Archive | July, 2014

Packers are team to beat in NFC North

31 Jul
Packers defeat Bears

Aaron Rodgers’ 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb, with 46 seconds left on 4th-and-8, gave the Packers their third straight NFC North title. They defeated the Bears, 33-28, at Soldier Field.
Credit: martynneil.files.wordpress.com

It was 4th-and-8 at Soldier Field. The Packers’ playoff hopes were dwindling. They trailed the Bears on the road, 28-27, in the 2013 regular season finale. The next 46 seconds would determine the winner of the NFC North.

We all remember the play.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers took the snap. He faced an immediate rush from Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. Fullback John Kuhn arrived in a knick of time, blocking Peppers just enough to prevent him from reaching Rodgers. The former MVP rolled out to his left and heaved a dime to Randall Cobb, who bolted past a flatfooted Chris Conte to haul in a 48-yard game-winning touchdown, propelling the Packers into the playoffs.

The Bears were stunned – an all-too-familiar feeling against their archrival. The Packers went on to win the division for the third straight season, but their playoff campaign was short-lived, as they were bounced from the postseason by the San Francisco 49ers in the Wild Card round.

During the offseason, the gap continued to close in the NFC North.

The Bears improved their defensive line with free agent acquisitions Lamarr Houston (Raiders) and Jared Allen (Vikings). They also boast the best wide receiver duo in the league in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. There’s hardly a debate about that. The Bears’ offense could be one of the most explosive units in the NFL this season, but it may come down to the play of quarterback Jay Cutler, who Marshall recently declared will be the 2014 NFL MVP. If the league is looking to further investigate substance abuse among its players, Marshall could be their next target after such a ludicrous statement. Confidence clearly isn’t lacking in Chicago, but there’s quite a fine line between confidence and arrogance. Considering the hype in Chi-town, you’d think the Bears were the team with three straight division titles. That’s not the case. However, they remain the Packers’ most prominent threat in the division.

The Lions were perhaps in the best shape to seize their opportunity to win the division last season, but their discipline issues proved costly, as they were their own worst enemy down the stretch. New head coach Jim Caldwell – with his level-headed demeanor – will be a much-needed breath of fresh air for Detroit. Caldwell is more respected than former head coach Jim Schwartz. But let’s be honest, that’s not saying much. On the plus side, you most likely won’t see Caldwell trying to start a fight with an opposing coach after the postgame handshake, which can only be good news for Lions fans. The Lions added tight end Eric Ebron in the draft and former Seahawks receiver Golden Tate in free agency to complement Calvin Johnson in the passing game. Don’t be surprised if the Lions turn things around this season and make a run at the division title.

The Vikings can’t really be considered a serious contender in the division until they figure out their quarterback situation first. They have three quarterbacks competing for first-team reps in training camp, including their 32nd overall pick in this year’s draft, Teddy Bridgewater. The other potential suitors for the position include Matt Cassell and Christian Ponder, whose days as the Vikings’ starter appear to be all but over. If history is any indication, quarterback controversies don’t typically end well. It’s a shame, too. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is waiting for an opportunity to breakout. He’s one of the most explosive playmakers in the league, and he showed flashes of brilliance last season. The Vikings just need to find a way to get the ball in his hands. Of course, Adrian Peterson is always a threat in the Vikings’ backfield, but at 29 years old, he appears to be losing ground on his quest for a Super Bowl ring. Unless the Vikings turn it around, Peterson will be remembered as one of the best players to never win a championship.

Now, the good stuff.

The Packers are the class of the NFC North. That trend will continue until another team steps up and decides it’s had enough. Despite remaining in familiar territory atop the division the past three seasons, the Packers certainly can’t be satisfied with one-and-dones in the playoffs. They’re not far off from another Super Bowl, though.  Here are the four reasons why the Packers will win the NFC North in 2014.

Lack of experience within the division: Entering his ninth season, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is the longest-tenured head coach in the division by far. Bears head coach Marc Trestman is heading into his second season, and the aforementioned Caldwell – who has three years of previous experience as the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts – and Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer are entering their first season with their respective teams. Don’t underestimate the importance of having the same coaching staff year-in and year-out. It typically takes time for players to adjust to a new coaching style and system.

