After a remarkable run of winning football for more thn a decade, the bottom fell out for the Colts when Peyton Manning missed the entire season with a neck injury. It was a precipitous fall — from nine straight playoff appearances to never even having a chance. After posting at least 10 wins in 11 of the past 12 season, they went 2-14 a season ago.
The dramatic change for the Colts in Manning's absence was difficult not to notice. And it begs the question for the discussion here: What would happen to the Packers in 2012 if Aaron Rodgers were to miss the entire season?
Rodgers, about to enter his eighth season, has become the Packers' everything in the same way Manning was to the Colts. Head coach Mike McCarthy all but intimated as much after his biggest win in Super Bowl XLV when he said, "We put this game on his shoulders."
Not much has changed. In reality, the Packers might rely on Rodgers now more than ever. He is not only the most-skilled quarterback in the league, but also a coach, offensive coordinator and leader all rolled into one on the field. He has as much autonomy at the line of scrimmage as anyone in the league. And he is coming off an MVP season.
No one would argue that without Rodgers the Packers would be a much different team with a much different set of challenges. But how much is Rodgers really worth? Five wins? Six wins? More?
While it might be difficult to quantify unless it really happens, there is reason to believe the Packers' drop in the standings could be steep. Maybe as steep as the Colts, who posted a record of 10-6 in 2010 and thus experienced an eight-game slide without Manning.
Consider that although the Packers have upgraded their defense this offseason, a year ago it was the worst in the league in yards allowed and one of the worst in pass rush. The new, young additions should help, but they are unproven and no one can say for sure if they will make a big difference.
On offense, the Packers have a high-potent unit, but most of their production comes through the air with a strong set of receivers. If they needed more balance with their running game, they might not get it. James Starks, Brandon Saine and Alex Green might be able to get the job done, but as a group, they may be among the bottom half of the league.
With Matt Flynn gone, the Packers have put all their eggs in the Graham Harrell basket. He is the backup quarterback headed into training camp. The only other option is rookie B.J. Coleman. Since the Brett Favre era began in Green Bay in 1992, Harrell might be the most questionable backup the Packers have ever had.
While Harrell has improved based on many internal accounts, he has never thrown a pass in an NFL game. According to depth charts provided by Ourlads.com, he is the only No. 2 quarterback in the league to hold that distinction. He is one of only seven No. 2's never to have made a start in an NFL game.
Flynn was a big loss to the Packers' depth at the most critical position on the team. Even before his record-breaking performance against the Lions in the 2011 regular-season finale or the near-upset he led at New England in 2010, Flynn was considered by many to be one of the best backups in the league. Harrell is nowhere near that stage entering this training camp.
To be fair, there is some recent precedent to a team surviving a season when one of the all-time greats at quarterback went down. In 2008, Tom Brady suffered a knee injury in a Week 1 game that knocked him out for the season. Unknown Matt Cassel stepped in and led the Patriots to an 11-5 season, just missing out on the playoffs. Up to that point, Cassel had spent three years in the Patriots' system, but had never started a game in the NFL or in college for that matter where he was a backup at USC.
Harrell at least has college experience as a starter and some experience in the Packers' system, even if he might lack some of the physical tools that projected Cassel as a pro before he stepped foot on an NFL field.
The Packers, like the Patriots and Colts, have been fortunate to have durable quarterbacks. For the past 20 years, they have basically had two starters — Rodgers and Brett Favre — which have given them a remarkable streak of consistent, winning football.
But it can all change with one bad step or one bad hit.
There is an immeasurable, intangible value to having an elite quarterback who can control a game on his own. There is also immeasurable risk when that player is gone. This Packers team hopes it never has to find out.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org