Dan­ger­ous, with or with­out Nel­son

Packer Plus - - Commentary - ROB REISCHEL Send email to ro­breis­chel@gmail.com

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.

RICK WOOD / MIL­WAU­KEE JOUR­NAL SEN­TINEL

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.

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