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Recession may be ahead for powerful Packers

By Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Ted Thompson, the old career special-teamer for the Houston Oilers, has spoken many times about pro football being a tough, hard business.

It wasn’t that way for the Green Bay Packers a year ago when they amassed 70 touchdowns, rang up more than 40 points six times and lost only once in their winningest regular season ever.

For a while, it seemed like the Lambeau Leap would never end. Then the Kansas City Chiefs and the New York Giants came calling and stopped all the fun.

Some expect the Packers not even to skip a beat in the season ahead. Thompson probably isn’t one of them, and neither am I.

This season looks like one of struggle in Green Bay. What the National Football League giveth, it can quickly taketh away.

The Packers certainly are capable of winning the Super Bowl, just as they have been in each of the last three seasons. There’s no reason to think this team won’t remain a serious contender for several more seasons as long as Thompson, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers perform as well in the future as they have in the past.

Green Bay should repeat as NFC North champion, prevailing over Detroit and Chicago in a tight three-team race.

Nevertheless, despite playing one of the three or four softest schedules in the league, the forecast here is for a 10-6 finish, or a five-game drop from 2011, and elimination short of the Super Bowl.

Just in the last seven years, the list of champions included the sixth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers (11-5) in 2005, the fifth-seeded New York Giants (10-6) in ‘07, the sixth-seeded Packers (10-6) in ‘10 and the fourth-seeded Giants (9-7) last year.

The Packers certainly will be a far different team four months from now, but the guess is they’ll still come up a little short.

In analyzing this team, there are a few too many weaknesses without readily discernible solutions.

The overriding strength, of course, is the passing game that pounded opponent after opponent into submission last year.

Rodgers to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, even some of the other wide receivers and tight ends, is as good as it gets. They were virtually unstoppable a year ago.

This summer, McCarthy has gone to even greater lengths trying to increase the chances that his passing attack will decide games.

The proliferation of no-huddle offense is what Marv Levy went to with Jim Kelly in Buffalo and what Tony Dungy went to with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, and a combined total of five Super Bowls was the result.

Three months shy of his 29th birthday, Rodgers should be at the peak of his physical and mental powers. For three years he has been shredding defenses with his arm, his feet and his brain.

For whatever reason, Rodgers hasn’t been quite on top of his game, both in training camp and in five quarters of exhibition football.

The No. 1 offense didn’t often sweep down the field in majestic fashion to beat the defense in end-of-game scenarios. Nelson was a spectacular sight to behold over the last six weeks, but Rodgers probably didn’t complete as many phenomenal passes and his receivers didn’t make as many phenomenal catches as they have in summers past.

Once again, the defensive backfields in Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota look extremely vulnerable. If the Packers can protect against those three stiff rushes, there’s a chance to sweep the division again.

That protection hinges to a large extent on Marshall Newhouse at left tackle, where the Packers no longer have a player like Chad Clifton in the bullpen, and Jeff Saturday at center.

It’s Newhouse or nothing, really. T.J. Lang could swing outside, but that isn’t the answer. As he did in 2009, Thompson has left the team short by failing to find or develop an adequate backup tackle. If the Packers were counting on Derek Sherrod this season, it looks like a mistake.

Saturday, 37, replaced 31-year-old Scott Wells, McCarthy’s pick as his best O-lineman over the last two seasons. Thompson drew a line in the sand in negotiations with Wells and lost him to St. Louis.

The difference in their two salaries might help the Packers retain one of their stars on a long-term contract. It remains to be seen if there’s a difference in the performance at center and, if so, how it might affect the offense.

Cedric Benson is the other major acquisition on the offense. In brief exposure, he seems to be a better ball carrier than Ryan Grant and maybe James Starks were last year. Better, that is, if he doesn’t keep on fumbling at a rate that has been much higher than all of the Packers’ backs dating back many a year.

