Assessing the Packers' future

October, 14, 2010
10/14/10
12:36
PM ET
Jermichael FinleyWin McNamee/Getty ImagesThe loss of tight end Jermichael Finley, perhaps for the season, is the latest casualty for a Packers team that's seen more than its share.
I had to laugh at the gallows humor you generated in Wednesday's post detailing what appears to be a season-ending knee injury for Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley.

Ellamont76 asked for a little sugar to coat the devastating news. Doug Pretty responded with a line from a currently-running television ad: "Jermichael Finley is out for the season, but I have some good news! I just saved a bunch of money on my car insurance by switching to Geico!"

"Thanks, that's better," Ellamont76 responded. "I've just been closing my eyes, plugging my ears and saying 'La la la la I can't hear you.'"

On Wednesday, the Packers practiced without nine prominent players, all of whom began the season healthy but are now sidelined by injuries. As you can see in the chart at the bottom of the post, the list includes some of the biggest names on their roster. Two others, cornerback Al Harris and safety Atari Bigby, are on the physically unable to perform list.

Many of us tapped the Packers as preseason NFC North favorites. Should we plug our ears and sing "La, la, la, la, la, I can't hear you?" Or is it time to recalibrate our division reckoning?

In other words: Are the Packers cooked?

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, coach Mike McCarthy did his best to put a positive spin on what, objectively speaking, is a personnel catastrophe. Independent of X's and O's, the psychological hammer of the long-term injuries to Finley, linebacker Nick Barnett and tailback Ryan Grant -- not to mention short-term ailments of linebacker Clay Matthews and quarterback Aaron Rodgers -- could be devastating.

"There is no 'woe is me' here," McCarthy insisted. "This is the National Football League. It's a dynamic business. ... I like where we are at as a team. I think this is an excellent opportunity for us to show what we are about. I know there is probably doubt outside the room. ... So we'll be ready to go Sunday, I can promise you that."

Already, the Packers (3-2) are in essence two games behind the division-leading Chicago Bears (4-1) by virtue of their 20-17 loss at Soldier Field last month. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Vikings provided a glimpse of what they could become during their Monday night loss to the New York Jets. Even the 1-4 Detroit Lions have new life after a 38-point shellacking of the St. Louis Rams and looming home games against all three NFC North foes.

[+] EnlargeNick Barnett
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireLinebacker Nick Barnett had wrist surgery Wednesday and may be lost for the season.
Given that landscape, here's where I land: As tough as it's going to be on the Packers, I'm not willing to write off any team in Week 6. Instead, let's try to be more constructive and establish six maxims to guide us through this unexpected turbulence.

The Packers must make substantive changes to their offense in Finley's absence, a job made more difficult by the failure of anyone to step up after Grant's injury. Through the first four games of the season, according to ESPN Stats & Information, the Packers used a two-tight end formation on 80 of 223 plays (36 percent). With Finley and Donald Lee (chest) sidelined, the Packers won't have that luxury moving forward.

Instead, they'll have to redirect their scheme through receivers Greg Jennings and Donald Driver. Neither is having a typical season. Driver dropped four passes last Sunday against the Washington Redskins and Jennings has only 14 receptions in five games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Finley has been by far the Packers' most reliable downfield receiver, catching 75 percent of the passes thrown to him 11 or more yards past the line of scrimmage. The rest of the Packers' receivers have caught 44 percent of similar passes.

Worse, Finley's absence will probably draw more defensive attention to Jennings. But somehow, the Packers must find a way to make him the new centerpiece of their offense.

"Obviously," Jennings told reporters, "one of the positives of having so much depth on the perimeter is that if one guy were to go down, we've got a lot of guys who can step up and make plays. At the same time, from a personal standpoint ... when he goes down, a lot more attention goes to me. We kind of help each other out a little bit. It's going to be tough."

The Packers can't play their current defensive scheme without Matthews, whose short-term status is unclear because of a strained hamstring. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Redskins completed only 30 percent of their passes against the Packers' blitz before Matthews' injury Sunday. After he left, they completed 62.5 percent against it.

Matthews' absence is expected to be relatively short term, but we all know the dangers of blitzing without an elite blitzer. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers must adjust.

In more ways than one, the Bears are in the NFC North driver seat. Their 4-1 record puts them atop the division, of course, but they've also remained relatively healthy thus far. The only Week 1 starter who isn't expected to play Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks for health reasons is left guard Roberto Garza (knee).

And through five games, the Bears' defense has been the best-performing and most consistent group on either side of the ball in the entire division. It ranks No. 6 overall in the NFL and has been good enough to carry a team to a division title. To use a cliché, the Bears' defense gives the entire team something to hang its hat on. Frankly, no other NFC North team can boast such an advantage.

Our preseason projections were made without considering the possibility that the Vikings would acquire receiver Randy Moss. With him, they have the personnel to slash and burn their way through the second half of their schedule.

In 17 minutes of game time spanning the third and fourth quarters Monday night, their offense scored 21 points and amassed 204 total yards against one of the league's best defenses. That kind of explosiveness, if harnessed on a consistent basis, could add a new factor to the division race. The big question will be whether the Vikings will bury themselves too deeply before their offense gets straightened out.

No team can reasonably plan for the loss of nine prominent players, be it for the short or long term. But the Packers' philosophy against acquiring veterans from outside the organization makes them especially ill-equipped.

General manager Ted Thompson prefers to develop his own backups and security blankets through the draft and by signing undrafted college players. It makes sense in the long term, especially when you realize that 19 of their 22 Week 1 starters were homegrown. But in the short term, it leaves inexperienced players to assume major roles.

If Rodgers must miss a game, he'll be replaced by the untested Matt Flynn rather than, say, a Shaun Hill. Without Grant, the Packers have turned to Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn instead of perhaps a Chester Taylor. Finley's injury will force the Packers to turn to rookie Andrew Quarless, who made the 53-man roster at the expense of veteran Spencer Havner.

There is no rule against young players rising to the occasion, but it's more difficult to predict it. Again, no team should be written off in the middle of October. But suffice it to say, the Packers now have their work cut out for them.

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