Tuesday, September 6, 2011

5 Factors That Could Foil a Packer Repeat

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am presently witnessing the Giants' struggle to repeat as World Series champions -- heck, more like their struggle just to make the playoffs.  Giants fans are frustrated.  They expect another title, based on the heightened expectations of winning it all last year.

Let's face it, as Packers fans we expect the same thing.  We won the Super Bowl.  We had a great draft.  We re-signed most of our key free agents.  And we have a bunch of starters returning from IR.  Why wouldn't we repeat???  Certainly that is the expectation in Vegas, where only the Patriots have better odds (5 to 1 vs 6 to 1 for the Packers) of winning it all.

Of course, we all know the reality is that repeating is extremely difficult, though not impossible.  In fact, the Super Bowl champion has repeated 7 times in the 45 years it has been played (a 15.5% repeat rate), including the Patriots in '04/'05, Broncos in '98/'99, Cowboys in '93/'94, 49ers in '89/'90, Steelers twice in '75/'76 and '79/'80, and, of course, the Packers in '67/'68.  There are many reasons repeating is so difficult -- including the NFL's practice of creating tougher schedules for the teams with the best record the previous season, the high probability of injury to key players, and not to mention the fact that 31 other teams circle the reigning champion as the team to beat.

The other reason repeating is so elusive is that winning the Super Bowl requires considerable luck, even when you are as good as we all believe the 2011 Packers are.  The Packers' ability to overcome an incredible string of bad luck last year (15 players on IR, all 6 regular season losses by 4 points or fewer, 4 with last-second field goals and 2 in overtime) was amazingly rare.  To not win their division, barely make the playoffs as a sixth seed, and win three road playoff games is something we may not again witness in our lifetimes.

So in an attempt to reverse-jinx this season, here are the 5 factors that could blow the Packers' chance to repeat.

The scene no Packer fan wants to see again this season. 
1) Rodgers goes down -- I know this is thinking the unthinkable, but the Packers' chances for a repeat rest squarely on the Super Bowl MVP staying healthy for the full season.  Although Matt Flynn has certainly shown he can play, he would be a first-year QB if he were pushed into significant playing time.  First-year QBs are usually .500 performers, best case -- even when they're really good.  Rodgers was 6-10 his first year as a starter in 2008 on a team that went 13-3 the previous season.

2) Offensive line struggles -- Chad Clifton had an outstanding season last year.  But at age 35 the probability of him playing at that level, without injury for another complete season is low.  If Clifton does go down, I have concerns about Derek Sherrod's ability to fill in.  Not that he can't become a quality left tackle.  It's just that he's a rookie, and he played like one in the pre-season.  The other concern on the O-line is T.J. Lang replacing Daryn Colledge at left guard.  Lang clearly won the starting job over Sherrod, who was obviously not up to the transition inside.  And Lang has been complimented by his teammates for his mean streak and more physical play.  But being a successful guard requires more than being a bad ass.  In fact, intelligence is arguably more important at the position, due to the need to quickly identify and pick up complex blitz packages.  The Packers gave up too many sacks in the pre-season, and if they start looking like the 2009 O-line, we will have problems (see issue #1 above).

3) Can't manufacture a pass rush -- seems like a worrywart concern in a defense that features Clay Matthews, Charles Woodson, and Dom Caper's creative blitz schemes, but the ability to replace Cullen Jenkins' pass rushing abilities could prove difficult.  Mike Neal has the task of filling Jenkins' shoes, but Capers will likely look elsewhere for generating QB pressure.  I read in Sports Illustrated that the Packers ran a 2-4 with 5 DBs almost 70% of the time last year.  So it will most likely be somebody else who will have to step up or Matthews will see more double and triple coverage.  Like a lot of Packer fans after the Chiefs game, I'm hoping that Vic So'oto could provide a spark here, but that's probably wishful thinking -- he'll need more development before he becomes a real factor on the field in the regular season.

4) Another rash of injuries -- over-coming the loss of so many players, particularly key starters like Grant and Finley, last year just doesn't happen.  In fact, the Packers had to fight and claw and barely even made the playoffs due to their injury pandemic.  If the Giants hadn't blown that game against the Eagles in epic fashion, they probably would have claimed that 6th playoff spot and we would have all been forced to acknowledge that the rash of injuries was simply too much to overcome.  That can't happen again.  Despite the Packers' depth, no team under normal circumstances can recover from that many injuries.

5) Can't establish a consistent rushing game -- this is lower on my list of concerns, but there is uncertainty in the running attack.  Grant coming back full-steam from last year's injury is a question mark.  Starks is dynamic, but won't be surprising anyone anymore and needs to improve in pass protection on third down.  And Alex Green is still showing plenty of rookie green-ness.  Of course, I feel a lot better about their running back situation than I did after Grant went down last year, but this trio needs to find a groove even as they share carries.

Despite these concerns, Packers fans have every reason to feel bullish about this season.  The mindset of the Packers seems to be focused.  In spite of winning a Super Bowl, they still seem to have a chip on their shoulders.  They still seem to be playing like they have something to prove.  And I look forward to seeing that determination on the field starting with the Saints at Lambeau Field this Thursday night.

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