses they can move the ball without Lacy, I’m not so sure they can weather games against good quarterbacks without Shields at cornerback. At age 28 he was about at his peak before getting concussed in the opener, and it’s looking like the Packers will have a tough time making up the difference even with Quinten Rollins (groin) back and Damarious Randall (groin surgery) not too far down the road.
On the other hand, one reason to think the Packers still might turn around is the impending return of Clay Matthews (hamstring), Jared Cook (ankle), James Starks (running back) and Randall. That’s four starters at skill-type positions. Matthews, Cook and Starks could be back as early as this week; Randall perhaps in early December. Any one or two could end up making a difference.
There’s also the possibility that McCarthy will find the offensive identity that the running back injuries have wiped out. The four- and five-receiver sets showed promise against Chicago and Atlanta. Maybe after his odd decision to move away from that last week, McCarthy will go back there.
As for whether this season has the feeling of the Packers’ 2010, when no one was picking them to go to the Super Bowl after eight games, I’d say there are surface similarities, but no.
Like this year, the IR list in ’10 was long. It included the tight end the offense had been built around in the offseason (Jermichael Finley), the top halfback (Ryan Grant), the starting right tackle (Mark Tauscher), a starting inside linebacker (Nick Barnett) and a starting safety (then-rookie Morgan Burnett).
Grant was replaceable, as Starks showed in the playoffs. First-round pick Bryan Bulaga was fine in Tauscher’s stead; Desmond Bishop proved to be an upgrade from Barnett; and with All-Pro Nick Collins at one safety, Charlie Peprah was fine playing for Burnett.
The difference from this year was, McCarthy in '10 had more talent at receiver, which helped him adapt when Finley went down.
Greg Jennings was better in ’10 than any receiver on the roster now; James Jones was fine as the No. 2; and by the end of the season, ascending young Jordy Nelson had surpassed 35-year-old Donald Driver. The four collectively provided better matchups than the Packers are getting now.
So no, I’m not saying the Packers are a good bet to get to the Super Bowl. They’ve done nothing to suggest it so far.
But their coach and quarterback have been here before. So better to let this play out than dismiss them out of hand.
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NFC PLAYOFF PICTURE
East: Cowboys (7-1)
South: Falcons (6-3)
West: Seahawks (5-2-1)
North: Vikings (5-3)