If Benson can learn protections and can secure the ball, and if Graham Harrell can acquit himself as well as the departed Matt Flynn did in his two starts, then the only item missing at the skill positions is a third-down back capable of big plays.

Even in this pass-driven league, defense begins with stopping the run. The Packers couldn’t do it (122.8 per game, 4.83 per carry in the last 14 games) last season, but their failure wasn’t glaring because foes fell so far behind and abandoned the run.

The heart and soul of the run defense was Desmond Bishop. Before him, it was Nick Barnett.

Done for the year with a hamstring tear, Bishop was a blood-and-guts guy with pop, a nose for the ball and fire. Barnett, 31, was cut in July 2011 but remains a very effective player in Buffalo.

D.J. Smith looks like a worthy replacement inside. It will be interesting to see if A.J. Hawk, a marginal player, loses any playing time to one of his four backups.

Ryan Pickett can stack the point with any 3-4 end but starts the season with a bad calf. C.J. Wilson is OK. Scouts say taking on double teams might be the least of B.J. Raji’s assets, and he’s got a bum ankle.

Nick Perry should be better against the run than Erik Walden. Even for him, Clay Matthews’ intensity level in August was superlative. Maybe that will rub off on the entire unit, and the Packers can get back to 100-mph pursuit and half a dozen hats to the ball.

On early downs, Charles Woodson will have to face up to the high-speed collisions with running backs that some deep safeties are loath to encounter. Criticize Charlie Peprah, but he wouldn’t turn anything down.

As deficient as the run defense was, the pass defense was even worse. Now Dom Capers, Thompson and McCarthy have had eight months to reshape it.

Losing Bishop was a heavy blow here as well. The numbers show he had been the best pressure player in the back seven. The signature cross blitz has lost teeth without Bishop’s well-timed, punishing surges.

Last year, Capers tried Jarius Wynn, Mike Neal and Wilson rushing beside Raji in four-man fronts. This year, he will try rookies Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, long-armed pocket pusher Phillip Merling and perhaps Neal post-suspension next to Raji.

If the conventional rush isn’t appreciably better, and there were only passing indicators that it would be, Capers will need an enormous year from Matthews and more than just the hard bull rush that Perry has been providing.

An improved Walden might be disruptive off the bench. So could Dezman Moses, a hard-nosed rookie.

If the rush doesn’t pick up, Capers will have little alternative other than to apply heavy pressure, which didn’t come close to working in 2011.

Tramon Williams is back playing well. That’s big.

Jarrett Bush is sure to be picked on. Sam Shields has just been so erratic. Rookie Casey Hayward is fine. Davon House looked like he might be a competent starter, but his bad shoulder could limit him for weeks to come.

Meanwhile, youthful safety Morgan Burnett must run the back end with a novice next to him on about 75 percent of the snaps. The loss of Nick Collins remains incalculable.

Know what else got my attention? The Packers’ total of 10 giveaways, and that includes seven by players still on the roster.

It followed four turnovers in the playoff defeat to the Giants, something McCarthy knew could never, ever become a trend.

Green Bay turned the ball over 14 times in 16 games a year ago, the fewest in team history. The most impressive part of McCarthy’s coaching is his plus-58 turnover differential over the past three seasons, by far the NFL’s best.

In 1998, the Packers had another coach in his seventh season with a team that also was the popular choice for the third straight year to win the Super Bowl.

Well, Mike Holmgren’s team turned it over 14 times in five exhibition games that year before posting by far the worst turnover differential of his career (minus-11) in the regular season. The wild-card playoff loss in San Francisco that included four giveaways ended his career in Green Bay.

Brett Favre began the ‘98 season one month shy of his 29 birthday and acclaimed the best player in the league. He never played in another Super Bowl, and it took the Packers 13 years to get back.

Twenty-three teams in history have finished 14-2, 15-1 or 16-0. On average, those teams won 3.8 fewer games the next season.

McCarthy himself can recall a dramatic downturn of seven games four years ago. Like Thompson, he understands that this pro football is a tough, hard business.

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