A myriad of thoughts

PackerReport.com's Bob Fox touches on a few topics today, including the Packers-Bears preview; unsung heroes on special teams; and Ted Thompson-Mike McCarthy

What a difference a year makes. On New Year's Eve last year, the Green Bay Packers played the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. The Packers were 7-8 and trying to keep alive their faint playoff hopes. The Bears were 13-2 and trying to gain momentum for the playoffs in a year that would get them to the Super Bowl. But things are completely different now.

As the Packers prepare for this game in Chicago, they are the ones that are 12-2, and it is the Bears that are struggling at 5-9. Like 2006, the 2007 Packers are the youngest team in the NFL. But their young players have grown up in a hurry and veterans like Brett Favre, Donald Driver, Al Harris, Charles Woodson and Nick Barnett have led the charge. The Bears, meanwhile, have seen the train fall off the tracks. Their offense still has issues at the quarterback position, as Kyle Orton is now the starter after Rex Grossman was inconsistent, benched, made a starter again and then injured. Backup Brian Griese relinquished the job to Orten.

The Bears also traded RB Thomas Jones to the Jets last off-season, and their running game has never clicked in 2007. Cedric Benson was mediocre this year before he got injured. Add to all that, the defense has been plagued by injuries and have been very suspect against the run, and vulnerable against the pass.

Special teams is the only area that the Bears seem to be effective as Devin Hester is having another monster year. The Packers still look to be good in 2008, with their mix of veterans and youth, but the Bears have a lot of decisions to make in 2008, especially at the QB position, and probably at RB.

Tramon Williams (38) is led by Jason Hunter (57) into the end zone on a punt return Nov. 18 against Carolina
Getty Images
One of the biggest differences this year for the Packers is their improved special teams play. The Packers were ranked last in overall special teams play in both 2005 and 2006. But 2007 has been much different. K Mason Crosby leads the NFL in scoring and has showed a very strong leg. P Jon Ryan has been much more consistent punting the football in 2007. The return teams have been very good as well. Both Tramon Williams and Will Blackmon have returned punts for TDs this year, and Charles Woodson just missed one against Detroit on Thanksgiving. Koren Robinson has looked very good returning kickoffs, and just missed returning one for a TD against the Rams last week.

But the unsung heroes are the blockers on the return teams and the coverage teams. The Packers have had different guys on those units because of injuries, but right now the wedge blockers on kickoff returns are Jason Hunter, Mike Montgomery and Justin Harrell. The wedge buster on the kick off coverage has been Tracy White, but because he has been injured lately, that role has gone to Desmond Bishop, though, White may resume that role on Sunday against the Bears.

The gunners, or the guys on the outside, have also been different players. Jarrett Bush, Will Blackmon, Frank Walker and Williams have all made big plays on the coverage units.

Overall, the leading tackler on the team's special units is Hunter, with 23 tackles. Korey Hall has 12, while Bush and Walker have 11 tackles apiece. Other players who have played well on special teams that don't get much notoriety are Charlie Peprah, Bishop and John Kuhn.

Special teams coach Mike Stock deserves a lot of credit with the Packers success this year, along with assistant Shawn Slocum. But it was General Manager Ted Thompson that acquired a lot of these players through the draft, trades and free agency. And those moves have paid off in 2007.

Speaking of Thompson, it is again time to give credit, where credit is due. Thompson, along with head coach Mike McCarthy deserve a lot of credit this year. If it were up to me, Thompson would be General Manager of the year in the NFL and McCarthy would be head coach of the year.

First, outgoing President Bob Harlan made the right move in hiring Thompson and removing that title from Mike Sherman. Thompson made the right moves in shoring up the Packer roster with talent and also naming McCarthy to replace Sherman as head coach. Before this year, there were MANY that wanted Thompson gone. He was too frugal. He was not aggressive enough. He wasn't helping out Favre with more weapons. I think that has all changed now. I think Favre is pretty happy throwing to the likes of Driver, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Ruvell Martin, Robinson and Donald Lee. And I think Brett is pretty happy handing off to Ryan Grant.

McCarthy has made this all happen with his coaching and his communication style. Through the first 30 games of his coaching career in Green Bay, McCarthy is 20-10. That is better than Curly Lambeau, Mike Holmgren and Mike Sherman was in their first 30 games. Only Vince Lombardi has matched that. Lombardi also went to the NFL championship in his second year as head coach. An omen?

So the big question is ... can the Packers get home-field advantage for the NFC in the playoffs? I think it is very possible. The Dallas Cowboys have road games against the Carolina Panthers and the Washington Redskins. The Cowboys are nicked up as well. QB Tony Romo has a thumb injury and starting C Andre Gurode is out with a leg injury. The Panthers played very well against the Seattle Seahawks last week, and both they and the Redskins are alive for a wild card spot in the NFC playoffs. The Packers meanwhile, have to play a Bear team that is very ineffective on offense and also nicked up on defense. The following week the Packers will play against the Lions at Lambeau Field, where Detroit hasn't won since 1991, plus the Lions are in a free fall. So, the Packers definitely have a chance to get home field advantage. Either way, they still have a bye week and a divisional playoff game at home.

McCarthy must also figure out a way to try and keep the roster as injury free as possible during this stretch. The bye week will definitely help, but knowing that they can play ALL of their games at Lambeau will be a HUGE boost to the Packers. Just ask Jerry Jones.

Bob Fox is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. E-mail him at greenbaybob@hotmail.com.

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