After dismantling the Cowboys on Sunday night, the Packers go into their bye week with a 6-3 record and in first place in the NFC North. It is not surprising that the Packers are in this position – many predicted they would win the division and maybe even reach the Super Bowl – but it is surprising how they got here.
Most observers thought Aaron Rodgers and an elite offense would carry the Packers and make up for an inconsistent secondary and spotty pass rush. That has not been the case. Due to injuries and inconsistency, the offense has sputtered and the defense – specifically the secondary and a pass rush led by Clay Matthews – can take credit for a lot of the Packers success thus far.
The stars have been complemented by a surprising group of unproven rookies and backups that has filled in admirably for injured starters. Raise your hand if you predicted the Packers would use a combination of high-profile stars, late-round draft picks and waiver-wire castoffs to be the best team in the NFC North after nine weeks? If your hand is raised, use it to slap yourself for lying.
Nobody could have predicted how the Packers got to where they are today, but one publication came close…sort of.
The Football Outsiders predicted the Packers to win the NFC North, but also called 2010 a “rebuilding year” for the green and gold. Most people equate rebuilding with losing, but the Outsiders defined it a little differently in the Packers’ case.
Writing in the Football Outsiders 2010 Almanac, Bill Barnwell called the Packers a good team with an odd mix of emerging young stars and proven, but aging, veterans. Barnwell breaks the Packers into two groups: Favre era players that are 30 years old or older (Chad Clifton, Donald Driver, Al Harris, Ryan Pickett, Charles Woodson and Mark Tauscher) and the “Rodgers Gang,” which are all 27 or younger (Nick Collins, Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings, Matthews, BJ Raji and Rodgers).
Barnwell contends that it is dangerous to rely so heavily on the older players from the Favre era. These veterans could “fall off a cliff” at any time due to injury or the natural regression of players once they reach a certain age. Barnwell also opined that Ted Thompson’s whiffs in the first and second round of recent drafts (AJ Hawk, Justin Harrell, Pat Lee) would make it difficult to replace anyone from the Favre era.
However, Barnwell gives Thompson credit for drafting well in later rounds and finding talent on the waiver wire. We are seeing evidence of that this season. Players like CJ Wilson (7th round), Sam Shields (undrafted), Desmond Bishop (6th round), Charlie Peprah (waiver wire) and John Kuhn (waiver wire) have stepped up to replace injured starters and keep the season from falling apart.
One could say that Barnwell was spot on with his rebuilding assessment. The Packers are definitely rebuilding, but instead of occurring over the course of a season or two like most rebuilds, the Packers are rebuilding on the fly.
The Packers have 10 players on injured reserve and have lost other key players to various injuries throughout the season. Barnwell’s modified version of rebuilding could have turned into a traditional rebuild – the kind where you go 6-10 and start thinking about next season in mid-November – very quick. But it hasn’t because the Packers have rebuilt over the span of a few weeks instead of a few years.
Of course, rebuilding on the fly is easier when you have Rodgers, Matthews, Woodson, Tramon Williams and a rejuvenated Clifton on your team. But even with those stars, the Packers might be 3-6 instead of 6-3 if the replacements for injured players failed to not only fill in admirably, but also make impact plays.
Bishop’s pick-six against Brett Favre and the Vikings might have been the most exciting moment at Lambeau Field since the snow globe playoff game in 2007. Peprah’s hits against Jets receivers late in the game forced incompletions and preserved an unexpected road victory. Kuhn’s rushing late against the Lions helped the Packers avoid an embarrassing loss to the Lions.
We are witnessing one of the strangest, and one of the most exciting, rebuilds in recent NFL history. So far it has been a lot of fun mixed with several moments of frustration that come with any rebuild. The key question is: Can this combination of young stars, old stalwarts and unknowns turn this rebuilding project into something special?——————