Our reporters give their predictions for the Packers showdown with the Titans on Sunday.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – When your stay in Green Bay exceeds a decade, all that really matters is winning the Super Bowl.
It goes without saying that’s why Mike McCarthy is coaching and Aaron Rodgers is quarterbacking, and it should go without saying that’s why Ted Thompson continues to direct the Packers’ football operation.
Their expectations should be higher than those of every fan. Every team in the league pays lip service about winning a championship, but it’s the truth in Green Bay.
Anything less for Thompson, who has 12 years of continuous service in his second stint; for McCarthy, who has 11 years of continuous experience in his second stint, and for Rodgers, who is in his 12th season, would be a bitter disappointment.
As the second half of the season begins Sunday at Nissan Stadium, the question that needs answering is whether the Packers’ triumvirate still has what it takes to win it all.
They did six years ago in the face of a barrage of injuries that would have left weaker men and organizations in the dust. No matter what happens in the future, they have Super Bowl XLV rings from a time when no one in the NFL did it better than them.
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Thompson, 63, says he still loves the job and his workload. McCarthy, 53, shows no sign of slowing up. Rodgers, 32, still should be in the prime of his career.
Yet, for many reasons, the Packers find themselves in a rather alarming downturn since the 6-0 start of 2015. They’re 9-11 in the last 20 games after posting a 17-3 record in the 20 games immediately before that.
It has been a long, long time since they played one of those great games that became so common after the Rodgers-quarterbacked Packers became a force in 2009.
In the last 20 games, the team received an overall award of four footballs four times in the Journal Sentinel’s weekly “Rating the Packers.” Not once did the Packers’ performance warrant 4 ½ or 5 footballs.
In the 20 games before that, they had 11 performances rated in the upper echelon: five 4 football games, four 4 ½ games and two 5 games.
For some reason, the Packers have been unable to put together a complete game since Seattle in Week 2 last season.
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It’s impossible not to harken back to the 2010 season as a reminder that Thompson, McCarthy and Rodgers all once performed at an elite level.
When the 2010 season began, all 22 preferred starters were in the lineup for a young team with minimal playoff experience but clearly possessing the talent level to go all the way.
In my preseason rankings based on importance to the team, tight end Jermichael Finley was No. 4, running back Ryan Grant was No. 8, safety Morgan Burnett was No. 11, defensive end Mike Neal was No. 13, inside linebacker Nick Barnett was No. 16, tackle Mark Tauscher was No. 18 and inside linebacker Brad Jones was No. 19.
After seven games, those seven players had been placed on injured reserve. By season’s end the IR ranks would swell to 15.
Counting the four-game playoff run, the Packers had 12 starters miss a total of 112 games. Twenty other players sat out a total of 100 games due to injury.
How the Packers overcame what was judged as the NFL’s worst rash of injuries that season represents one of the best stories in Super Bowl history.
Thompson’s work was magnificent. By season’s end three members of his seven-man draft class (Bryan Bulaga, James Starks, Andrew Quarless) were starting, one was contributing (C.J. Wilson), one had started (Burnett), one might have started (Neal) and one apprenticed for a year (Marshall Newhouse).
Furthermore, two college free agents (Sam Shields, Frank Zombo) played key roles on defense; January signee Tim Masthay shut the revolving door at punter, and April signee Charlie Peprah started the last 16 games for Burnett.
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After his wonderful offseason, Thompson oversaw the key acquisitions on Oct. 27 of nose tackle Howard Green (waivers) and linebacker Erik Walden (off the street).
Bedeviled by the non-stop string of injuries, McCarthy rallied the troops from a 3-3 start and defeated Brett Favre’s Vikings, the Jets as a six-point underdog and the Cowboys in shocking succession.
More importantly, McCarthy found his stride in his fifth season. He did it by formulating a calculated message of hope that he delivered incessantly in a powerful voice.
His uber-confidence played exceedingly well on all fronts, most vitally in the locker room. Some of the many backups pressed into duty started believing they were all-pros.