Additionally, we saw the Lions and Bears unravel with an opportunity to take control of the division at the end of last season while the Packers were ailing. Let’s face it; neither team had much experience with a division lead during the past few seasons, and that won’t change until they start winning meaningful games in November and December. The Packers have proven to be the team with the most resilience in the NFC North, and McCarthy’s experience is primarily responsible for their stranglehold on the division.

Julius Peppers and an improved defense: The Packers don’t have the reputation of being an aggressive team in free agency. That altered a bit in March when they scooped up Peppers, who spent the last four seasons with the rival Bears. Those in Chicago hold a firm belief that Peppers has lost a step. They accuse him of taking plays off. Regardless of their beef with Peppers, they most likely aren’t happy about seeing him end up in Green Bay, especially opposite Clay Matthews. Peppers and Matthews have never had the benefit of being paired with another player of their caliber.

They do now.

The Bears misused Peppers as an every-down player, which may have resulted in his declining performance. He’s no spring chicken anymore. The Packers plan to use Peppers in a variety of positions, formations and situations, maximizing his effort when he is on the field. He also has been reunited with Packers defensive line coach Mike Trgovac, who coached Peppers for several seasons in Carolina. The comfort and familiarity will allow Peppers to excel in the Packers’ defensive system. Even at 34 years old and in the twilight of his career, the aging Peppers is a physical specimen and has the ability to make a difference. He has almost everything – size, speed, versatility, athleticism, and now, added motivation from his doubters. If he can put it all together this season, he might end up with the one thing he doesn’t have: a Super Bowl ring. If nothing else, the Packers have acquired a seasoned veteran who will be a mentor to their young crop of defensive players.

The team selected safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix with the 21st overall pick in the draft, and he may not even start due to Micah Hyde’s transition from cornerback to safety. Even so, the Packers have a lot of depth at the position. Paired with Morgan Burnett, either player will be an upgrade over Jerron McMillian or M.D. Jennings, who started for the Packers in 2013. Also in the secondary, cornerback Casey Hayward is fully healthy, after missing a majority of games with hamstring issues last season.

In recent years, the defense has been the Packers’ weakness. It finished 24th overall last season. With the addition of Peppers, as well as returning players, there’s no reason to believe the defense won’t be average, at the very least. It is poised to become a top-10 unit this season. Defensive end Mike Daniels already has expressed his desire for the defense to have a more physical mentality and match the offense’s production. If the offense and defense are clicking at the same time, the Packers will be even more of a threat, which is a scary thought for the rest of the league.

Eddie Lacy: Roll tide, right? The reigning offensive rookie of the year, Eddie Lacy, put the Packers on his back last season when Rodgers was out for seven games with a broken collarbone. He often faced stacked boxes due to the Packers’ lack of reliable quarterback play, but his punishing running style allowed him to grind out 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. The Packers plan to increase Lacy’s role in the offense and involve him more in the passing game. His 35 receptions last season are nothing to scoff at, but you can expect that total to increase this season. There are so few three-down running backs in the NFL, but Lacy is a true workhorse in the Packers’ backfield.

With Rodgers’ return, Lacy will undoubtedly face more favorable defensive looks in 2014. It’s no wonder Lacy is always smiling. He knows what lies ahead. Now that the Packers have a formidable rushing attack with Lacy, James Starks and DuJuan Harris, the possibilities are endless for the Packers offense.

Aaron Rodgers: It’s enviable that Brandon Marshall thinks Jay Cutler will be the MVP in 2014, but for that to happen, Cutler would need to be the best quarterback, and player, in the league. He’s not even the best quarterback in the NFC North. Injuries happen to every team during the course of the season, but the Packers had the worst injury bug in the NFL last season. They lost Rodgers for seven games, and that alone is enough to make the argument.

