The Green Bay Packers had a disappointing season, but one that was necessary to fix what was wrong with the team. Aaron Rodgers’ injury cost them a run at the playoffs, but it also shined a light into the dark corners of the roster and exposed a lot of flaws that the great quarterback had been covering for.
The Packers didn’t hesitate to start ringing the changes, with defensive coordinator Dom Capers finally being given the boot after several rocky seasons and general manager Ted Thompson departing, as well as offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett. With all those changes you’d think the Packers went 5-11 in a miserable season, not 7-9 due to a quarterback injury.
Just how much will all these changes affect the Packers going forward?
The new boss
With Ted Thompson moving aside the Packers had to put someone new at the helm, and that someone was Brian Gutekunst, the former director of college scouting and former director of player personnel.
Promoting from within is often a nice way to keep the good parts of the last administration, and the Packers draft history is very much a strength, with key pieces such as Damarious Randall, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Davante Adams, Corey Linsley, David Bakhtiari, and Kevin King all coming to town in recent years. Not every pick has worked out of course, but by and large the Packers have done well at focusing their draft efforts on the offensive and defensive lines as well as the secondary and the odd skill position player. That recipe has put pieces in place to support the stars like Rodgers and Clay Matthews, but has left Mike McCarthy needing to do a job at certain other positions. In particular, running back has been neglected somewhat as have the linebacker spots, leaving the Packers with volatility in key spots.
Where Ted Thompson was reluctant to do business was the free agent market. With prices soaring and a very inconsistent return on investment there are benefits to being unwilling to spend in free agency, but they have also missed out on very useful pieces that could fill the gaps left by weak draft picks. The few times they have ventured into free agency for guys like Julius Peppers or Jared Cook it has been a success. Begging the question why they haven’t dipped their toes into the open market more frequently.
Gutekunst is likely to use free agency far more, but with that change comes another: Power structure.
Team president Mike Murphy has radically altered a structure that led to just three losing seasons in 26 years by saying that everyone will be answerable to him. With Gutekunst in control of the roster, McCarthy over the team, and executive vice president of football operations Russ Ball over the salary cap.
Splitting responsibilities like that and changing the culture of the Packers is an awfully big risk, but the Packers have a keen evaluator of talent in Gutekunst who should improve on the foundation that Thompson built, and an ever-rising salary cap eases any pressure on the financial side of roster management and arguments between Ball and Gutekunst.
Dom Capers was the defensive coordinator for the Packers since 2009, and while the Packers have had some good seasons under Capers there have been plenty of missteps and disasters as well. His was the last defense to be shredded by the read-option. Colin Kaepernick annihilated the Packers in the playoffs long after most defenses had nullified the resurrected option plays.
Green Bay finished 20th in DVOA this season, to go along with a 20th place in 2016. The team has had just one top ten defensive DVOA season since 2013 (9th in 2015), making Capers departure one of the most expected coordinator changes in the NFL.
Replacing him will be former Browns head coach Mike Pettine. Now, no one has ever been excited by the hiring of a guy who used to call the shots for Cleveland, but Pettine has a terrific pedigree as a defensive coordinator.
In 2009 he oversaw a Jets unit that dominated the NFL and carried Mark Sanchez to the AFC championship game. They did the same in 2010. 2011 was a third-straight top five DVOA year. In his one year as Buffalo defensive coordinator he took them from 27th to 4th in DVOA.
In short, Pettine has been a consistently productive defensive coordinator. His detractors will say that the defense in New York was Rex Ryan’s, and to a degree that is true, but Pettine played a part in the preparation, scheming, and playcalling for all those years, and his work in Buffalo was all his own.
Pettine doesn’t excite the fan base, it won’t even gain that many column inches outside of Wisconsin, but it is a sound move for a team that could be dominant if it was able to combine a top 12 defense with Aaron Rodgers on a regular basis.
These two moves, together with the return of Joe Philbin as offensive coordinator, set the Packers up to be one of the most interesting teams to watch this offseason and into the 2018 season. Aaron Rodgers will always make them dangerous, but with some free agents and a good defense they could be a legitimate Super Bowl contender again.
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