2011 Green Bay Packers: 10-6, 2nd in North Division, Won Super Bowl XLV
Last August, I dedicated the third blog post of my life to preview the 2010 season for the Green Bay Packers. Having come off a year where the Packers were arguably the third best team in the NFC and yet suffered such a demoralizing loss in the first round of the playoffs, I was cautiously optimistic going into Aaron Rodgers' third season as the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers. I felt that the pieces were nearly in place and that a deep run in the post-season would be another step in the right direction for the league's smallest franchise, so that's what I predicted: the Packers would finish 11-5 and fall in the game leading up to the Super Bowl. It seemed to make sense...Green Bay hadn't lost any key contributors in between '09 and '10 and therefore it made sense that they would make a jump, but deep down I knew that perhaps if the chips fell right, the Pack could find themselves in Dallas for Super Bowl 45. After a 3-3 start and names like Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley and Nick Barnett on the shelf, this feeling had left and didn't plan on making a return. Or so I thought.
Fast forward about three months and the Packers are celebrating on a podium in the middle of the Dallas Cowboys' brand new stadium with the Lombardi Trophy while Clay Matthews gives Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers an actual championship belt. Finally, Rodgers' celebration was justified and Green Bay had won a Super Bowl that I could truly call my own...first grade Dave could only appreciate winning Super Bowl XXXI so much. As fun as winning the Super Bowl was, it's time to put it in the rear view mirror and focus on the new task at hand. Because of all the injuries the Packers sustained through last season, it didn't seem necessary to make any splashes in free agency since the players returning from injury were essentially additions to a team that just won a championship. As a result, other teams around the league like the Eagles, Jets and Patriots garnered a lot of attention...and that's just the way Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy want it. With that, let's take a look at some of the players the Packers saw walk away as well some key players making a return.
Key losses: DT Cullen Jenkins, SS Atari Bigby, LB Nick Barnett, LB Brady Poppinga, LB Brandon Chillar, RB Brandon Jackson, OT Mark Tauscher
Key returnees/additions: TE Jermichael Finley, SS Morgan Burnett, RB Ryan Grant, FB John Kuhn, WR James Jones, K Mason Crosby, OG/OT Derek Sherrod, WR/KR Randall Cobb, RB/KR Alex Green
The Packers will hardly lose anything on offense and in fact will probably get better thanks to using their first three picks on offensive players (offensive tackle, wide receiver, running back) along with starting running back Ryan Grant and starting tight end Jermichael Finley returning from season ending injuries. With the departure of o-linemen Jason Spitz, Mark Tauscher and Daryn Colledge, Green Bay finds themselves a little depleted up front, so they used their first round pick on Derek Sherrod, an offensive tackle. He has been moved back and forth between tackle and guard during the course of the preseason since there is still uncertainty at left guard, but it's beginning to appear that he will back up both tackle Chad Clifton and guard T.J. Lang. The next two players drafted, wide receiver Randall Cobb and running back Alex Green, should both also be utilized in the return game, an area that the Packers could definitely use some improvement. Cobb has looked solid thus far in the preseason at both receiver and returner and Green had his moments in the second week of the exhibition season. The Packers probably like Green for third down situations and he could develop into even more than that should the Pack eventually part ways with Grant. By bringing back wide-out James Jones at a cheaper price than they expected, there isn't much room for Cobb in the receiving corps, but it now means that the Packers are LOADED on the outside with Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson and Donald Driver all returning.
Oh, and I heard that the Packers had a pretty good guy under center. Aaron Rodgers is obviously a stud, but so is his backup - and maybe even his backups' backup. Matt Flynn has looked as solid as ever during the preseason and we all saw what he can do in real games last season against the Pats. And then there's Graham Harrell, who has probably done enough to earn a roster spot each and every week. I don't think the Packers can afford to place Harrell on the practice squad again for a couple reasons...for one, Flynn has become a valuable trade commodity, so he could be gone sometime in the next year or two. I mean, look what the Eagles got in return for Kevin Kolb - a 2nd rounder and a starting corner? Imagine if Green Bay could get something similar for Flynn. This leads me to my next reason...if Harrell is on the practice squad, he could be claimed by another team and then Flynn isn't quite as expendable. I love Flynn and I think he's great to have, especially if Rodgers goes down like he did last year, but what we could get in return for him might be better for the Packers in the long run...and then Harrell could step in to the number two spot. This is all just speculation, but probably an issue that needs to be addressed.
The old saying goes, "defense wins championships," and that's one saying that I have always found to be rather stupid. You know what else wins championship? Offense. Special teams. Good play calling. Good execution. Limiting mistakes. Making big plays. You get it by now, but the Packers did come up with some big plays on defense in Super Bowl XLV and they return many players from the unit that "won" the championship. Barnett and Jenkins are gone and the loss of Jenkins still stings (especially since he went to the Eagles), but safety Morgan Burnett is back and the Packers arguably are better at middle linebacker with Desmond Bishop. Up front, there are still questions and I was surprised that Green Bay didn't use any early draft picks on the defensive line, but there are still guys like B.J. Raji and Ryan Pickett fence to help plug the middle. Several others will be in the mix, but that is definitely an area to keep an eye on, especially since the guys up front are the ones who allow the Packers to blitz and stuff the run game up the middle. Speaking of questions, now that Frank Zombo has gone down with an injury and could possibly be placed on IR (hope to God not), it's between Erik Walden and Brad Jones for the spot opposite of Clay Matthews. My feeling is that it will be a bit of a platoon, with Walden providing more of a blitzing option and Jones being much better dropping back into coverage. Moving on to the secondary, not much has changed, but Burnett is back and appears to have regained his starting role at strong safety with Charlie Peprah providing an excellent security blanket. Burnett will be surrounded by pro bowlers in the secondary, so their shouldn't be much cause for concern. Nick Collins and Tramon Williams are only getting better as they are still early in their careers and we'll see if old Father Time starts catching up with Chuck Woodson. If there are problems at the corners, which I don't expect, there is plenty of depth with Sam Shields, Jarrett Bush...I suppose...and newcomer Davon House. House was the first defensive player drafted by Green Bay and I'm holding out hope that House won't turn out to be like fellow Packer corner Pat Lee, who frankly doesn't deserve a roster spot.
A quick blurb on special teams...kicker Mason Crosby apparently earned a new, luxurious contract and is back with the Pack. There's no denying that Cros has a big time leg, but he needs to start making the big kicks. Fortunately, there weren't any tough situations presented for Crosby late in the 2010 season, but the Packers probably won't be so lucky this season. For once, there isn't any preseason competition at punter and the job belongs to Tim Masthay, who was huge last year in the playoffs - man, it's good to finally have a punter who lasts longer than one season in Green Bay. Like I mentioned previously, rookies Alex Green and Randall Cobb should be involved in the return game. However, Cobb is battling an injury that no one knows the extent of, so we could see Jordy Nelson back in the return game equation or even Chastin West, whose strong preseason performance could land him as a return option or number five receiver.
Prediction time. The Packers finished second once again and therefore face about as tough of a schedule as they did last season, when they went 10-6. Of course, injuries contributed to this record (which should have been better) and it's hard to imagine the Packers seeing that many injuries two years in a row (knock on wood). With many players back from injury and the additions outweighing the subtractions, I'm expecting big things in 2011.
Regular Season Record: 11-5
Playoffs: Lose in NFC Championship game
Yes, I said the exact same thing last season. Yes, my prediction partially stems from the fact that the Philadelphia Eagles got way, way better and the NFC is getting tougher and tougher each year. Yes, I'm a superstitious idiot.