Most NFL teams take a very measured approach to week one games. Although coaches want to stress the importance of starting off strong and getting an early notch in the win column, they usually don’t want to overstate that factor and make it seem like the entire season hinges on one game. However, the amount of importance the Green Bay Packers have placed on their week one match up against the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers is anything but usual.
It all started with the Packers opening-day loss to the Niners last season. The 30-22 final score at Lambeau Field made it seem much more respectable than it really was. In all reality though, the San Francisco 49ers came in and ripped through the Green Bay Packers like Walter White rips through a Mexican drug cartel — with brute force and superior strategy.
Then came the NFC Divisional Playoff debacle in which defensive coordinator Dom Capers failed miserably by seeming to prepare for quarterback Alex Smith instead of Colin Kaepernick and the read-option offense he knew would be front and center. Rather than focusing on containing the mobile Kaepernick, like he did to Ben Roethlisberger in Super Bowl XLV, Capers rolled the dice and decided to treat Kaepernick as ordinary. The end result was an embarrassment of riches for the 49ers offense and a downright embarrassment for Capers and the Packers, as San Francisco piled up 579 yards on offense.
After this solid defeat in the playoffs, it was clear the opening day loss at Lambeau Field could no longer be considered a fluke. It became common knowledge/sense that the Niners had surpassed the Packers and were the finer football team. This result rightfully led to questions, exclamations and panic from the press and passionate fans:
As writers and fans alike searched for answers as to why two promising Packers teams in a row had made early playoff exits, a theory began to emerge. Although credit/blame could go to one of any number of Packers writers, perhaps it was this piece that started the onslaught of suggestions that the Packers were, in practice and in theory, a finesse football team.
Bob McGinn from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel chimed in four days later with his version. Then four days after that Aaron Rodgers was disputing the ‘soft’ tag and defending his team. It suddenly became a feeding frenzy and both the local and national media ran with it and continue to run with it to this day.
The Packers, of course, publicly brushed off the notion that a team only three years removed from Super Bowl glory could possibly be considered soft. Outwardly they remained steadfast that they were once again well-positioned to make another run at the Lombardi Trophy. However, there was plenty of speculation within the walls of Lambeau Field that the Packers brass were quietly acknowledging these allegations, and vowing to do something about them.
It started with a well-publicized coaching-staff field trip to Texas A&M University in February to learn more about the read-option from coach Kevin Sumlin. It was Sumlin who guided Johnny Manziel to Heisman honors utilizing a similar scheme. Although many would have argued that all this game-planning should take place BEFORE a meaningful playoff game ends in disaster, Dom Capers made the trip and managed to hang on to his job.
Then the NFL announced the season schedule on April 18th and put the Packers right back in Candlestick Park on week one. This further fueled the ominous black cloud of doubt hanging over the organization, while also offering an immediate opportunity for redemption. In this case, “immediate” meant almost five months later.
One of the major components of the “soft” label is the Packers total inability to establish any sort of ground game. Teams have been simply keeping their safeties back in a 2-deep zone and daring the inept Packers ground game to hurt them. It never does. Green Bay responded in the draft by selecting running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, with the former expected to provide that toughness in a runner not seen since a healthy Ryan Grant, circa 2008.
The Packers went even further. General manager Ted Thompson actually spent some money (gasp!) to sign free agent blocking tight end Matthew Mulligan in order to open up some holes for the running game. Mulligan, however, struggled mightily in training camp both with injuries and production and was cut, not even making the final 53-man roster and eventually landing in New England with the Patriots.
Then, after surprisingly bringing in quarterback Vince Young to back up Aaron Rodgers, the Packers did a complete quarterback line-change by jettisoning both previous backups B.J. Coleman and Graham Harrell. They even eventually sent Young packing only to replace him with not just one former San Francisco quarterback who knows the Niners offense well, but two of them… Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien.
The Green Bay Packers have certainly made plenty of moves in preparation to face their now-rival San Francisco 49ers in week one. If Green Bay can exorcise the San Francisco demons on the road, their confidence will be sky high heading into this fledgling 2013 NFL season. But if the Packers fall short after dedicating an entire offseason to taking down the NFC champs, they might have just set themselves up for a very long and disappointing season.