It was a season that started off with great expectations, as it often does. But when Jordy Nelson fell to the turf at Heinz Field on that fateful August afternoon, it would have repercussions felt for the next five months. The season-ending knee injury to the Packers’ top receiver didn’t make a trip to Super Bowl 50 impossible, but it did make it imminently harder, and as the season wore on, far less likely.
In a place known as “Titletown,” the goal is never in question. Anything short of a championship is a disappointment on some level. But Green Bay’s journey in 2015 featured no shortage of thrilling moments and impressive performances — all the way up to the season-ending loss at Arizona. And while they failed to move on to a second consecutive NFC Championship Game, there’s reason to think this team will be among the contenders in 2016, with Nelson’s return.
But with Carolina and Denver about to battle for the Lombardi Trophy, we take a final look back on this year’s Packers team and hand out some hardware. Tonight’s guest presenters are none other than Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Chewbacca couldn’t make it, but I’m told he’s getting a long look at offensive tackle.
Now let’s tear open some envelopes…
Offensive MVP: WR James Jones
You could make a case this award should go to Jordy Nelson. When the Packers’ No. 1 receiver injured his knee at a preseason game in Pittsburgh, it crippled their offense, robbing it of a true deep threat and taking it — and its quarterback — from awesome to merely average.
That said, the reason it wasn’t abysmal was the return of veteran James Jones, who might as well claim the Comeback Player of the Year while he’s at it. After heading to the Raiders and putting up decent numbers in 2014, Jones was let go and landed in camp with the Giants last summer. When he was released by New York, the Packers pounced and brought back the savvy veteran, who thankfully played like he never left. Not quite the guy who led NFL receivers with 14 scores in 2012, but not too far off.
At age 31, Jones caught 57 passes for a team-leading and career high 971 yards with eight scores in 18 games. He was No. 3 in the league with a 17.8 yards per catch. He teamed up with Aaron Rodgers to make defenses pay for offsides and 12-men-on-the-field calls and still made the back-shoulder catch with the best of them. For a player that never had blazing speed, he notched 15 catches of 25-plus yards and had just three drops. He showed his age against the league’s better cornerbacks, but he was ready to go week in and week out, still a class act and showed us that rocking a hoodie under your pads is definitely the way to go. Jones might not be brought back next year to a receiving corps that includes Nelson, Randall Cobb and youngsters Davante Adams, Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis and Ty Montgomery.
Defensive MVP: DE Mike Daniels
If you were about to get in a street fight and could pick one Packer to have your back, Daniels would be the guy you’d want. It’s also why you want him on your defensive line. The third-year player out of Iowa is a 6-foot, 310-pound tattooed powder keg of attitude and energy who recently tweeted that if he goes to the Pro Bowl next year, he’ll go full speed. Of course he will; it’s the only speed Daniels knows.
GM Ted Thompson’s best move in free agency was keeping Daniels from becoming one, locking him up on Dec. 14 to a four-year, $41 million extension. Daniels led the defensive line with 67 tackles, four sacks and a career-high seven tackles for losses. He finished third on the team with 12 quarterback hits. Teams averaged 0.35 yards less per carry when Daniels was in the game and he averaged one tackle for every 10.78 snaps.
The pulse of the Packers’ defense, Daniels has the type of nasty disposition required to succeed in the trenches. His initial punch on bull rushes can put offensive lineman on their heels and he’s a relentless inside rusher with a nose for the ball. In a Monday night win over Kansas City, Daniels’ game was on full display, when he blew by guard Ben Grubbs to blow up running back Jamaal Charles for a 3-yard loss. Daniels also had 1.5 sacks — including a fumble-causing sack on quarterback Alex Smith. But even when it’s not showing up on the stats sheet, he makes his presence felt.
Special Teams MVP: S Chris Banjo
There were several worthy MVP candidates for a special teams unit that jumped from 31st in 2014 to 16th, according to Packer Report’s special teams rankings. But arguably nobody made first-year coordinator Ron Zook look better than reserve safety Chris Banjo. After spending most of last year on the practice squad while the Packers’ special teams looked anything but special, Banjo took the place of the departed Jarrett Bush and asserted himself as the leader of this squad, being voted team captain by his peers for the playoffs.
Banjo led the team with 375 snaps and paced them with 22 tackles — seven more than runner-up Jeff Janis and the most since Desmond Bishop’s 22 in 2009. A mix of smarts, tenacity and athleticism, Green Bay’s big improvement on special teams had a lot to do with the guy in the No. 32 jersey.
Rookie of the Year: CB Damarious Randall
The selection of the Arizona State safety was a head scratcher back in the spring, but by the end of the season, Randall’s play at cornerback made Thompson’s first-round selection of him look pretty smart. Randall took over the starting left cornerback spot from Casey Hayward in October and led the team with four picks (including playoffs) and 16 passes defensed, flashing speed, athleticism and confidence.
But he struggled down the stretch, most notably against Raiders rookie receiver Amari Cooper and Cardinals veteran Larry Fitzgerald. It was Randall who failed to follow Fitzgerald across the field on a crossing route that turned into a 75-yard catch-and-run that effectively ended the season. But as rookie seasons go, Randall gave the team plenty to be excited about and has the makings of a future star as he becomes a better tackler and more assignment sure.
Most Improved Player: S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
A Pro Bowl nomination is very close for the second-year safety. Clinton-Dix built on the highs and lows of his rookie season by leading the defense with 117 tackles and cut his misses from 15 a year ago to just eight — no longer ducking his head when he went in on the ball-carrier. His three sacks were the most by a Packers safety since Mark Roman had 3.5 in 2004 and he snagged three interceptions (including one in the playoffs), giving him a share of the team lead with four takeaways.
Missing just a handful of snaps all season, he led the defensive backfield with a tackle every 9.16 snaps, edging Morgan Burnett’s mark of 9.45. Clinton-Dix drew oohs and ahhs with his big hits and the admiration of coaches, teammates and fans with plays like he had against St. Louis, when he chased down Stedman Bailey on a 68-yard catch-and-run, knocking him out at the 6-yard line on a play when many would’ve pulled up on. Three plays later, an interception by Quinten Rollins put an exclamation mark on his effort to chase Bailey down.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.