Where does your franchise stand heading into 2019? Adam Rank will set the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
The Packers are at a crossroads. The winningest team in NFL history in terms of championships (four Super Bowl titles, 13 total championships) has missed the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, despite having a future Hall of Famer at quarterback. Titletown has become Concern City (which, I'll admit right now, I kind of regret typing, because it's kind of dumb). As famed coach Vince Lombardi once said, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." And there hasn't been a lot of it over the last two years.
How the Packers got here
Let's take a quick look at the ups and downs of 2018:
-- Rallying in Week 1 to beat Chicago. After losing chunks of 2017 to a broken collarbone, Rodgers entered 2018 "feeling great" and vowing to win his third MVP award. Then Rodgers went down with what looked like a serious knee injury in the second quarter, and the Packers fell behind the upstart Bears, 20-0, at Lambeau Field. Of course, Rodgers re-entered the game in the second half and put together a heroic comeback, pushing the Packers to a 24-23 win.
Head coach: Matt LaFleur. This was a great hire by the Packers. And it's in line with a trend I've pointed to throughout this series: To be hired as an NFL head coach, one must A) have a connection to Sean McVay (LaFleur was McVay's offensive coordinator with the Rams in 2017, and they were assistants together in Washington from 2010 to '13) and B) have been born after Star Wars: Episode IV -- A New Hope. (That's the one released in 1977, for all of you football nerds out there; LaFleur clears it by two years.)
I was a huge fan of LaFleur going to Tennessee as the offensive coordinator last year. I envisioned a world in which the Titans' offense was modernized around quarterback Marcus Mariota, and I was all in. My vision did not exactly come to fruition. Tennessee finished 27th in points and 25th in yards, and I think the team finished that high only because the Titans began to just hand the ball to running back Derrick Henry, who rushed for 585 yards in the final four weeks of the season (146.3 yards per game).
In fairness to LaFleur, I should note that Mariota missed some time last year. And he's upgrading from Mariota to Rodgers, which is like upgrading from a Motel 6 to a Ritz-Carlton. I write that as a fan of both Mariota and Motel 6 -- I stayed at one in Pismo Beach, California, one time, and it was amazing. But if you're going to give me an ocean view room at the Ritz instead, well, I'm going to take it. I don't mean that in a bad way.
Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers. He's fine. I kid -- Rodgers is one of the best of his generation. But because of the way things ended with McCarthy after 13 seasons, Rodgers is going to be on his best behavior; he's kind of in a similar situation as Ben Roethlisberger after the drama that came out of the Steelers' locker room. Rodgers presumably can't really have too many problems with LaFleur, unless he wants to be painted as the bad guy. It's like the kid in your classroom who already has his name on the board; he doesn't want to get that checkmark and be sent to the principal's office, so he's got to say and do all of the right things.
If I'm being truthful, Rodgers wanting to have the best season of his life so he can prove the haters wrong would be, yes, petty -- but it would also be something Packers fans should be encouraged about. A refreshed Rodgers with a brand new perspective could be a scary thing for the rest of the NFC North, and for the NFL beyond. Even though Rodgers will turn 36 this season. And he missed nine games in 2017. And he spent most of last year nursing a knee injury. He's healthy, motivated and ready to go now. (Although you might want to help him finish that beer.)
Projected 2019 MVP, Non-Rodgers Division: Davante Adams, receiver. Rodgers is the obvious pick. He's a potential MVP candidate for the NFL. But Adams has started to become recognized as one of the top receivers in the game. That will come as no surprise to the Packers fans who have watched the two-time Pro Bowler steadily climb the WR ranks. He caught more touchdown passes than anyone else combined in 2016 and '17 (22), but he really broke out last year, topping 100 receptions (111) and 1,000 yards (1,386) for the first time, while catching a career-high 13 touchdowns. He could post even better numbers this season. With Randall Cobb in Dallas, Adams is the only Packers receiver who's ever caught more than 38 passes in an NFL season.
2019 breakout star: Aaron Jones, running back. This was one of the weird things about the last couple of seasons under McCarthy: Jones has looked like a legitimate running back for the Packers. Which seemed so out of place for this team, when you consider that just nine seasons of 700-plus rushing yards were posted by Green Bay players from 2006 to 2018, and just two players -- Jones last season and Ryan Grant in 2007 -- have topped both 700 rushing yards and 5.0 yards per attempt in that span. It's like if you went to see "The Fast and the Furious," but instead of car chases, it was The Rock reading "To Kill a Mockingbird." While I'm sure Dwayne would make it entertaining, it just wouldn't make sense. Jones was terrific when he was allowed to run the ball, ranking first in the NFL last season with 5.47 yards per rush. Maybe LaFleur should diverge from the D. Henry plan and actually let Jones run before Week 15.
