Hope Springs in New Orleans
Have you worked your negativity over the Packers 40-10 drubbing at the hands of the Lions out of your system yet? Yeah, neither have I, but instead of once again declaring the season over, it's time for a little positive reassurance.
Make no mistake, though. This season is over. It just is. Whether the Packers shut Aaron Rodgers down for the year or he comes back for next week's game, the Packers' flaws run too deep to make any serious run at a championship this year. Even if he were under center every game for the rest of the year, Rodgers' presence would likely just lead to prettier, closer losses. And say Green Bay was to make the playoffs. With a defense as dysfunctional as the Packers possess, it's far more likely we'd see something like the 2011 defeat at the hands of the Giants or last year's one sided affair in San Francisco than the championship run in 2010.
But about that positive reassurance. There's a team currently sitting near the top of the NFC standings that was in almost the Packers' exact predicament a year ago. A team that you'll see on prime time television tonight. A team with a recent Super Bowl win, a good offensive coach and a fantastically talented quarterback at the helm.
I'm talking about the New Orleans Saints.
Much like the 2011 Packers, the 2011 Saints were a wonder to behold. The offense was clicking, Drew Brees was putting up legendary numbers, and everything seemed ripe for a trip to the Super Bowl. But after losing an epic showdown with the 49ers in the NFC Divisional Round and enduring the fallout of the vastly over-punished Bountygate scandal, the Saints found themselves without head coach Sean Payton and basically rudderless heading into 2012.
New Orleans managed to squeak out a 7-9 record that year, a fairly respectable record given the circumstances. The defense, though, was anything but respectable, and it proved to be the main reason for the Saints' demise. The 2012 Saints surrendered a whopping 28.4 points per game, good for 31st in the league and also ranked 31st in total passing defense and 32nd in rushing defense. Advanced stats might paint a less harsh picture, but the simple volume numbers portray the Saints as a sieve that year.
But their failure on the field brought the Saints a higher draft pick than they'd had in some time. After never drafting higher than 24th overall from 2010 to 2012, the Saints found themselves picking 15th overall in this year's draft, and they used that spot to select Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro, an instant starter who has recorded an interception, a sack, and 42 tackles in ten games so far.
The Saints also brought defensive coordinator Rob Ryan aboard, who has helped the defense regain the potency it had during the Saints' 2009 Super Bowl run. Under Ryan, the Saints defense has jumped in just about every major ranking. As of last week (they've obviously not yet played this week), New Orleans was giving up just 17.8 points per game (good for 5th in the league) and ranked third and 15th in passing and rushing defense, respectively.
To top it all off, Sean Payton is back this year, and under his leadership the Saints seem better than ever. Where they end up remains to be seen, but New Orleans is clearly in a better place now than they were a year ago.
In a lot of ways, the Packers are a lot like the Saints. Coming off a reasonably successful year in which they ended their season with a loss to the 49ers, the Packers are without their most important leader (Aaron Rodgers, duh) and their defense is a shambles, surrendering 25.4 points per game (25th in the NFL) and finding themselves ranked 23rd in pass yardage and 27th in rushing yardage. The Packers of 2013 are in a very similar situation to the 2012 New Orleans Saints.
So can the Packers duplicate the Saints' bounce back to relevance? It's certainly possible.
If the season ended today, the Packers would pick 16th in the 2014 NFL Draft. If Aaron Rodgers is sidelined for much longer, it's possible that they could pick even higher, although with five wins already it seems unlikely they'd pick any higher than about 10th overall. Still, plenty of difference makers can be had picking between 10 and 16. For a few examples, Carolina defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, Seattle defensive end Bruce Irvin, Houston defensive end J.J. Watt, Detroit defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Seattle safety Earl Thomas, and New York defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul were all drafted in that range. Clearly there's talent in the top half of the draft, and that's probably where the Packers will be picking.
In addition to a likely high draft pick, Aaron Rodgers will be back under center in 2014, provided he's not brought back too early this year and hurts his collarbone again. But assuming he doesn't, just having Rodgers back and at full strength makes the Packers a different team for reasons too obvious to merit an explanation.
The only remaining piece to a New Orleans-esque rejuvenation is a new defensive coordinator, and this is where things get sticky. Under Dom Capers, the defense has been undeniably bad in the second half of 2013. But early on, things looked pretty promising at the very least, and this team has obviously performed well under Capers in the past. It doesn't stretch the imagination to see the Packers keeping him around. That said, I wonder if there needs to be a shake-up of some kind on the defensive side of the ball. Someone needs to be held accountable for the failures on defense, and that someone might just be Capers.
So as you watch the Saints tonight (if you're privileged enough to have ESPN, that is), keep in mind where they were a year ago. There were dark days in New Orleans, too, but they showed that the road back doesn't always have to be long and arduous.