Last year was the prototypical “you take the good with the bad” season for the Green Bay Packers. The bad? A disappointing 6-10 season that left them on the outside of the NFC playoff picture. The good? The emergence of QB Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers solidified himself as the heir apparent to Brett Favre in 2008 with numbers worthy of No. 4 – over 4000 passing yards, 28 TDs to 13 interceptions and a passer rating of 93.8. Impressive stuff in what was essentially his first crack at the Green Bay starting gig; Rogers emerged as not only the Packers’ QB of the future but one of the best young signal callers in the National Football League.
The big question now: Can his teammates catch up?
Key Departures: DT Colin Cole. Key Acquisitions: Free Agents – OT Duke Preston, S Anthony Smith. Draft – NT-DE B.J. Raji (1st round), OLB Clay Matthews (1st round).
Much to the chagrin of the NFL betting world that saw Packers games routinely hit the over last season, there weren’t a lot of defensive personnel changes in Wisconsin this summer. Colin Cole departed for Seattle and will presumably be replaced by B.J. Raji, the hulking defensive lineman from Boston College. Raji will be one of the centerpieces in new defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense; Aaron Kampman, who will be switching from end to linebacker; DE Cullen Jenkins; ILBs Nick Barnett and A.J. Hawk will make up the linebacking core along with rookie Matthews. It’s a dynamic shift in philosophy and a daring one at that – rather than address the personnel of a defense that was gouged last year, Green Bay has opted to keep the pieces and simply change the shape of the puzzle. The 3-4 is rare in the NFC North, but Capers has proven successful with it in the past. How it plays out will be one of the more interesting stories in the division.
Offensively, Green Bay was tremendous a year ago and should only get better. Rogers has developed great rapport with WR Greg Jennings, one of the NFC’s most dynamic playmakers a year ago with 1292 receiving yards and nine TDs. Veteran Donald Driver is a great No. 2 option at wideout while youngsters James Jones, Jordy Nelson and Donald Lee give Rodgers three more viable options to throw to. At running back, it’s hard to know what Ryan Grant will provide this year, given his stellar 2007 season (where he averaged 5.1 yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns) was followed with an average 2008 (3.9 yards per carry, four touchdowns). Former Nebraska standout Brandon Jackson could be in line for a good share of carries if Grant struggles this year, so keep an eye on him. Still, it’s a good offense, and the online sports book community shares this optimism – currently, the Packers are at 41/20 to win the NFC North championship outright.
Notable 2009 Games: Obviously, all eyes will be on Green Bay’s two inter-divisional matchups against Favre and the Minnesota Vikings (Monday, October 5 at Minnesota, Sunday, November 1 at Green Bay), but there are some other intriguing matchups as well. The Packers host the Ravens in a rare AFC crossover game on Monday Night Football (December 7) and will travel to Pittsburgh on Dec 20 in a battle of America’s great football cities.
2009 Outlook: Offensively, the Packers are sound – they can score with anyone. Defensively, though, is where the major questions arise, in that a switch from 4-3 to 3-4 might not be the solution to the problems that plagued Green Bay all of last season. If Capers can get buy-in across the board, the defense should improve and that’ll make Green Bay a viable contender for the NFC North crown; 9-7 or 10-6 seems like a fair estimate.