Dangerous, with or without Nelson
Green Bay — T.J. Lang watched this movie once before.
And Green Bay’s Pro Bowl right guard admits it wasn’t pretty. “Yeah, it was a struggle last year,” Lang said. Indeed. Sixteen months ago, Green Bay wide receiver Jordy Nelson tore his right ACL in the Packers’ second preseason game of the 2015 season. Green Bay’s offense was never the same as it plummeted to No. 25 in passing yards (218.9), its worst finish since the strike shortened 1987 season.
With the Packers’ passing offense in disarray most of the 2015 campaign, Green Bay finished with just 368 total points — its fewest since Mike McCarthy’s rookie year of 2006 (301).
So when Nelson bobbled a perfectly thrown ball Sunday, then took a shot to the ribs from Giants cornerback Leon Hall that knocked him from the game, Packer Nation held its collective breath.
Quickly, visions of Randall Cobb being overmatched while trying to become “the man” came flooding back. Thoughts of Davante Adams dropping his opportunities returned. And after players like Richard Rodgers and Jeff Janis were largely invisible in 2016, they couldn’t be called upon, right?
“No one can really replace what Jordy does and Jordy’s production,” Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “He’s a special player. Guys just have to step up when their number’s called and make plays.” Amazingly, they did. One year ago, the loss of Nelson would have paralyzed Green Bay’s offense. On Sunday, the Packers never batted an eye and routed the Giants, 38-13, in an NFC wild-card game.
When Nelson left with nearly 19 minutes gone by, the Packers trailed, 3-0. Green Bay had just three first downs and quarterback Aaron Rodgers had only 32 passing yards.
Over the next 41 minutes, Rodgers erupted with four touchdown passes and 328 passing yards. Clearly, the days when Green Bay can’t function without Nelson are a thing of the past.
“It tells you just the way our offense works, the way we’re situated, the next guy has to jump in,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Hey, it takes everybody to win these games. That’s a reflection of our offense and how we’ve been playing all year.”
During the Mike Holmgren-Brett Favre era in the 1990s, the Packers always did a remarkable job compensating for losses at the wide receiver position.
When Sterling Sharpe’s career ended late in the 1994 season, Robert Brooks stepped into the leading role. When Brooks tore his ACL in 1996, Antonio Freeman became the top dog. Even when Freeman broke his arm and missed four games in that same 1996 season, players like Terry Mickens, Don Beebe, Keith Jackson and later Andre Rison emerged.
Holmgren was a master at creating mismatches and Favre didn’t play favorites. Favre threw to everyone, and those ’96 Packers went on to win Super Bowl XXXI.
McCarthy and Rodgers never could figure out how to play without Nelson last year, which led to the eventual demise of the 2015 Packers. But that might not be a problem this time around.
First off, Adams is a new player. A different player. A better player.
The Packers moved Adams inside and out and lined him up on both sides of the field Sunday. The Giants never could adjust and Adams blistered them with eight catches for 125 yards and a touchdown.
“I feel super excited for (Adams),” Packers center Corey Linsley said. “He didn’t have a very good year last year, and he’s having a stellar year right now. That shows you about his character and his desire to be great and be the best he can be. So that’s awesome for him.”
Cobb, who returned from a sprained ankle that sidelined him the last two weeks, also made quite a splash. Cobb turned three of his five receptions into touchdowns, highlighted by a 42-yard Hail Mary catch on the final play of the first half.
It was a nice bounceback game for Cobb, who had his least productive season since his rookie year. Many — including yours truly — wondered if the Packers needed to move on from the diminutive Cobb and his $10 million salary.
But perhaps Cobb showed that he can still perform at a high level on a regular basis.
“We’re better with 18 on the field,” Rodgers said of Cobb. “And he showed it tonight, made a ton of plays for us. He was excellent. And having him out there is going to help.”
Three other things should help the Packers’ passing attack moving forward.
First, the emergence of Jared Cook has given Green Bay its best tight end since Jermichael Finley. Cook, who entered the NFL with 4.49-second speed in the 40-yard dash, hasn’t lost much of it and has hauled in 18 passes in the last four games.
Second, rookie Geronimo Allison gives the Packers a far more reliable target opposite Adams than Janis ever did. Allison, who caught eight passes in the final two weeks of the regular season, wasn’t a big part of the offense Sunday. But that could change beginning this week in Dallas.
“Geronimo is going to have to step up and play extended time,” Rodgers said.
Third, wideout-turned-running back Ty Montgomery is a matchup nightmare out of the backfield. He destroyed the Giants with a 34-yard reception and poses problems for linebackers and safeties alike. Perhaps Nelson returns. Perhaps not. No matter what happens, though, there are no excuses.
Green Bay’s youngsters have grown up. There’s more talent in the group than 12 months ago. And as Rodgers & Co. showed Sunday, they’re just fine without No. 87.
“Last year, we definitely didn’t have Davante playing like this,” Packers left guard Lane Taylor said. “We didn’t have G-Mo (Allison) and Cook. And it was great to see Randall come back and do what he did. I know it was tough for him to sit out the last two games, but he looked healthy to me.
“We’re a much different team right now. Much different. We’re more resilient, a grittier team.”
One that can survive the loss of a standout like Nelson.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers eyes wide receiver Davante Adams near the end zone before throwing a touchdown pass in the first half against the Giants on Sunday.