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Packers brain trust needs to avoid complacency

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Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
January 12, 2014

GREEN BAY—It’s one thing to be confident. It’s another to be smug.

Listening to Mike McCarthy, Aaron Rodgers and others last week, it would appear as if the Green Bay Packers think they can just roll the balls out next season and be a prime contender for the Super Bowl.

All this stuff about finishing strong and overcoming adversity has to stop.

The Packers didn’t finish strong. They were on their home field in their kind of weather and in ideal position to beat a powerful foe in the playoff opener. Then they blew it in the last six minutes.

They also didn’t overcome adversity. The Packers lose their starting quarterback for the first time in 21 years and are proud of going 2-5-1 against a soft schedule (five at home) without him?

Let’s be clear about something else. The NFC North championship was more about the Detroit Lions pulling a colossal fold than the Green Bay Packers doing anything wonderful.

From the sound of things, the Packers—aside from a tweak here and a tweak there—plan to keep on operating the way they always have under Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers.

In case they missed it, pro football has moved on since the Packers’ lone Super Bowl in their eight seasons as partners.

While the Packers were beating the Joe Webb-quarterbacked Vikings for their only postseason triumph since the 45th Super Bowl, NFC upstarts Seattle, Carolina and San Francisco—a combined 15-33 in 2010 when Green Bay was winning it all—drafted dynamic quarterbacks and made vast improvements to marginal defenses.

It might have been a terrible year in the division, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way.

The Vikings panicked and missed on Christian Ponder, but with the No. 8 pick in the draft they’ll probably be right back in the quarterback hunt. If the Vikings find the next Russell Wilson, Cam Newton or Colin Kaepernick, they have more than enough good young players to be right back in the division race next season and beyond.

Ill-tempered and arrogant Jim Schwartz, whose teams were always undisciplined, did get the Lions out of jail. Whoever the next coach is would be a better choice than Schwartz to erase the stench of that 1-6 finish.

And aggressive general manager Phil Emery, already having built a formidable offense, will be using every means at his disposal in an attempt to rebuild the broken defense in Chicago.

Meanwhile, in Green Bay, McCarthy on Wednesday talked about what might have been in 2013 and, as his quarterback did a day earlier, a championship window they don’t foresee closing any time soon.

The Packers could forget how fortunate they were that the Lions self-destructed and bask in their third straight NFC North crown and fifth straight playoff berth.

The T-shirts around town say division champs, baby. How can you argue with success?

Or the Packers can take a long look at themselves, admit to their many shortcomings and failings and come back as a more vibrant organization under old standbys Thompson, McCarthy, Rodgers and Dom Capers.

None of those four men has any reason to feel good about the recent past.

Thompson has made his share of outstanding picks in the draft. It’s his area of expertise, and his drafting record over the years is better than the norm.

Last year, Thompson went blithely along with McCarthy on the idea that Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman were capable backups when everyone in America knew that they weren’t. Given Vince Young’s mental limitations, his signing Aug. 5 made no sense, either.

If Thompson hadn’t dawdled for a week before bringing back Matt Flynn, the Packers might have gone 2-0 against the Giants and Vikings instead of 0-1-1.

Thompson made another mistake when he didn’t sign another center after Greg Van Roten was done for the season Sept. 30. When Evan Dietrich-Smith couldn’t play an entire game, at least two changes in the line had to be made and the offense fell apart against the Eagles and Lions.

A secret to the Packers’ continued success has been their ability to identify core players early and sign them to slightly below-market contracts. Thompson’s decision to give Morgan Burnett a big-money extension in mid-July and then watch him perform like a free agent should have rocked the franchise’s draft-and-develop model.

As good as the Packers have been acquiring extra draft picks, there usually aren’t enough of them to close all the holes. The safety position in Green Bay the past two years is a perfect example.

Thompson’s aversion to veteran acquisition, whether through unrestricted free agency, street free agency or trade, must end for the Packers to hang with the top teams.

John Schneider, Dave Gettleman and Trent Baalke, the personnel-oriented GMs in Seattle, Carolina and San Francisco, have their teams among the final four in the NFC partly because of their veteran additions.

In the trades of 2013, look what Anquan Boldin did for the 49ers, what Alex Smith did for the Chiefs, what LeGarrette Blount did for the Patriots, what Jerry Hughes (10 sacks) did for the Bills, what Carson Palmer did for the Cardinals and what Jon Beason did for the Giants.

