Dougherty: Five things we've learned about the Packers at the bye week
It’s bye week, which means it’s time to step back and look at what we’ve learned about the Green Bay Packers through their 3-2-1 start.
Here are five observations:
1. Everybody who follows the Packers wants to know whether they’ll even be a playoff team, let alone a bona fide Super Bowl contender.
The first six games have left good reason to doubt. The Packers haven’t played well, and there’s a same ol’, same ol’ feel and sense of staleness about this team.
But if the Packers’ vibe isn’t good, it still would be stupid to declare their season lost. The oddsmakers haven’t. The Packers’ odds of winning the Super Bowl have slipped from sixth-best in in the NFL just before the start of the season (11-to-1), according to Bovada.lv, but they’re still 10th-best now (20-to-1).
What the oddsmakers know is what a front-office executive with another NFL team told me late this week: That with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback and a roster that stays healthy at some other key positions, the Packers are always a threat to make a late-season run, as they did in 2010 when they won the Super Bowl after a 3-3 start, and in 2016, when they advanced to the NFC title game after being 4-6 at one point.
“It’s like everyone’s trying to win the Super Bowl every single day, and that’s not how it works,” the executive said. “You just win the game and move on to the next game. I know they’re only 3-2-1, right? But that’s fine right now. Clearly they’re going to have to play better, but that’s any team.”
That 3-2-1 ties the Packers with Minnesota (3-2-1) for the sixth-best record in the NFC behind the Los Angeles Rams (6-0), New Orleans (4-1), Chicago (3-2), Washington (3-2), and Carolina (3-2).
To illustrate his point, the scout offered a thumbnail comparison of the Packers now versus the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles last season. He gave the Packers the edge at quarterback, receiver and cornerback; the Eagles the edge at pass rush. The offensive lines were a push.
“I know the Eagles probably have a better offensive and defensive scheme,” the scout said. “… (but) all you have to do is get hot at the right time.”
2. The Packers’ biggest problem is their pass rush. Duh, right?
If they don’t get better there, they won’t have much chance to do anything. Another scout this week wondered if the Packers still might pull off a deal for a pass rusher between now and the Oct. 30 trade deadline. General manager Brian Gutekunst and his staff should be wearing out their cellphone batteries trying.
Gutekunst can’t let desperation make him stupid. That’s when you get swindled. But in the next week or two, a team that’s out of contention might be willing to part with a decent, older rusher for a reasonable price. Just for fun I looked up a couple contracts to see if a deal might be feasible.
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Arizona’s Chandler Jones has 6½ sacks in seven games and at age 28 could have another good season left in him. He’s due $7.4 million in remaining salary this year and $16.5 million ($11.5 million guaranteed) next year. No clue whether the Cardinals (1-6) are willing to move him. But if so, he might be worth a second- or third-round pick.
Buffalo’s Jerry Hughes is older (30) and not as good as Jones, but he has 4½ sacks in six games and had a career-best 10 sacks as a 25-year old in 2013 with Buffalo for Mike Pettine, the Packers’ defensive coordinator. Hughes is due $3.7 million for the rest of this season and $6.35 million next year. There are no reports about whether the Bills (2-4) might be willing to trade him, either. He might be worth a mid- to later-round pick.
3. The Packers traded their best safety for a backup quarterback last March. We’re talking about Damarious Randall, of course.
Randall didn’t play safety with the Packers, but it’s clear now he should have. He’s a pure free safety with speed (4.46 seconds) and ball-hawking skills (two interceptions this season), and it looks like he’s a new man as a starter for Cleveland.
The Packers’ safety play, in the meantime, has been a problem and Kentrell Brice is especially having a rough go as a starter. Neither he nor Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a true free safety. If the Packers still had Randall, they could have played him deep, and Clinton-Dix closer to the line of scrimmage.
It’s true that Randall made it tough for the Packers to keep him. After coach Mike McCarthy banished Randall to the locker room for pouting on the bench in a Week 4 game against Chicago last season, McCarthy’s committee of veteran players recommended cutting the defensive back, according to a report by ESPN.com. Randall also had a reputation for finding injury excuses to miss practices and sealed his Packers fate when he sat out the last two games with a minor knee injury.
So it wasn’t like McCarthy didn’t have his reasons to want him gone. But McCarthy and his defensive assistants share in the blame for Randall’s departure. If they’d held Randall to a higher level of accountability and cleared the air better after the Chicago incident, maybe Randall would be the Packers’ starting free safety today.
4. Nobody can understand why Aaron Jones isn’t getting the ball more.
“I can’t figure it out,” said one of the aforementioned scouts, who’s seen four Packers games on video or live. “It’s not even close (that he’s their best runner). Maybe they’re worried he’s going to get hurt. … But I can’t figure that one out. But again, they don’t run the ball anyway.”
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Jones is averaging eight carries (and 5.5 yards a rush), and had only eight touches last week against San Francisco, his fourth game back since serving a two-game drug suspension to start the season.
5. Gutekunst’s preference for tall receivers has landed him a promising later-round draft class.
Even with Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison back from hamstring injuries after the bye, fifth-rounder Marquez Valdes-Scantling (6-4) deserves to stay in the receiving rotation. His 17.7 yards per catch is best among all rookies with at least 10 receptions this season.
And Equanimeous St. Brown (6-4¾) made an impressive snag on a back-shoulder throw to convert a huge third-and-2 in the final 15 seconds against San Francisco last week. He has only four catches, but the awareness and timing he showed on that crucial play suggests he should get a few snaps a game, too. With injuries inevitable, the Packers are going to need him again before season’s end.
Fourth-rounder J’Mon Moore (6-2 5/8) has had the same problem he had at Missouri: drops. That might prove to be a fatal flaw. But the early returns on Valdes-Scantling and St. Brown are promising.
“Valdes(-Scantling), that was a great pick,” one of the scouts said. “You saw all the traits with him (at South Florida). He wasn’t super productive, but you saw all the traits. The guy’s big and fast.”