Dougherty: Too early to tell which way Green Bay Packers are pointed
Three weeks into the 2014 NFL season, the Green Bay Packers were an unpromising 1-2. They went on to finish 12-4 and play for a Super Bowl berth that they blew in the last five minutes of the NFC championship game.
The very next season, the Packers won their first six games, but then finished 10-6 and flamed out of the playoffs in the divisional round at Arizona.
So, if you’re wondering what to make of coach Mike McCarthy’s 2018 team, which is 1-1-1 after three games, the answer is as unsatisfying as it is true: Not much either way.
Their history says that if Aaron Rodgers stays on the field, the Packers will win at least 10 games and be in the playoffs. Where they go from there depends on how their quarterback plays in the postseason, and whether others emerge to make a difference on either side of the ball.
Is there much reason to think 2018 will be any different?
Not yet, there isn’t.
That’s not to say all is well at 1265 Lombardi Ave. three games in. Hardly. This team has plenty of issues. But so does almost everyone else in the league.
Minnesota has one of the league’s most talented rosters top to bottom and a new, $27 million-a-year quarterback, yet the Vikings are 1-2-1. Think their season is shot? I sure don’t.
New England is 1-2. Anybody counting out the Patriots to be there in the end? Doubt it.
And Miami is 3-0. Does that make the Dolphins a sure bet for the playoffs? Hardly.
This is just the way the NFL works week to week, especially early. We’re essentially just wrapping up the preseason. With a CBA that limits offseason practice and in-season pads work, and a leaguewide aversion to getting key players hurt in games that don’t count, coaches need the first four weeks of the regular season to get to know their teams, and players need them to acclimate to real football.
“The way the rules are nowadays,” new Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said this week, “it's a little bit more difficult to kind of be in midseason form this early when everything is new, when you're dealing with a new set of players, when you have a lot of guys — young guys — that are on their first contract.”
About the only thing you can say with much confidence three-plus weeks into the NFL schedule is that the Los Angeles Rams (4-0) look really good. That’s based on their turnaround season last year (11-5), the players they added in the spring (Brandin Cooks, Marcus Peters and Ndamukong Suh, among others) to an already talented roster, their ascending quarterback (Jared Goff) and their bright young coach (Sean McVay). Hard not to be impressed watching their win over Minnesota on Thursday night.
Beyond that? The rest of the teams are barely beginning to reveal themselves.
That goes for the Packers, who despite a recent run of injuries still have to consider themselves healthy. They’ve lost only one player of consequence for the season, Muhammad Wilkerson. After his broken ankle last week at Washington, I wrote the loss will show up in run defense, and while it might be true, even that could prove to be an overreaction.
The Packers signed Wilkerson in hopes he’d revert to the game-changing inside rusher he’d been earlier in his career with the New York Jets, but it was evident that wasn’t happening even before his injury. And while there will be a drop-off to Dean Lowry stopping the run, it might turn out to be not that great. We’ll know in the coming weeks whether this was a blow now, or only if another injury hits the defensive line down the road.
Even Rodgers’ knee injury, while limiting, isn’t stopping him from playing. One of the reasons the Packers pay him $30 million a year is to play through painful days like these. And his return to a Thursday practice this week is a promising sign he’s on the mend.
The rest of their injury list includes several core players (Nick Perry, Randall Cobb, Bryan Bulaga and Kevin King), but at least for now, their issues appear to be week-to-week. At least two of the four (Bulaga and Perry) are on track to play against Buffalo on Sunday.
The Packers’ problems on defense, though, are real, as they have been for a long time.
Their pass rush, for starters, has been mostly a no-show, both statistically (No. 24 in sacks and opponent’s passer rating) and by the eyeball test.
“If we're not sacking the quarterback, we need to at least at the very minimum get him off his spot and hit him,” Pettine said, “and too many times it's been like the drill pass skel(eton) where there is no pass rush.”
That’s why the possibility of acquiring Khalil Mack was such a big deal a few weeks ago. Great pass rushers rarely are available in their primes and are worth their weight in gold. The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to think general manager Brian Gutekunst should have offered three first-rounders for him.
But as things stand, it’s clear that to get pressure on third downs, Pettine will have to blitz more, which means exposing his secondary. That’s risky, though his young cornerbacks have talent. The less anticipated problem is that safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Kentrell Brice have been weak links on the back end through three games.
Both look miscast as deep safeties. Brice has struggled playing the ball in the air downfield. Clinton-Dix, an ascending Pro Bowler just two seasons ago, has been wildly inconstant for more than a year now, and twice this season has been caught flat-footed on red-zone touchdown passes over the middle.
It might be time for Pettine and McCarthy to make a statement by sitting one of them and giving Jermaine Whitehead, Josh Jones or even undrafted rookie Raven Greene some snaps. It wouldn’t mean they’d given up on anybody only three weeks into the season, but it’s the kind of fear-for-your-job move that gets players’ attention and sends a message of accountability throughout the locker room.
Really, this is what the NFL is about, figuring what works and doesn’t, who should play more and who should play less, and adjusting on the fly.
In 2014, you might remember, former defensive coordinator Dom Capers spent all offseason working secretively on an “elephant” package only to scrap it after it bombed in the opener (36-16 loss) at Seattle. Halfway through the same season, with the run defense hemorrhaging, he moved Clay Matthews from outside linebacker to inside linebacker and saw his points-allowed ranking jump from No. 19 for the first eight games to No. 9 for the last eight. That team was a Super Bowl contender.
In ’15, on the other hand, the Packers’ 6-0 start deceived. Eddie Lacy and the receiving corps were in decline, and the Packers went 6-6, playoffs included, the rest of the way.
So make whatever you want of 1-1-1. There’s evidence to back up any take. Just know it’s going to be a few weeks before we know the 2018 Packers’ true colors, not just by their record, but whether they have enough who can make plays to take on the likes of the Los Angeles Rams.