I’m going to be called an even greater number of derogatory names during this NFL season than perhaps in any season in my lifetime. I know it, and I welcome it. Some of them will even be true, and I don’t mind that either.
I’m getting ready to enter my first full NFL season living in Green Bay. By the time I got here last year, Aaron Rodgers had already been injured, and my long-time favorite team, the Cleveland Browns, were already convincingly on their way to an 0–16 season. That, combined with an interstate relocation on my part, was the fast-track to not giving a damn about the rest of the season.
GETTING BACK IN THE GAME
That was last year, though, and to be honest, I’ve regretted it ever since. You see, I’m not one to quit something, even when continuing it is punishingly brutal. Hell, I’ve followed the Browns closely and faithfully since the new team started there in 1999. Before that, I was a Colts fan when they were going “0 and a billion” prior to the arrival of Peyton Manning.
So, I’m rededicated this year, but in a new place. Sure, I’ll still follow and root for the Browns. That trainwreck of a relationship will probably never end. That, however, is a struggle I covered in a previous piece. I’ve not totally abandoned the Browns, but I do have a new interest now, and it’s the Packers.
HARD NOT TO LOVE
You’d have to be a pretty contrary person, in general, not to get caught up in Packers fever while living in downtown Green Bay, Wisconsin. My girlfriend cares more about the exact species of carp in the Fox River than she cares about NFL football, and even she is excited about being part of the Packers party.
For one thing, I’ve never seen a team and a community interact so much. I know what you’re thinking, “That’s because you’ve never been to [blank]!” Maybe that’s true. I will tell you, though, that I have lived in many different states and within an hour’s drive of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and D.C. at different times, and those atmospheres were not like this. Sure, the Steelers fans are rabid, irrational maniacs, but there isn’t the same closeness between the team and the fans that there is in Green Bay.
The Packers hold training camp practices in town every day, and they invite the public to watch them all for free. They also interact individually with the city’s youth on the way to and from the practices. They’ve created a year round public recreation area outside the stadium for public use, and they host multiple free and low-cost events per year.
So far this season, I’ve seen a training camp practice, enjoyed an entire day of the interactive “Packers Experience”, and attended a huge Family Night event inside the stadium (complete with performances and fireworks), all for a cumulative total of maybe $20, including the concessions I consumed.
Tonight, is the eve of the first pre-season game, which I also have a ticket to attend. For the first time since I can remember, I am feeling excitement about the pre-season starting in addition to my yearly feelings of anxiety and curiosity. I’d like to say the dread is gone too, but remember that I’m still paying attention to the Cleveland Browns in the meantime.
AN OUTSIDER’S OVERVIEW
Anyway, I’ve not been following this team closely enough long enough yet to have a great handle on where they’re at, but here’s a little sneak peek of what I think before the first pre-season game is played:
Aaron Rodgers is one of the best QBs in the NFL right now. Anyone denying that is, once again, just being contrary. At the moment, he seems fully recovered and healthy. I have not yet seen a decline in his play, despite the number of years he’s been in the league. He was also giving some of the other guys on the team a hard time for not being enthusiastic and energetic enough at training camp the other day, so I’m guessing he’s still got a little something in the tank to back it up.
Brett Hundley did not impress me last year. In fact, he rather reminded me of some of the lackluster talent Cleveland has had at QB over the years, which is ironic since he is currently battling 2017 Cleveland 2nd Round pick Deshone Kizer for the number two spot. I think that Kizer is raw, but has some potential, and I’d like to see him grow in that number two position. He came to Green Bay from Cleveland not long after I did, so I might be a little biased in this case.
I’ve honestly not seen much of Randall Cobb this offseason, but no one else seems very concerned about his status, so I’m not either. Davante Adams does look good, though, and the two could continue to be an effective duo. My only concern between them is the size they seem to lack. I’d like at least one of them to be able to physically dominate a cornerback, but the Pack has what they have. Behind them are a number of wide receivers who all seem quite talented in different ways. I believe Geronimo Allison will be a starter somewhere someday soon, and Marquez Valdez-Scantling looks scary fast at times.
Jamaal Williams is a big, strong-looking running back, but I just don’t know quite what to expect from him yet. It does help that the Packers actively use a true fullback and the combination of Ripkowski and Williams means a lot of power moving in the same direction. I’d like to see the Packers commit to a punishing running game to pass up the pass.
The left side of the offensive line appears to be very stable, anchored by David Bakhtiari, one of the best tackles in the league. The right side has the potential to match that strength if Bryan Bulaga can remain healthy at Right Tackle. Of the interior lineman, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley, and Justin McCray, McCray is the biggest question, having only played in 13 professional games, starting only 8 of those, and having filled in at three different O-line positions.
The big news on the offense this year (aside from the healthy return of Aaron Rodgers) is the addition of Tight End Jimmy Graham. A true pass-catching Tight End, Graham offers a dimension to the passing game that had fallen off a little for the Packers over the past few years. Both Graham and Rodgers have been honest about the fact that they’ve been a little slow to find a groove together through the early days of training camp, though.
The Packers reliable offense provides some comfort and familiarity to fans, as well as a new potential spark with the addition of Graham, but the Defense is where the real revolution is happening. Most notable is the installation of Mike Pettine as the new Defensive Coordinator.
Pettine, like Kizer and I, also spent some dark recent years in Cleveland. I liked him there, and thought he got a bum rap. I couldn’t have been more excited than to see him show up as the Defensive Coordinator in Green Bay during my first full season here. The players seem to share that sentiment, both echoing and appreciating Pettine’s emphasis on mindset over scheme.
The three-man defensive line is encouraging to say the least. The addition of Muhammad Wilkerson at Defensive End opposite Mike Daniels makes the line a little more substantial. Between them, young Nose Tackle Kenny Clark continues to grow and improve, after really beginning to shine late last season.
Veteran Clay Matthews and superstar talent-machine Blake Martinez anchors the linebacking corps. They are joined by promising rookie Oren Burks and Outside Linebacker Nick Perry. Martinez and Burks certainly offer some exciting potential for this group, but a breakdown in the weaker points of the front seven could still prove problematic for the Packers over the course of the season.
Mike McCarthy made a point of admitting how excited he is about the depth of the defensive backfield. The Packers added two rookie corners with their first two picks of the 2018 Draft in Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. Alexander is looking like a definite contender to start or to at least earn a lot of playing time this year, currently sitting behind aging Tramon Williams, who also returned to the Packers during this off-season. Kevin King seems likely to start at the other corner, but I’m not yet sold on his ability to effectively cover elite receivers.
Safety Haha Clinton-Dix provides the second of two bright spots in the Defense along with Inside Linebacker Blake Martinez. Kentrell Brice rounds out the second safety slot but will need to step up his game considerably to tie together the defensive backfield and support the cornerbacks in meeting the challenges they’ll face this year.
The Packers don’t quite look like a flawless juggernaut that could run roughshod over the league for the length of a season. There are spots that can be exploited on both the offense and the defense. Automated predictions are calling for a 12–4 record during the regular season, but that might be a tad lofty.
The schedule is relatively soft, but I would expect something closer to 11–5 or even 10–6. Still, it seems likely that the Packers have a great chance to make the playoffs this year, barring major injury, even if the Vikings live up to their potential to win the NFC North. For a guy who has followed the Browns for the past unsuccessful 20 years and the hopeless Indianapolis Colts prior to that, a playoff berth sounds fantastic. Plus, who knows what could happen from there!