In free agency, some of the wise signings on offense were tight end Martellus Bennett by the Bears, guards Louis Vasquez by the Broncos and Matt Slauson by the Bears, and running back Danny Woodhead by the Chargers.

The list on defense includes ends Michael Bennett by the Seahawks and Mike DeVito by the Chiefs, nose tackle Glenn Dorsey by the 49ers, inside linebacker Karlos Dansby by the Cardinals, outside linebacker John Abraham by the Cardinals, cornerback Keenan Lewis by the Saints, safety Glover Quin by the Lions, kicker Phil Dawson by the 49ers and receiver-returner Ted Ginn Jr. by the Panthers.

Green Bay’s only signing was Matthew Mulligan.

“They have no pro department up there,” an executive in personnel said. “Ted does some good things in drafting but they don’t do (expletive) in personnel.

“Ted has shut it down lately. They’ve gone stone cold. They have not been utilizing all the markets. Now it’s caught up to him.”

If Thompson trusts himself, pro personnel director Eliot Wolf and others in the building, he’ll resume activity in free agency and seek bargain-priced or market-priced veterans to augment the draft.

As one scout put it, “You start at 8-8 when you have a franchise quarterback.”

McCarthy deserves a degree of credit for developing Rodgers. He deserves blame for not being able to function better without him.

He’s the quarterback/offensive/playcalling guru. He didn’t get it done with Harrell, Coleman and Young, and when push came to shove he didn’t get it done with Seneca Wallace or Scott Tolzien, either.

Try as he might, McCarthy failed to win a game for a month. In that period, he couldn’t rally the team the way some great coaches in similar straits have done over the decades.

It also would have helped if McCarthy could have counted on his special teams more when Rodgers wasn’t around to outscore the opposition. Unlike coaches that have had to make do without a great quarterback, he never had to depend on his kicking game for field position and points.

Bill Walsh never seemed to care. If McCarthy really does care, you wouldn’t know it by the performance of his special teams for much of his tenure.

As for the overriding problem of injuries, McCarthy either has the most fragile or the unluckiest team in the league. The Packers need to find tougher players from the standpoint of injuries (see Eddie Lacy), but I’m not sure McCarthy or any of his advisers have a clue how to do it.

The pipeline from Thompson to the defense has all but dried up after the draft-day trade for Clay Matthews in 2009. That has placed undue burden on Capers, but as someone regarded by many in football as a top-five to top-10 coordinator it’s incumbent upon him to perform better than this.

In the last four years, the Packers have ranked 28th, 26th, 26th and 29th in yards allowed per rush. Stopping the run is the foundation for any defense.

After a one-year improvement, the total of missed tackles (127) was almost back to the 2011 level (140) that sent McCarthy on an offseason tirade.

Just when it seemed the Packers could never allow as many as the 85 plays of 20 yards or more that they did two years ago, they yielded 82.

The red-zone defensive ranking was in the 20s for the third straight year, and the points-off-takeaways totals the past two years were by far the two lowest of the McCarthy era.

So many evils on defense returned to Green Bay this season.

Capers, however, has owned Jay Cutler (8-1) and Matthew Stafford (6-1), and it’s a critical feather in his cap.

In 2010, Rodgers performed well in the first and third playoff games and brilliantly in the second and fourth. His pelts forever are on the wall.

Since then, in four playoff games, he outplayed the aforementioned Webb (subbing last minute for the injured Ponder) in the only victory and was outplayed by Kaepernick twice and Eli Manning once in the three defeats.

Not once in those four games did the opposing coordinators all-out blitz Rodgers, and on a mere 12.3 percent of passes did they even pressure with five. Just as San Francisco’s Vic Fangio did last Sunday, the way to subdue Rodgers in the postseason is to make him be patient.

After review, it could be said that Rodgers gave the Packers ordinary quarterback play in his last four playoff starts.

Rodgers accepted blame Tuesday, but the only thing that matters will be if he performs a whole lot better than ordinary if and when his team returns to the postseason.

In a league set up for quarterbacks to dominate, the Packers need Rodgers to dominate. By the same token, they need Thompson, McCarthy and Capers to step up their games.

Complacency can be insidious within a National Football League operation. The Packers should have nothing to be complacent about.



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