The NFL kicks of its centennial year in September and it’s been revealed that the tradition of Super Bowl winners getting the season off and running has been deviated from this year; instead, the opening game on the evening of September 5th will see the NFL’s longest standing rivals go head-to-head, as the Green Bay Packers travel to face the Chicago Bears.
It’s a huge honor for both sides who have taken to the same field 198 times – Green Bay narrowly holds the historic bragging rights with 97 wins to the Bears’ 95 – and the 199th encounter will undoubtedly be an eagerly anticipated affair by Packers fans with a mostly new coaching staff in place under Matt LaFleur. The match-up is still a way off though and the Packers have some serious work to do before their attention turns to any specific fixture – even if it’s an enthralling one.
Last season, the Packers played the Bears in week one when they roared back from 20-0 down to win 24-23 in no small part thanks to an incredible showing from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Unfortunately, that proved to be a high point for both the team and Rodgers as the season unravelled in disastrous fashion resulting in the sacking of long serving coach Mike McCarthy in early December.
A loss at the hands of the Arizona Cardinals proving to be the final nail in his coffin as his team was left with the playoffs looking like somewhat of a long shot. The problems at Green Bay, though, were bigger than McCarthy and, whilst some felt he was let down by his coach, it’s fair to say Rodgers wasn’t hitting the standards expected of him – leading to some questions over his attitude.
Getting Rodgers, who has just lost his title of the top paid player in the NFL to Seattle Seahawk Russell Wilson, back in top form must be one of the priorities for McCarthy’s replacement Matt LaFleur after a season in which the quarterback turned in one of the poorest set of statistics his career has seen.
The early signs are promising though; LaFleur has spoken several times about the coach-quarterback ‘relationship’ being key and Rodgers has supported that view – again stressing the word ‘relationship’, which was evidently missing in 2018 – whilst also acknowledging that LaFleur is ‘the boss’.
In addition to ironing out issues in the current squad, there is the small matter of the upcoming draft to contend with. Despite missing out on the playoffs last season the consensus is that Green Bay are only a few players away from challenging at the top again so it’s imperative that they make their drafts count.
There have been whispers made that the Packers might move to bring in a quarterback, but current speculation on the draft is just that: speculation. LaFleur should focus on making Green Bay competitive again with minimal distractions and could look towards a slightly longer-term plan.
It would be unfair to suggest there are horses waiting to be put down in the ranks, but there are contracts winding towards their end in the squad and don’t be surprised to see changes in those positions. Offensive tackle is perhaps the main area where Green Bay will focus with Jason Spriggs and Bryan Bulaga both edging towards the end of their contracts.
It’s also possible that an understudy for the ageing Tramon Williams arrives with an eye on succession planning; finally, LaFleur could also look for some continuity at tight end with question marks over the long-term future of Marcedes Lewis and Jimmy Graham.
The draft is often unpredictable, and this year perhaps even more. So, given the upheaval that’s occurred, one thing is guaranteed: Green Bay will be well-drilled come the opener against the Bears and changes will be evident both on and off the field. Will that see Green Bay conquer again? Possibly, but the 2019 season will be an uphill battle.