When Rodgers is playing, the Packers are as dangerous as any team in the NFL. He’s that good. Not only that, he has a mutually beneficial relationship with Lacy. In total, Rodgers and Lacy only played in six games together last season, but the pair will make each other better. If teams stack the box to defend against Lacy, Rodgers will beat them through the air. If teams play deep in the secondary to defend against Rodgers, Lacy will run wild. And the last thing opposing defenders want is to face Lacy head on. Ultimately, defenses will have no choice but to respect the running game, leading to a plethora of opportunities for Rodgers. On paper, it would seem the Packers offense will be unstoppable in 2014. The end result will be one of the best seasons of Rodgers’ career.

The pieces are in place for the Packers, but the Bears and Lions won’t back down, either. The NFC North will be one of the most interesting division battles to follow in 2014, but when all is said and done, the Packers will be on top.

Who do you think will win the NFC North?

Jordy Nelson is different from past Packers receivers

28 Jul
Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson signed a 4-year, $39 million contract extension on the first day of Training Camp.  Credit: standingosports.com

Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson signed a 4-year, $39 million contract extension on the first day of Training Camp.
Credit: standingosports.com

Jordy Nelson is one of the most underrated players in the NFL, but not one of the most undervalued – at least not anymore. On the first day of Training Camp, the Packers’ star receiver signed a 4-year, $39 million contract extension. The deal also includes an $11.5 million signing bonus and $14.2 million in guaranteed money.

In 2013, Nelson had the best season of his career, posting 85 receptions for 1,314 yards (both career highs) and eight touchdowns.  While Nelson’s stats are impressive, perhaps what’s more impressive is that he managed to put together an elite season without the services of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who missed seven games after breaking his collarbone.

During that span, Nelson relied on Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn to throw him the football.

Those are hardly Rodgers-caliber quarterbacks.

Nelson’s numbers understandably dropped off without Rodgers under center, but he never completely slowed down. Despite the Packers’ quarterback carousel, Nelson stepped up in Rodgers’ absence and played a crucial role in the team’s push to make the playoffs.

He should have made the Pro Bowl, but considering how much of joke that game is anyway, I’ll refrain from further comment.

Just days before inking his new extension, Nelson announced he was seeking a contract that would pay him at least $10 million per year. That was dangerous territory for a 29-year-old receiver playing for a team with a history of letting receivers walk when they’re pushing 30.

Former Packers receivers Greg Jennings and James Jones both were 29 when they tested the free-agent market. Jennings – whose ego was too big to return to Green Bay – eventually signed with the Minnesota Vikings in 2013. Jones signed with the Oakland Raiders this offseason. He was nothing more than a No. 3 receiver in the Packers’ offense, although he led the NFL with 14 touchdown receptions in 2012.

But Nelson is different.

Rodgers said Nelson has the best instincts of any receiver he’s played with during his career. That’s high praise from one of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks.

The Packers have a great deal of youth at the position, so they simply couldn’t afford to let Nelson reach free agency. He is the most reliable asset in the Packers’ receiving corps and has a connection with Rodgers that ranks among the NFL’s best.

With so much conversation throughout the league regarding the best quarterback-receiver duo, most would list Matthew Stafford to Calvin Johnson, Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas, Matt Ryan to Julio Jones, Tony Romo to Dez Bryant, Andy Dalton to A.J. Green, or Jay Cutler to Brandon Marshall.

Rodgers and Nelson are often excluded from the conversation and rarely garner much media attention, but they have quietly put together an impressive résumé that certainly merits consideration.

Since 2011, Rodgers has thrown to Nelson 224 times, completing 158 passes (70.5 completion percentage) for 2,683 yards, 26 touchdowns and a mere three interceptions. Those stats result in a ridiculous 143.9 passer rating. To put it into perspective, the next-closest passer rating is 123.0, by Peyton Manning to Demaryius Thomas.

Now I ask you, who is the best quarterback-receiver tandem in the league? The numbers speak for themselves.

Packers fans can rejoice, knowing the 12-to-87 combination will be around for several more years, giving the team a consistent threat in the passing game. Opposing defenses can continue to underestimate Nelson. He’ll continue to make plays.

Next on the Packers’ agenda is Randall Cobb, whose rookie contract will expire at the end of the 2014-2015 season. Cobb doesn’t believe he’s earned an extension yet, but you can be certain he’ll make the most of his opportunities this season to prove his value, the same way Nelson has throughout his career. The end result might be a similar contract extension.

One down, one to go.