Sunday School: Reviewing 2008

Our W. Keith Roerdink details what he learned about the Packers this season, starting at quarterback, where Aaron Rodgers put up good numbers but Brett Favre might have put up more wins.

After reviewing five key learnings from each game through the course of the season, it's time to examine the big picture of the season that was.

We start off with the issue that dominated 2008 — The Great Quarterback Debate. And for those of you who have been reading throughout the season, you know that Packer Report publisher Bill Huber and myself have agreed to disagree on that topic. So, we lead off with an expanded take on the Aaron Rodgers vs. Brett Favre argument, followed by four more points that defined Green Bay's 6-10 season.

1.) Aaron Rodgers proved he's a great quarterback, but ...
The Packers finished 6-10 after going 13-3 the year before, losing seven games by four points or less. It was a franchise-record seven-game swing in the win-loss column. After the Favre retirement/unretirement saga and eventual trade to the New York Jets, Rodgers became the unquestioned starter.

Clearly, the most important thing he did was show up for 16 games. There was more doubt about Rodgers' ability to do that than to actually play well. Following a seemingly unbreakable quarterback, Rodgers showed his toughness by playing through a painful sprained shoulder. That set the table for a season that exceeded everyone's expectations — throwing for 28 touchdowns, 13 interceptions and 4,012 yards. Statistically, he easily outplayed Favre, who tossed 22 touchdowns, 22 picks and 3,472 yards with the New York Jets.

 But the knock on Rodgers, was that he couldn't win the close game. It's unfair to put those seven losses on him, but as the most important player on the team, he bears a share of the responsibility, which he stepped up and accepted.

Those who agree with GM Ted Thompson's trade of Favre will point to the late-game collapses of the Packers' defense and the special teams as the reason for those losses. It's true; Favre would have no bearing on those plays, just as Rodgers didn't. However, for those who favored one more year of No. 4, it's fair to note that in losses to Atlanta, Tennessee and Minnesota, Favre likely could've put up more than 24 points when Atlanta scored 27, 16 points when Tennessee scored 19 in overtime and 27 when Minnesota scored 28. It's not just about what happened at the end of those games, it's everything that happened on offense leading to that point. And remember, that one-point Minnesota loss had a defensive and special teams touchdown by the Packers, but virtually no offense. Rodgers even got caught for two safeties in the second quarter.

It's overly simplistic to look at Favre's late-season decline with the Jets, when he threw two touchdowns to nine interceptions down the stretch as his team missed the playoffs, and say that justifies Thompson's decision. Eleven games into the season, the Jets were 8-3 and coming off wins against New England and the previously unbeaten Titans. Favre had tossed six touchdowns in a game earlier in the season — something he'd never done as a Packer — and was being talked about as an MVP candidate. Pundits hailed the Jets as a Super Bowl contender.

Coincidentally, none of Favre's Jets teammates, anonymous or otherwise, thought he was distant or lacked chemistry with his new team at that point. The Packers, on the other hand, were 5-6 after dropping the first three of what would be seven close losses. But the discussion is really about what Favre would've done returning to his old team and a familiar system with all of the same personnel.

We'll never know if Favre's presence in 2008 would have got the Packers three or four more victories. There's no way to know if that total would've won the NFC North Division. And even if it had, Green Bay likely would've been one-and-done come playoff time through a combination of Favre's failing right arm, a floundering defense and mistake-prone special teams. It's pure speculation.

Really, does a few more wins even matter if the result is missing the playoffs or losing the first game? It depends on what value you put on a regular-season record or a division title. If there was a way to have peered into a crystal ball back in August and known with certainty that Green Bay would not make the playoffs, then installing Rodgers as quarterback and getting a year of experience under his belt was the absolute right decision. But there was no crystal ball. There was only a 13-3 record, and a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback and MVP runner-up coming off of one of his best seasons who, after much drama and indecision, wanted to return to his team.

But the die was cast. The train had, as we were told, left the station. Still, Rodgers did far better than most thought possible and prevented Thompson from being the most vilified figure in Packers history. He handled the season and the unenviable situation of replacing Favre with poise and maturity. And if he can do all that in his first year starting, things should only get better.

2.) Cullen Jenkins was the second best pass rusher on the team, unfortunately ...
He went down in the fourth quarter of a Week 4 loss at Tampa Bay and was lost for the season. Over the next 12 games, only three players would notch more than Jenkins' 2.5 sacks. That's a huge, huge problem. Two of those players, cornerback Charles Woodson and linebacker A.J. Hawk, had three apiece. Only Aaron Kampman had a significant number more, finishing with 9.5 despite being the team's only legitimate pass rusher.

 Green Bay's inability to put pressure on opposing signal callers was a glaring flaw that must be addressed. Time caught up with KGB and cost him his job. Tackle Johnny Jolly was disappointing as a rusher. Colin Cole showed improvement, but it wasn't enough. Rookie Jeremy Thompson has some potential. But the Packers really needed production — out of someone, anyone, including their defensive coordinator.

