Every season is a story. This one was called “Run The Table” and, the final chapter aside, it will go down as one of the most exciting seasons in franchise history. It started with great expectations, as it almost always does, and talk of a Super Bowl run. But injuries struck immediately with the loss of No. 1 cornerback Sam Shields in Week 1. Jordy Nelson was back on offense after missing all of 2015 with a knee injury, but now it was the defensive side of the ball that would have to find a way to get by.
As the plot wore on, a struggle unfolded, one that seemed too much to overcome as the team fell to 4-6 and the offense seemed unable to return to its lofty form. The sky was falling. Jobs were in jeopardy, or so the narrative went. But when quarterback Aaron Rodgers uttered those three words, it would spark an amazing eight-game winning streak that no Packers player, coach or fan will ever forget. Jared Cook’s sideline catch and Mason Crosby’s game-winning kick at Dallas that put Green Bay in the NFC title game became immortal moments in a legendary franchise.
Although 2016 fell short of super, we will wrap ourselves up in that euphoria from that win over Dallas and present the 22nd annual Packer Report Awards. Let’s tear open some envelopes…
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR AWARD
QB Aaron Rodgers
In the regular-season opener at Jacksonville, Aaron Rodgers made a throw that few men who have played the position could make when, from his back foot — as a blitzing Jalen Ramsey pulled on the back of his jersey — he rifled a perfect pass through the smallest of windows to a diving Davante Adams at the goal line for touchdown. That play aside, there wear times in the early part of 2016 when Rodgers simply looked out of synch. At times, he struggled in comparison to other quarterbacks in the game but, most often, he struggled to play up to the two-time league MVP/future Hall of Famer “best-version” level of himself engrained in everyone’s mind. It was thought the return of Jordy Nelson was the “just add water” equivalent of a winning formula. It wasn’t that easy. The end-of-the-game stats sometimes belied the opportunity of the moment to elevate the team. Was it slippage in his game? Frustration? Trying too hard? Not trying enough? Off-the-field issues? Was it him? Or everyone around him? Or both? The questions swirled as the losses piled up.
As the team stumbled to a 4-6 record, Rodgers bore much of the criticism. When he announced Green Bay could “run the table,” he was signing up for an even bigger stake in its turnaround. The declaration drew equal parts shock, intrigue and amusement. There were few indications from the Packers’ recent play that they were remotely up to the task. What happened next was one of the most amazing stretches of quarterback play the league has ever seen. During the first 10 games of the season, Rodgers had a quarterback rating of 96.8 and 25 touchdowns. Over the next nine games, including the playoffs, his rating jumped to 125.7 as he threw 24 touchdowns.
But sheer numbers, whether it be a league-leading 40 touchdowns or 4,428 yards, don’t fully tell the tale. It was the way Rodgers played, with otherworldly poise and precision. He played with calm and confidence and a clutchness that has sometimes escaped him the way he’s eluded so many defenders. He aced the eyeball test of what one of the best quarterbacks to play the game looks like. He did it with eyes and arm, and legs and heart. He did it with guts and guile. He did it when the game was on the line at Chicago and his offense was far from field-goal range. He did it when he moved up, out of, back in and around the pocket for more than 8 seconds before firing a pass into the end zone to Davante Adams in the playoffs against New York. It happened when he dropped a Hail Mary out of the sky and somehow made the sport’s most improbable play seem manageable. It happened when he rolled out and put a laser down the sideline, where only his tight end could catch it. It happened with such frequency during that run-the-table tour, you sometimes had to stop and make sure you were fully appreciating just what an amazing display of quarterback play you were witnessing.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR AWARD
S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
At different points in the year, different players could’ve laid claim to this award. Early on, when the Packers were shutting down their opponents’ run game, defensive tackle Mike Daniels was a key cog. Clay Matthews, despite missing four games and notching a career-low five sacks, was still a difference-maker. Morgan Burnett played all over the field from safety to inside linebacker. Micah Hyde picked off four passes in a six-game stretch leading to the NFC title game. But perhaps the one constant on defense — and, to be clear, by “constant” we mean the only player on the Packers’ defense to play all 1,236 snaps and one of only five players in the league to play every single down on their side of the ball in 2016 — was safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
The third-year pro elevated his game, leading Green Bay with a career-high five interceptions — all in November and December — to go along with 83 stops, good for third on the team, one forced fumble and half a sack. He had two interceptions and a takedown against Andrew Luck, nearly getting another sack near the end of a 31-26 loss to Indy. At Chicago, another two-theft performance paid off when Green Bay won 30-27. And in between those games, his pick against Philly’s Carson Wentz helped notch the first “run the table” win. All told, those five picks tied him with his former Alabama teammate and current Giants star, Landon Collins, for the league lead among safeties. Clinton-Dix’s hard-hitting and ball-hawking earned him his first Pro Bowl nod, along with a well-deserved spot on the All-Pro second team.
SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR AWARD
K Mason Crosby
Mason Crosby made 26 of 30 field goals during the regular season, or 86.7 percent, the second-best rate of his career. But the postseason is when legacies are made. When Crosby put a 56-yarder through the uprights with 1:33 left in their divisional playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys to put Green Bay up 31-28, it was one of the biggest kicks in Packers history. Then he made an even bigger one.
Crosby’s 51-yard game-winner snuck just inside the left upright as time expired to send Green Bay to the NFC title game. Never mind what happened the following week, Crosby’s kick will be a “remember when?” moment for every Packers fan (and probably every Cowboys fan) who watched the kick in person, in a bar or in their living room. Crosby’s game-winner gave him an NFL-record 23 consecutive playoff kicks. Though he’s never been known for clutch kicks during his 10-year career, that boot through the uprights at AT&T Stadium will define his career.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR AWARD
DT Kenny Clark
Defensive tackle B.J. Raji stunned the Packers in March when he announced he was taking an indefinite hiatus. That news came just a month after backup defensive tackle Mike Pennel was hit with a four-game suspension for the start of the 2016 season. Green Bay was suddenly and, un-ironically, thin at what was thought to be one of their thickest positions. Though Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion were penciled in to start, finding another big body became paramount and forced GM Ted Thompson to re-evaluate his draft plans. When it came time to call a name with the No. 27 overall pick, Green Bay tabbed UCLA’s Kenny Clark, a player that looked like a bigger Mike Daniels on film and even had the same high school wrestling background.
Built like a refrigerator at 6-foot-3, 314 pounds, it took Clark a while to make his massive presence felt but, by season’s end, he was easily playing his best ball. Though he’d finish with just two starts, he logged 33 stops, good for third among defensive lineman behind Guion and Daniels. And though he couldn’t notch a sack, he’d lead the defense with two fumble recoveries. The rookie showed the strength and athleticism that endeared him to the Packers ahead of other defensive lineman available at No. 27 and he looks like a long-term starter next to Daniels.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER AWARD
WR Davante Adams
The breakout came a year later than expected, but Davante Adams recorded an epic rebound from his sophomore slump.
His start to the season was solid with 15 catches for 218 yards and three scores through the first five games. But it was a Thursday night matchup with the Bears when Adams took it to the next level. After exiting the previous game just four days earlier with a concussion, Adams passed through the concussion protocol just in time to battle the Bears and responded with a 13-catch, 132-yard, two-touchdown explosion to key the Packers’ 26-10 win. Adams’ 13 catches tied Don Hutson for second place in franchise history for catches in a game. Adams threatened the record again the following week with 12 catches in a 33-32 loss to Atlanta. Adams notched a two-touchdown game in the first of the run-the-table wins, at Philadelphia.
By season’s end, Adams had racked up a career-best 75 catches for 997 yards and 12 touchdowns, second on the team to NFL leader Jordy Nelson’s 14 receiving touchdowns but still good for second in the league as part of a three-way tie with Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and Tampa Bay’s Mike Evans. Not the biggest and not the fastest, Adams used his athleticism to get open and fight for extra yards. He smashed through the ceiling of lofty expectations while establishing himself as a legitimate starter in the Packers’ high-octane offense. Just how good he can be remains to be seen.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.