Rodgers, a third-year starter, wasn’t the least bit special in the first eight games, ranking 16th in passer rating at 85.3. Over the remainder of the regular season he was extraordinary (122.1), and when the competition stiffened in the postseason he played above it (109.8).
Opposing defensive coordinators kept trying to blitz (30.6 percent) but Rodgers proved impossible to blitz. His accuracy, his progression, his command of the pocket and his ball security were almost off the charts.
It culminated against the gritty Steelers when Rodgers played one of the half-dozen greatest games by a quarterback in the Super Bowl.
Thompson, McCarthy and Rodgers have been to the pinnacle of their professions. Packers president Mark Murphy and members of the ruling board of directors will be watching as this, an eighth straight season with Super Bowl potential, plays out.
Besides the principals, one obvious link between 2010 and 2016 is the fact both teams entered the season with the fifth-youngest roster in the NFL. The other is injury.
Of the 20 most important players in the pre-\season rankings this year, No. 7 Sam Shields and No. 8 Eddie Lacy are on injured reserve.
At the same time, No. 3 Clay Matthews will miss a fourth game Sunday, No. 10 JC Tretter will miss a second game, No. 14 Jared Cook probably will miss a sixth game, No. 15 Letroy Guion missed one game, No. 17 Randall Cobb missed one game, No. 18 Damarious Randall will miss a fifth game and No. 20 James Starks might miss a fifth game.
According to Man-Games Lost, a site that tracks NFL injuries, the Packers rank ninth among teams in quantity. When quality of the injured players is combined with quantity, the Vikings are the hardest-hit team.
These Packers have had 10 starters sit out 29 games, the identical totals for the 2010 squad after eight games. In each case, those are the highest numbers for a McCarthy-coached team.
At this point, it would appear that Thompson’s moves weren’t as helpful as six years ago.
His release of Josh Sitton, for reasons the general manager never has stated, turned what probably was going to be a great offensive line into a good one. Rodgers and everyone else invested in winning continue to pay the price for that decision.
From the seven-member draft class has come one starter and four situational substitutes, and the best of the undrafted rookie class has been Kentrell Brice. No one really knows if Cook can make an impact.
The in-season pipeline from the practice squad whenever a roster vacancy appears has proven to be uninspiring. Is the cost of a seventh-round draft choice in 2018 too much to ask for Knile Davis’ coaches and teammates to determine if he could help? The talent’s there but it’s hard to tell in 12 days.
After his poorest coaching job last year, McCarthy hasn’t performed much, if any, better this year.
A few years ago, players used to salute what they called McCarthy’s swagger. He used to talk about “bringing our brand” to such-and-such a city and being “nobody’s underdog.” He was on their wavelength.
What McCarthy presents to the public doesn’t count as much as what he says to the team day after day in meetings. Still, it matters, but nowadays he sells neither himself nor his program, preferring a “boring by design” approach, as he put it in September.
Many more times than not in the last 20 games, Rodgers’ level of play has been closer to the NFL norm than the NFL elite. With defenses no longer blitzing and the traditional screen game missing, he produces almost nothing downfield from the pocket.
Rodgers has turned the ball over too much, isn’t as accurate, seems to have lost some of his nerve and continues to fizzle with the ball in his hands and a chance to turn defeat into victory late in games.
In an interview Wednesday with the MMQB, McCarthy made several excuses for Rodgers before saying his play was “still outstanding.”
The NFC North remains there for the taking. If the Vikings or Lions prove otherwise and have a stellar year, the Packers need only remember 2010 to know what can be accomplished from a wild-card playoff berth.
Other than possibly the Cowboys, it’s just a bunch of average teams jockeying for position in the division and in the conference.
The Packers’ healthy core of top-notch players and assistant coaches led oddsmakers and pundits to establish them as the Super Bowl favorite entering the season. A championship remains within their reach despite a 4-4 record, one game back of where they were at midseason six years ago.
Thompson still can affect roster moves, but the next two months really boils down to the performance of McCarthy and Rodgers.
They shouldn’t be past their primes. Now it’s time to prove it.