Another new face to know: Adrian Amos, safety. If there is one thing that really bothers me about fandom, it's when a guy who has been great for your team jumps to the other side, and your fans are like, "Whatever, that guy wasn't that great anyway." As a Bears fan, I'm not going to do that about Amos, who signed in Green Bay after four seasons with Chicago. I'm sorry to see him leave. Just as I'm sorry the Packers' inability to simply draft their own good players leaves them targeting Bears players in free agency, like they did with Kyle Fuller last year. Amos is good. He's going to be fine for the Packers and will give their secondary some stability.
The 2019 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. Anytime you have one of the top quarterbacks in the league, you are expected to make playoff runs. The Packers missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons, and that got McCarthy fired.
Get to the quarterback? Rookie defensive end Rashan Gary is one of those physical freaks, the kind of defender you dream up with the create-a-player feature in "Madden." And the Packersare trying to find different ways to take advantage of the first-round pick's athleticism, either lining him up outside or kicking inside of Preston Smith and Kyler Fackrell. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is going to have fun finding a role for him.
Find a guy to play alongside Adams? Adams is one of the best in the business. We've established that. But who is going to step up in the No 2 role or in the slot, especially now that Cobb is in Dallas and Jordy Nelson is gone for good? Marquez Valdes-Scantling is one of the top candidates, kind of a hipster pick, because he showed some flashes as he recorded 38 receptions as a rookie in 2018. Geronimo Allison also returns after he missed all but five games last season, with a groin injury landing him on injured reserve. The Packers didn't look to free agency or the draft to fill this need, which means they obviously believe the ideal candidate is already in-house.
Ever hit on a tight end? What is up with the tight end position in Green Bay? Since Rodgers became the starting quarterback in 2008, not one Packers tight end has topped 800 receiving yards in a season. And it's not like the team has just shuffled through a bunch of curtain jerkers hoping to get it right. In recent seasons, Green Bay has looked to Jared Cook, Martellus Bennett (who should have been motivated by a desire to get revenge on the Bears) and Jimmy Graham to have a huge role on the offense. None of them did. (Cook and Bennett are gone, while Graham is returning for Year 2.) Can third-round pick Jace Sternberger break the pattern? Rodgers seems to ignore his tight ends like you avoid your co-worker who makes awkward small talk in the breakroom when all you want to do is cook up some popcorn. Maybe all of those tight ends secretly heat up fish in the microwave.
Three key dates:
-- Week 16 at Minnesota. The Packers close on the road the final two weeks, starting with this matchup and continuing against the Lions in the regular-season finale. For what it's worth, they last won in Minnesota in 2015 and in Detroit in 2017. Green Bay should have the No. 5 seed in the NFC on lock by then.
One storyline people are overlooking:The Packers' secondary is going to be low-key pretty good. The Packers traded up last year to nab cornerback Jaire Alexander in the first round of the draft. I hated that pick -- in that I hate to see my rivals do something smart. Alexander's tape is impressive. There was a sick pick he made off Kirk Cousins last year in Week 2 that would have stood, if Clay Matthews hadn't been flagged for roughing the passer. Alexander missed some time with an injury, but he's going to be an All-Pro if he stays healthy. Five of the Packers' defensive backs were drafted within the first two rounds of the past three drafts, including Alexander, Josh Jones (Round 2 in 2017), Kevin King (Round 2 in 2017), Josh Jackson (Round 2 in 2018) and Darnell Savage (Round 1 in 2019). Add Amos to the mix, and it's reasonable to expect the pass defense -- which already ranked 12th in the NFL in 2018 -- to take another step forward.
One storyline we might be overthinking:Rodgers' age. I alluded to this above, but age (Rodgers is turning 36 in December) is just a number. Peyton Manning had his best season at 37, when he threw for 5,477 yards and 55 touchdowns. Basically, 37 is the new 24 for quarterbacks.
One more thing:The beer chug. My honest reaction to first seeing Rodgers struggle to chug a beer at a Milwaukee Bucks game after his left tackle chugged two was that Rodgers was being a cool teammate by putting Bakhtiari over in that situation. John Cena would never do that. Rodgers had done the right thing. Also, that Packers offensive line is vastly underrated.
For 2019 to be a successful season, the Packers MUST ...
-- Get back to the playoffs. Until last season, Rodgers had never missed two postseasons in a row as a starter. It would not be good to stretch that streak to three.
-- Make a run in the playoffs. You know, win some games.
An unbiased look at the schedule suggests this should be a 12-win season. Is that going to be enough to move the Packers past the Bears in the NFC North? Probably not. But 12 wins would be pretty good. And if they got into the playoffs as a No. 5 seed, a matchup at top-seeded Chicago would be amazing. I jest, Packers fans! Seriously, this team is loaded and should be in the playoffs again. That's not great news for the rest of the NFC North.