Michael Lombardi: Will the Green Bay Packers rise again?

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Will the Green Bay Packers rise again?

In January of 1959, Jack Vainisi, the Green Bay Packers personnel director, knew he had one chance to help his team. He needed to convince New York Giant’s offensive coordinator Vince Lombardi to become their head coach.  Vainisi believed his team had great potential despite the 32-74-2 record through the 50s. In two short years, Lombardi put his magic touch on the players, resulting in playing the Philadelphia Eagles for the 1960 NFL Championship and ten of Vainisi’s draft picks during the 1950s, which at one time appeared as bad picks, all have a bust in Canton—Bart Starr, Paul Horning, Jimmy Taylor, Forrest Gregg, and others. 

 

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Vainisi understood he was at the mercy of the coach. No matter how much talent landed in Green Bay, the coach needed to utilize the players correctly, allowing them to shine.  Players alone cannot win, they need to be coached and developed, and if done correctly, they can exceed expectations.  This is the challenge for the current Packers head coach, Matt LaFleur—make all the young players better, starting with quarterback Jordan Love.  Can he become a developer of talent?  We shall see. 

Currently, the Packers are getting zero respect in the betting market partly because of the uncertainty surrounding the skill set of Love and all the young players on their roster. Bettors are behaving like Soprano’s mob boss Larry Boy Barese while in prison, with his nephew Albert saying, “He is in no position to go into the unknown, not knowing.”  The Packers are in the unknown, and no one knows except those around the team.  To win in the NFL or any sport, there needs to be a balance of young and old.  Teams relying solely on veterans often fall short.  Teams hoping the young players make a quantum leap are disappointed.  There must be a blend of old and young.  The Packers have that blend, young on offense and older on defense.  No one knows about Love; they don’t have a firm feel for how good receiver Christian Watson might become, or Romeo Doubs, or how their rookies, particularly second-round pick tight end Luke Musgrave, will fit in.   And there are doubts about LaFleur without Aaron Rodgers around.  All fair questions. 

Because of the hoopla surrounding the Rodgers departure, signaling the end of the Packers being a good team, the perception and national narrative have the Chicago Bears with better odds to win the North.  This narrative is completely out of whack—what makes the Bears better this season?   I can hear my VSiN co-host Femi Abebefe screaming about quarterback Justin Fields’s development, yet in reality, the Bears were a bad team in every phase last season, not just in their ill-fated attempts to have a passing game.  The Bears last season allowed 6.1 yards per play, 0.444 points per play, 67% completion percentage, 49% on third downs, and 64% allowing scores in the red zone.  Does Tremaine Edmunds and TJ Edwards starting at linebacker improve these numbers?  The entire concept of the Bears’ defense is to win with their defensive line, yet, because of the lack of available talent in free agency available they signed Andrew Billings to a one-year deal and added DeMarcus Walker and Justin Jones. Not household names.  This is going to help—but not enough. 

Meanwhile, the Packers are a better team on defense and in the kicking game.  Their defensive personnel is superior to the Bears on every level, and if corner Jaire Alexander stays healthy for the entire season, they can improve on their weaknesses from last season.  From December 4th until the end of the year, the Packers held their opponents to 17.6 points per game and won four out of their last five games.  They forced 12 turnovers and allowed only 16.4 first downs per game.  During the season, the Packers’ defense held the explosive Lions’ offense to 35 points in two games—losing both because against the Lions’ horrible defense the Packers’ offense could only muster 24 points in two games.  The Packers were playing their best ball defensively at the end of the year, yet no one noticed. 

During the last five games of the 2022 season, the Packers transitioned from a passing team to a running team, proving they can run the ball effectively with AJ Dillion and Aaron Jones in the backfield (they averaged 5.0 yards per rush last year).  They averaged 131.6 yards per game rushing, which needs to continue as they bring along Love as a passer. 

Love has seen limited action in his two seasons, starting only one game in 2021 against the Chiefs.  His play was what you might expect—erratic, some good, some bad, some awful.  Only those who have seen Love practice as the scout team quarterback or take first-team reps when Rodgers needed a break know his progress.  Love’s play last pre-season wasn’t anything to brag about, but with no one looking over his shoulder and if LaFleur develops a Love offense not expecting Love to be Rodgers (a big if on my part), then they can function well as an offense, relying on their defense to keep them in games.  How LaFleur manages the game with his play calling and giving Love some easy throws to gain confidence will be critical.  Everyone believes the pressure is on Love to excel, yet for me, the pressure is on LaFleur to prove he is a head coach and act accordingly. 

It’s amazing how the narrative can drive the perception, particularly in betting movement.  Atlanta is viewed as a potential nine-win team, and yet, quarterback Desmond Ridder didn’t shine in his four starts last year and has limited experience.  Why is Ridder given the benefit of the doubt, and Love isn’t?  What makes Fields better than Love?  Because Fields can run with amazing speed and break tackles?  Maybe, but I am not sold.  I am excited to watch Love and have a sense he will improve because everyone who has been around the Packers practices, watching Love (this includes Rodgers) seems confident in his work habits, his dedication, and most of all his talent. 

For the first time in 16 years, someone other than Mason Crosby will kick for the Packers.  Andrew Carlson (brother of Daniel Carlson of the Raiders) from Auburn will be awarded those duties.  Carlson has the size, leg and temperament to handle the elements of Green Bay and his level of play will be critical to the Packers’ success.  Because of their defense, the Packers should be in many close games, and if Carlson is clutch, that will be huge. 

Yes, the Packers are young on offense, and I expect them to get off to a slow start. However, as they grow together, hopefully, their talent will shine, resulting in them becoming a better team than expected.  Much like the 1959 Packers, who finally had a winning season and when they won the Western Title in 1960, Vince Lombardi praised Vainisi, who died suddenly at the young age of 33, at the Straubel Airport in front of the cheering fans welcoming them home, “A great part of this team was due to one man who is no longer with us, Jack Vainisi.  May God rest his soul.”