Midway through a hugely disappointing season, there is a passiveness surrounding the Green Bay Packers, almost as if they are resigned to the notion they will miss the playoffs for a second straight season.
The Packers are 3-4-1 after consecutive close-but-no-cigar road losses to two of the best teams in the NFL, which doesn’t necessarily signal that their season is kaput. But the vibe around the team should be a concern. Coach Mike McCarthy isn’t his usual combative self with the media, quarterback Aaron Rodgers hasn’t come up with a playoff-or-bust rallying cry and rank-and-file in the locker room are increasingly frustrated.
After eight consecutive playoff seasons, the Packers clearly have regressed. Last year’s playoff whiff was easily attributed to Rodgers’ broken collarbone. This year, people have found many more reasons for the decline.
Former general manager Ted Thompson, who built a Super Bowl champion in 2010 and NFC finalists in 2014 and 2016, ran the roster into the ground with his single-minded approach to team-building and, toward the end, poor drafting. The players have tuned out McCarthy in his 13th season. The league has caught up with McCarthy’s offense and he refuses to adjust the attack either to fit his personnel or mirror current trends. Rodgers can’t carry the team like he always has due to advancing age or the damaged knee he’s played on since the opener. The leading pass-rushers, outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry, are past their primes and the pass rush has suffered.
Actually, there is some validity to nearly every one of those things and plenty of blame to pass around for a team that is 6-12-1 since Rodgers’ injury early in the 2017 season. But after watching Green Bay muddle through the first half of 2018 with a hit-and-miss offense and a young, error-prone defense, there is one problem with the Packers I think overrides all others: Their roster is so depleted that what many thought was a one-year fix is really a two- or three-year fix.
The Packers no longer have elite-level talent. They are short on playmakers and depth and pretty much everything in between. Brian Gutekunst replaced Thompson after last season and was charged with reversing the talent drain, but too many things are wrong with this roster to make it right in one year.
Fans want the Packers to be competitive every year as Rodgers’ career window begins to close, but the roster is so thin that even had Gutekunst gone all-in this season there still would have been gaping holes to fill. That’s why he resisted the temptation to trade draft picks for a veterans hoping that a player or two might put the Packers over the top. Such thinking was pure folly given the current roster.
Look no farther than the revolving door in the secondary. The Packers claimed safety Ibraheim Campbell off waivers and elevated cornerback Will Redmond from the practice squad this week, making them the 13th and 14 defensive backs on the 53-man roster this season. Of the 11 on the current roster, only three played for the Packers last season.
Last week, Gutekunst traded going-through-the-motions safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and halfback Ty Montgomery after he disobeyed orders and cost the team a chance to beat the Los Angeles Rams. This week, he released safety Jermaine Whitehead after he took a foolish penalty in a loss at New England.
Was Gutekunst sending a message? Nope. He was merely cleansing the locker room of players who weren’t playing well enough to help the team win.
The quality of the roster was exposed by the Packers’ draft strategy the past two years, when they concentrated heavily on positions bereft of talent. They took defensive backs with their first two picks in 2017 and added three halfbacks later on. They took cornerbacks with the first two picks in 2018 and added three wide receivers in the later rounds.
That strategy appears to have worked, but there’s a catch. In the next few drafts, the Packers need to do the same thing at outside linebacker, safety, offensive line and tight end.
The Packers’ roster problems can be traced directly to Thompson’s drafts from 2013 to 2015. Those players should form the backbone of the team, but the Packers have only three on their active roster from those drafts — tackle David Bakhtiari from 2013 and wide receiver Davante Adams and center Corey Linsley from 2014. Amazingly, there’s not a single player from the 2015 draft on the active roster this week.
The Packers’ flimsy roster was exposed last season when Brett Hundley had to start nine games in Rodgers’ absence. Hundley wasn’t good, but he didn’t get much help, either. Still, we had no idea how bad things had gotten until Rodgers came back. In the team’s last 19 games, it is 3-6 with Hundley, 3-6-1 with Rodgers.
The Packers have been inconsistent all season and the tendency is to blame that on the coaches. There is more to it than that, though. The Packers played about as well as they can play the past two weeks but were beaten by more talented teams. When push comes to shove in the fourth quarter, that’s usually what happens in the NFL.
The Packers used to do that to other teams. Not anymore. They don’t have the talent.