Help wanted: Playmakers. Apply at 1265 Lombardi Ave., Green Bay
How many 2005 Packers games came down to a few plays that either the opposition made or the Packers didn't? More than a couple, as nine losses by 10 or fewer points amply demonstrates. And of those nine losses, five were by three or fewer points. In four of those games (Tampa Bay, Carolina, Minnesota twice), it would not be difficult to point to one or two plays that made the critical difference.
That's sports in 2006, an era in which the very best teams are separated from the merely good by a few points, a critical drive late in the fourth quarter, a clutch base hit in the ninth inning or a hustle play that corrals a late-game rebound.
The very best teams make those plays consistently while average teams do not. The very worst teams? They almost never make them. Last year, the Packers were among the league's very worst.
To change that, Mike McCarthy needs to identify and cultivate some playmakers. If healthy, there is probably more talent on the August roster this year than last, but it's still a stretch to say the Packers are closer to being playoff-caliber than also-ran. Who will make the big plays necessary to win close games in 2006? Here are a few candidates.
Rod Gardner: Rookie wide receiver Greg Jennings is the media's darling thus far, but first-year wide receivers rarely have a significant statistical impact. Hopefully, Jennings reverses that trend, but if not, second-year Packer Gardner may have the best chance to inject some life into a dormant offense.
At 6 feet 2 inches, 215 pounds, Gardner has the prototypical size of a McCarthy/West Coast offense wide receivers. He's never been a big-play guy in his career, maxing out at 8 touchdowns in 2002 with Washington. But he has had three 50-plus reception campaigns in his career, something teammate Robert Ferguson has never accomplished. I wouldn't expect Gardner to explode on the scene, but he could develop into a steady No. 2 option behind Donald Driver and compile between 800 and 1,000 receiving yards. And with some pressure off Driver, his big-play frequency should increase.
Ahman Green: People are willing to shovel dirt onto Green's career as he tries to rebound from a quadriceps injury, but I'm going to withhold judgment for a few games. Yes, ex-Packers Steve Warren and Santana Dotson were never the same after similar injuries, but what had Warren ever accomplished? And wasn't Dotson already at the end of his career?
At 29, Green is "old" for a running back, but young compared to plenty of players around the league. It's a safe bet that he'll never return to his astounding 2003 form (355 carries, 1,883 yards, 5.3 avg.), but perhaps he has another 2004 in him (259 / 1,163 / 4.5). If he doesn't, either Samkon Gado or Najeh Davenport have to become consistent and sure-handed players for the Packers to improve.
Nick Barnett/A.J. Hawk: I pair Hawk and Barnett because it is only their joint presence that can improve the team's woeful linebacking corps. Packer linebackers were involved in just eight turnover plays and 13.5 tackles for loss last year, or roughly 1/2 and 1 per game, respectively.
Both men should be aided by a deep if unproven defensive line, including free agent acquisition Ryan Pickett. If the line can keep guards and tackles off Barnett, he could re-assume his status as a very good middle linebacker and not just a guy who racks up tackles because of the rest of team's inability to do so. Expectations are outrageous for Hawk, which is good -- it's time the Packers had a defensive star, or at least the semblance of one.
Nick Collins: Second-year man Collins had one interception and no sacks last year, which wouldn't suggest huge things in 2006. But this season, he is no longer paired with the average Mark Roman at strong safety, as newcomer Marquand Manuel arrives from Seattle.
Manuel's strength appears to be his defensive recognition and quarterbacking, which will allow Collins a bit more freedom to roam. At 22, he's still incredibly young, but if he's going to be an impact player, we should see more tangible evidence of such this year. Fellow second-year safety Marviel Underwood has had a great camp thus far, but he should eventually slide into a backup role once Manuel returns from a calf injury.
Charles Woodson: He has never been a huge interception guy (his career-high of five came in his rookie year), but Woodson's presence portends good things for the Packers defensive backs. With Woodson and Al Harris, the Packers finally have two legitimate NFL starters at corner again, which will take some pressure off their young safeties. It should also increase the team's lackluster total of 10 interceptions in 2005. To put that in perspective, the Bears Nathan Vasher had 8 all by himself (and ex-Packer Darren Sharper had 9).
Of course, Woodson could also contribute on punt returns, were the Packers have lacked electricity since Allen Rossum left after the 2001 season. However, Woodson has just 12 punt returns in his entire NFL career.
Buddy Lee said: That #4 guy might make a few plays. Just kidding. Seriously though - watch the tight-end position this year. The three-deep talent that the Pack has now is formidable. Bubba is money in the seam, Donald Lee only catches EVERYTHING on the outs, and David Martin can stretch the field like a wideout. We know that Jags likes to feature the TE position - Just look at what the Falcons did production-wise at that position. In my opinion, that is where the biggest increase is going to occur on offense.
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