Bob Sanders was unable to produce any pressure through his scheme, which had a lot to do with why he was fired. The Packers blitzed just 19.9 percent of the time, the team's lowest since 2002. Major changes lie ahead. Whether that means a switch to a 3-4 defense, the addition of a pass rusher through free agency or the draft or all of the aforementioned.

3.) For the youngest team in the league, these old guys are still pretty good
Charles Woodson is 32. Donald Driver is 33. Al Harris is 34. And to watch them play, you'd never know it.

Woodson was easily the team's Most Valuable Player. On the way to his fifth Pro Bowl, Woodson had an amazing season with a team-high 20 passes defensed and tied safety Nick Collins with seven interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. The Packers' corner was the consummate pro on and off the field, playing through a broken toe suffered in the season opener. He played three games at safety when injuries struck and was a mentor to Collins, who credits Woodson for his transformation into a Pro Bowl safety.

Harris was having a solid season, rebounding from a rough (to be kind) outing in the NFC championship game, when he lacerated his spleen after a fluke collision with Hawk. He missed four games while recovering, then returned to the field and became the epitome of a shutdown corner, not giving up so much as a single catch for the next four games. While that streak would end, Harris remains one of the best bump-and-run corners in the business and should be given every opportunity to hold off Father Time in 2009.

Driver will turn 34 next month, but continues to play like a receiver 10 years younger. He willingly goes over the middle for the tough grab and ensuing hit. He routinely makes the first defender miss and he can get distance between him and the cornerbacks down the sideline, as evidenced by his 71-yard touchdown against Detroit — the team's longest pass play of the season. With 74 catches for 1,012 yards, he surpasses the millennium mark for the sixth time in his career, passing Packers legends James Lofton and Sterling Sharpe. And though those numbers are his lowest since 2003, they are more a function of Greg Jennings' emergence as a top-flight receiving threat than a dropoff by Driver.

4.) 2008 was a statistical anomaly
Depending on how you look at it, the statistics put up in 2008 show that the 6-10 record was a fluke and this team is better than its record shows or it highlights how critical deficiencies were masked.

The Packers had two 1,000-yard receivers in Jennings and Driver. Rodgers passed for more than 4,000 and Ryan Grant rushed for 1,200 yards. Defensively, Pro Bowlers Collins and Woodson combined for 14 interceptions. They returned five of those for scores. Nickel back Tramon Williams had five picks and backup safety Aaron Rouse had a record-setting 99-yard return. On special teams, Will Blackmon had two punt returns for touchdowns, coming within one of Desmond Howard's record. All told, the team set a franchise record with 10 returns for touchdowns.

On the surface, it's an extremely impressive collection of numbers. It's encouraging for next season and speaks well to the individual talents at key positions. Yet, the wins and losses are the numbers that matter most. Through a combination of coaching and execution, this team couldn't win the close games. Not even one of them.

There was plenty of blame to go around in all phases of the game (but check out our final point if you're looking to point a finger). This was also the most penalized team in the league with 984 yards, the fourth-highest total in team annals. That may speak to a bigger discipline issue with the team that needs to be addressed.

5.) Inability to stop the run a big reason for losing record
After holding Vikings uber-back Adrian Peterson in check in a season-opening win, the wheels came off for the Packers' run defense. Any examination of why this team failed to post a winning record must begin with the atrocious play against opposing running backs. Green Bay ended the year ranked 26th against the run, its worst finish since 1983. Its 131.9 rushing yards given up on average was the highest total since 1988.

Five opponents — Dallas, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Tennessee and Minnesota — rushed for more than 175 yards in wins over Green Bay. In a rematch with the Vikings, Peterson scorched the Pack for 192 by himself.

But it didn't have to be the best back in the NFL. Houston rookie Steve Slaton ran for 120 in the Texans' 24-21 win at Lambeau. And it wasn't just the sheer number of yards, it was when and how those backs got them. Green Bay couldn't stop Atlanta from running out the clock even when it stacked nine men in the box. The Carolina Panthers only had 128 rushing yards, but DeAngelo Williams had four 1-yard touchdowns when the Packers all but knew he was getting the ball. And against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Green Bay gave up a 16-yard quarterback draw to plodding David Garrard late in the game when the announcers, a soldout crowd and most people watching at home figured a draw was coming. Maurice Jones-Drew scored from 2 yards out on the next play for the deciding points in their 20-16 victory.

Shoddy tackling, players out of position and a lack of gap discipline made this group hard to watch. Certainly, Nick Barnett's absence was a factor. A bigger one may have been the loss of Atari Bigby, whose ability to come down in run support was sorely missed. A commitment to fundamentals, more than anything, will be needed for this group to improve. But some personnel changes along the line and even at linebacker wouldn't hurt. Personnel changes on the coaching staff are on the way.

W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.


Packer Report Top Stories