Preseason Expectations vs. Postseason Reality for the Packers
Training camp and the preseason this year felt different. We wrote early on that 2016 felt like a "Super Bowl or bust" campaign. If the Packers were to make a deep playoff run or make the NFL's championship game, there were a number of players who needed to step up or circumstances that needed to break the Packers way.
Green Bay will face off against Atlanta on Sunday for a right to go to Super Bowl LI in Houston. The Packers are appearing in their second NFC Championship Game in three seasons, but is drastically different than the 2014 team that faced Seattle.
Compared to expectations laid on the team in training camp and the preseason, the roster and way the Packers win games is very different team heading into the NFC Championship Game
Expectation: Eddie Lacy and James Starks will be just enough of a running game to help Aaron Rodgers.
Reality: Neither one was that great, and Ty Montgomery had to save the day.
The expectation at the beginning of the season was about offensive balance. A healthy and fit Eddie Lacy entered a contract year, and James Starks has been a steady contributor for the past five seasons. Both Lacy and Starks have missed significant time this season because of injuries.
Instead, Green Bay's rushing attack was spearheaded by a wide receiver turned running back and a fullback who had touched the ball a total of 14 times in his collegiate career. Ty Montgomery and Aaron Ripkowski have helped balance Green Bay late in the season.
Expectation: We need to get help for Clay Matthews!
Reality: We need to get help for Clay Matthews, because he doesn’t look anything like himself.
The perception heading into the season was that the Packers needed to get pass rush help for Matthews in some shape or form. After bouncing between inside linebacker and an outside pass rush role, the star linebacker was firmly back at his edge defender role heading into 2016.
Help was needed for Matthews, but not because he was carrying the entire load of the defense but rather because he hasn't looked quite like himself this season. The edge defender has been dealing with a shoulder injury that has significantly limited his contributions. Instead, Nick Perry and Julius Peppers carried the Packers pass rush for the majority of the season.
Expectation: The young players in the secondary will grow!
Reality: The young players in the secondary grew much worse.
The 2015 NFL Draft delivered two promising defensive backs – Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins. Both were strong contributors as rookies, Randall started nine contests and intercepted three passes while Rollins started four games with two interceptions of his own. Heading into 2016, the expectation was both would take a step forward in their development.
They did take a step, but it wasn't forward. Both Randall and Rollins dealt with nagging injuries throughout the season. After the Packers lost starter Sam Shields in Week 1, the secondary struggled mightily all year long and into the postseason. Randall has appeared to lost confidence on the field, while Rollins has been benched for poor performance and suffered a serious neck injury late in the season.
Expectation: Jordy Nelson will take a while to recover from injury.
Reality: Jordy Nelson might be a different player now, and that’s pretty much fine.
A torn ACL sidelined Nelson for all of last season, and his disappearance was supposedly a large reason why Green Bay struggled offensively. With his return, the expectation was that he wouldn't be 100% from the start and may never return to his former self. Nelson was limited throughout training camp and did not appear in a preseason game.
While Nelson has in fact been a different player, it hasn't stopped or slowed down his production. The talented wide receiver led all pass catchers with 14 touchdowns and averaged about 100 receiving yards during the Packers six-game winning streak to end the season.
Expectation: Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis will grow after their postseason cameos last year.
Reality: Neither one is an NFL receiver any more.
Speaking of wide receiver, the position's depth was a strength in training camp. Seven wide receivers had a legitimate shot at significant playing time, including third-year pros Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis. Janis caught two touchdowns in the Divisional Round against Arizona to end last season, including Rodgers' hail mary at the end of regulation, while Abbrederis was a steady target in the back half of the season.
Janis broke his hand in training camp and played with a club until October. With only one hand, his role in the offense was cast aside and he became a special teams ace. Late in the season, the Packers did use Janis in some creative packages. Abbrederis continued to deal with small injuries, and after a thigh bruise in October the Packers placed him on injured reserve and waived him. He signed with Detroit after the conclusion of their season.
Expectation: The offensive line will need some time to adjust after Josh Sitton leaves!
Reality: The time to adjust was like eight seconds.
The biggest surprise from roster cuts was the release of Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton. Sitton was a vocal leader for the Packers, and his sudden departure from the team came out of the blue. Backup guard Lane Taylor, who was now ordained the starter, struggled in the preseason and was thought to be in danger of losing his roster spot according to Packers beat writers.
Taylor fit right in on the Packers offensive line. While it's fair to question the Packers front office for their handling of Sitton's release, the offensive line's on field performance hasn't missed a beat.
This post is adapted from a conversation on this week's episode of Blue 58: A Packers Podcast powered by WTMJ Mobile. Listen to the full episode below and subscribe in your favorite podcast app.