GREEN BAY, Wis. -- To hear Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy tell it, there is no great mystery about how to fix his team's offensive problems from last season. Some of that has to do with simply keeping players healthy. More of it has to do with the overall approach this team must take to contend for a championship again. If there is one thing the Packers have to do, it's to remember how they became so dangerous in the first place.
That was the overriding theme of a recent conversation with McCarthy as the Packers wrapped up their offseason training program. The past three months have been about stripping down the offense, taking a hard look at what works best and reinforcing the notion that going back to basics is definitely a good thing. This is the same team that had spent seven straight seasons heading into 2015 as an offensive juggernaut led by a future Hall of Fame quarterback in Aaron Rodgers. Of course, that was hard to recall last year, when injuries and inconsistency resulted in what was best regarded as a weekly struggle to move the football.
Sure, those issues weren't debilitating enough to keep Green Bay from finishing 10-6 and earning a wild-card playoff spot. However, the Packers were expected to be much better than that, and the expectations on this offense are going to only increase. Green Bay may have possessed enough talent to survive in 2015. In 2016, with a healthy roster -- and McCarthy calling plays full-time again after reassuming those duties at the end of last season -- this could very well be the team to beat in the NFC.
When asked about how this offense will improve, McCarthy said: "The best plays are still the basic plays. It's not the design of the play. It's what everybody can do with that design ... That's what we have to get back to -- winning with the fundamentals, with players and not plays. When you get in tough times, offensively, we may have leaned a little more towards plays instead of focusing on developing players. That's a big part of my getting back in there full-time [calling plays]. That's how I built this thing, and that's how it should be ran. We got away from that a little bit."
The Packers actually had never been worse since Rodgers became their starting quarterback in 2008. Last season, they ranked 15th in the NFL in scoring (23.0 points per game), 23rd in total yards (334.6 per game) and 25th in passing yards (218.9 per game). In each of the previous seven years, Green Bay had ranked 10th or higher in two of those categories (points or passing offense) and was never lower than 13th in total offense. All that futility in 2015 resulted in McCarthy pulling play-calling responsibilities from associate head coach/offense Tom Clements -- to whom McCarthy had initially given those duties last offseason -- with four games left in the regular season.
That doesn't mean there weren't special moments for the Packers. They did open the season with six straight wins. Green Bay also beat the Detroit Lionson one Hail Mary play and nearly upset the Arizona Cardinalswith another miracle in an overtime loss in the divisional round of the playoffs. When McCarthy talks about fundamentals, he's referring to the following: coping in a league where most defenses are taking away big plays with three-deep coverages, running the ball more effectively and having enough versatility to keep opponents on their toes. The last thing he wants is for this offense to become as predictable as it was in 2015.
Staying healthy will make a huge difference in that regard. The offensive line only had one player start every game (Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton), while the receiving corps was plagued by several injuries, including those afflicting Jordy Nelson (lost in August to a torn ACL), Davante Adams (hampered by ankle and knee injuries) and Ty Montgomery (underwent ankle surgery after landing on injured reserve in December). The end result, as McCarthy said, was that "defenses just jumped up and challenged us. We didn't do a good enough job of beating the overloaded box. They played us heavy to the run and made us throw the ball. It was a good lesson to learn ... We want to play with more balance and stop trying to put all the stress on the quarterback. He's going to play at an extremely high level, but it's important to get the whole offense playing at a high level."
One of the benefits of all those injuries is that it allowed more young players to gain experience. McCarthy fully believes a less-heralded player like wide receiver Jared Abbrederis has earned the right to see more time, because of how Abbrederis performed both in emergency duty and during the offseason program. There's also great optimism surrounding the improved conditioning of running back Eddie Lacy, especially after he gained a career-low 758 yards in Year 3 and was called on by his coach in January to lose weight. Nobody has officially put a number on Lacy's current weight, but it's apparent that he didn't hear any fat jokes throughout the spring.
McCarthy even used Lacy as an example of how important these five weeks off will be before the team returns for training camp in July. The coach realizes that players need to get away from the team, but as he said, "That's where Eddie got into trouble last year." The larger point McCarthy was making was that this spring was an attempt to refocus his squad on how they became good in the first place. They can't afford to think they'll be better solely because they'll have more key players back on the field.
In fact, the greatest lesson McCarthy learned from his Super Bowl-winning team in 2010 is that you never know how much you'll need to win a championship. The Packers required the talents of 65 players during the regular season that year, as injuries decimated that group in ways no coach ever wants to experience. They weathered the storm then largely because they were prepared and hungry. They never allowed any setback to become a reason to lose sight of their goals.
McCarthy wants to see that same edge in this year's squad. It helps to have Rodgers, who's become so brilliant that a season with 31 touchdown passes and eight interceptions -- his totals in 2015 -- is considered subpar for him, but that clearly won't be enough. Said McCarthy: "That guy is a warrior, as far as the stuff he plays through that you never read about it, [and] his competitiveness. It's like all these guys that are Hall of Fame-caliber players. They get in a pinch and they try to do it all. As a coach, it's important to remember it's a long year, and it takes a lot of good football by everybody."
Those beliefs always sound good in June, when nobody is keeping score and everyone's equal in the standings. It's much harder to think like that once adversity strikes and alternate plans come into play. The scary thing to remember about the Packers is we've already seen what they can do when there are plenty of issues plaguing their offense every week. Now we'll see what can happen when they set their sights on being great again.