If you thought last season’s offensive struggles would shake the faith of Mike McCarthy in the Packers system he created, think again.
“The easiest mistake is to say, ‘How is this team doing it? How did they get to be No. 1? We were No. 1, now they are, how did they get there? Let’s do what they’re doing,” says McCarthy, whose Packers scored their fewest points (368) since his first season in Green Bay in 2006 (301). “I’m not going to do that. I’ve never done that in my whole life. I believe in what we do. I believe in Aaron Rodgers, I believe in our players, I believe in our coaching staff. Frankly, we needed to clean our house up. Once we do that, we’ll get those results again.”
It was no secret that the Packers never overcame the preseason loss of receiver Jordy Nelson, who had over 1,200 yards receiving in his last three fully healthy seasons but missed all of 2015 with a torn ACL. With no one stepping up to replace Nelson’s ability to stretch the defense and create space for others underneath, the Packers’ passing game was a shell of its former self. Teams played man-to-man defense against the Packers, daring them to throw, and for the first time since 2006, they couldn’t do it.
“We can make all the excuses we want because we didn’t have Jordy,” McCarthy says. “We didn’t have Jordy, which influenced the way teams played us. We need to focus on the things that we can do better fundamentally against those schemes. That’s where we didn’t do a good enough job, whether it’s game planning ... it’s the players and coaches. It wasn’t just, ‘The players didn’t run their routes good enough.’ It’s not just that. It’s how you adjust and how you move forward. That’s what you learn from.”
Hopefully the Packers heeded lessons from 2015 because no one is sure how effective Nelson will be upon his return given his already unusual recovery timeline. Nelson injured his right knee on Aug. 23, and while other players routinely return in less than a year from ACL surgery, he wasn’t activated from the physically unable to perform list until Wednesday. On a recent visit to Packers training camp, I noticed Nelson, who earlier told reporters he had a “hiccup” in his other knee during the off-season, had a visible limp walking around the facility. Nelson also appeared skittish about lingering too long around the media. That’s not usually the demeanor of a veteran player confident in his status, especially after Nelson previously told reporters that his ACL was fine. Another factor could be that the Packers have a notoriously conservative medical staff.
Regardless of when Nelson returns, the Packers are going to need more from young receivers like Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery and Jared Abbrederis. Adams, who received some criticism last year for not being prepared enough, seems much sharper in practice and in sync with Rodgers. Abbrederis continues to stand out, and Montgomery has recently returned to try to fend off rookies like Trevor Davis and Geronimo Allison.
The Packers should also be more Nelson-proof with the addition of tight end Jared Cook. Despite underachieving in his previous stops with the Rams and Titans, Cook has been a great match with Rodgers in practice. Backup tight end Richard Rodgers should also be more of a viable target after slimming down and adding speed in the off-season. And of course, running back Eddie Lacy is in much better shape this season, so the Packers expect to be more effective on the ground.
“My only disappointment [last season] was we didn’t get to our ultimate goal,” says McCarthy. “Frankly, we look at how you gauge success at the NFL level and, I mean, it was a successful season. But when you don’t get [to the Super Bowl] and you’ve been there before, obviously the things you don’t do are magnified and what everyone thinks went wrong is even more magnified. And I get that. But I don’t really share in that belief.
“But you have to overcome everything that’s dealt with here. Some positions are harder to overcome than others. No disrespect to who that is at that position, Jordy Nelson, in this case. To me, that’s all part of how you train your team, that’s how you design the offense, defense in the off-season. That’s all built in. You have to be able to shift gears not just in a game but after the game when you don’t have those players.
“If you look at the end of the season, we were much more two-back, running the football, and frankly the way we played at the end of the year best fits the team.”
Other observations from around the league
Goodell isn’t wrong this time … yet: A journalistic entity reported that some active NFL players may be linked to performance-enhancing drugs. The NFL wanted to investigate the matter and sought to interview the players. The players—Julius Peppers, Clay Matthews, James Harrison and Mike Neal—repeatedly refused. The NFL informed the players that they will be suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the league unless they submit to interviews by Aug. 25. Considering the broad powers given to Roger Goodell in the collective bargaining agreement and backed up by the federal courts, this sounds completely reasonable to me. I don’t want to hear all the noise about players’ rights and how the NFL can’t be trusted. It’s clear the NFL can take this action. The players have a right to have an attorney present and can make their own records of the interviews. If they don’t submit to an interview, then Goodell should suspend them. Just give the interview.
Will Tagliabue, Jones get into Hall of Fame?: It was curious this week to see the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Contributor’s Committee offer up Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue as their nominees. Jones, for how he changed the way NFL teams conduct business, certainly deserves to be debated. But at least for me, when I think of Hall of Fame owners, I think of their teams having sustained success. Jones certainly had that early, with three titles in four years set up by Jimmy Johnson. But the Cowboys haven’t advanced past the divisional round since they won their last Super Bowl after the 1995 season. That was 21 years ago, and Jones has owned the Cowboys for 28 years. Shouldn’t the bar be a little higher for a man who has (against the team’s best interest, at times) kept himself as general manager? Broncos owner Pat Bowlen would seem to have a much better case and should be considered before Jones. As for Tagliabue, considering where we are with concussions and the labor stoppage the NFL had because of his last collective bargaining agreement, he’s going to have a tough time getting through a vote.
The Bills are a mess: Even before this week Camp Rex wasn’t exactly flowing with good news. The team’s top two draft picks, Shaq Lawson (shoulder surgery) and Reggie Ragland (ACL surgery)—both walk-off-the-bus starters according to general manager Doug Whaley—aren’t available. Reserve outside linebacker IK Enemkpali tore his ACL. Starters Sammy Watkins (foot), Cordy Glenn (ankle), Richie Incognito (ribs) and Aaron Williams (head) have all missed time. Running back Karlos Williams was suspended four games for violating the substance abuse policy. Now standout defensive tackle Marcell Dareus is out four games for violating the substance abuse policy, and outside linebacker Manny Lawson reportedly could face a one-game suspension. This isn’t exactly Rex Ryan’s fault, but he’s got to find a way to get things settled around the Bills or the season will be over before it starts.
Good on the Titans: Tennessee general manger Jon Robinson and coach Mike Mularkey were recently at a Make-A-Wish dinner when they decided to raffle off the team’s first two offensive plays in last week’s game against the Chargers. Not only were the plays successful for the Titans (a toss to DeMarco Murray gained 15 yards, and then a play-action pass to Tajae Sharpe went for 31), but the auction raised $20,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. “I thought for the first preseason game, the first two plays, you’re going to get probably five kids that are going to get wishes for life,” said Mularkey. “It was pretty good. It was a really special night.”