Assuming there is a 2011 NFL season, it almost certainly will kick off at Lambeau Field, the home of the Super Bowl XLV champion Green Bay Packers.
Whom quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Co. host that Thursday night remains to be seen, though the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints are the most likely options.
But that’s a long way away. When Packers coach Mike McCarthy dismissed his team earlier this week, he wasn’t looking ahead to repeating as champions next season.
“We’ll all be connected together for the rest of our lives,” he told his players and assistants. “We’ll all be connected as champions.”
The Packers (14-6) outscored their opponents 509-316 this season and never trailed by more than seven points. Despite being the No. 6 seed in the NFC, they trailed only 13 minutes, 40 seconds of a possible 240 minutes in the postseason. Their six defeats were by a combined 20 points.
Injuries were the story for much of the season. The Packers ended the year with 15 players on injured reserve and had 12 preferred starters miss a total of 86 games during the regular season. When nine key reserves are factored in, 160 games were lost due to injuries. As a result, 69 players spent time on the 53-man roster.
Here are position-by-position grades for the 2010 Packers:
Through the first seven games of the season, Aaron Rodgers had 12 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. In his final 12 games — he sat out one with a concussion — the Super Bowl MVP had 25 touchdowns and just four interceptions in 372 attempts. Rodgers finished the regular season with a 101.2 passer rating, the fourth-highest in franchise history. Rodgers also owns the third-best mark, 103.2 last season. Bart Starr is No. 1 and 2 on the list with a 105.0 showing in 1966 and a 104.3 mark two seasons later. Matt Flynn replaced Rodgers for the second half of a loss at Detroit on Dec. 12 and produced a 62.5 rating and just three points, but he bounced back the following week at New England by completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 251 yards with three touchdowns and an interception in his only career start. Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements deserves kudos for getting Flynn ready to play well in a nationally televised game and for helping Rodgers develop into one of the elite players in the NFL. Third-stringer Graham Harrell was promoted from the practice squad to the 53-man roster on Dec. 18 and was active for one game but didn’t play.
RUNNING BACKS: B-
Coming off back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons, Ryan Grant was limited to just eight carries for 45 yards this season before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury on an 18-yard run in the season-opener at Philadelphia. Brandon Jackson and John Kuhn split the load at halfback until the late-season emergence of James Starks, who averaged 3.9 yards per carry in the postseason with 10 explosive runs in 81 attempts. Jackson finished with a career-high 703 yards during the regular season to lead the team. He also was a dependable receiver (41 receptions) and invaluable on third down because of his ability to pick up blitzes. Kuhn began the season as a little-known, blue-collar fullback but turned into a fan favorite after his role was expanded. The Packers signed Dimitri Nance off Atlanta’s practice squad after Grant was placed on injured reserve, but Nance finished with just 36 carries for 95 yards, a 2.6 average, and was inactive for the final three games of the season. Second-year fullback Quinn Johnson is still a work in progress and was inactive for six games, including the Super Bowl. The more time the Packers spend in their spread offense, the less they need a guy such as Johnson. Veteran Korey Hall also missed six games with injuries but is solid both as a fullback and on special teams when healthy.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B
Greg Jennings had just 14 receptions for 183 yards through five games and was so frustrated he lost his cool on the sidelines at Washington on Oct. 10. After that, he had 83 receptions for 1,385 yards and 11 touchdowns in the Packers’ final 15 games of the season. Jennings had at least 100 yards in seven of those games. Donald Driver finished the regular season with 51 receptions for 565 yards, his lowest totals since 2001. Driver, who was plagued by a quadriceps injury midway through the season, didn’t have a 100-yard game for the first time since 2001. James Jones believes he can be a No. 2 receiver in the NFL, but he’s way too inconsistent. He had six games this season in which he finished with just one catch or none at all. He’s an enigma, but some team will probably offer him a big contract this offseason and force the Packers to decide whether he’s worth the price. Jordy Nelson was having a relatively quiet season until late in the year. He had four receptions for 124 yards in a must-win game against the New York Giants in Week 16, then tied Jennings with a franchise-record 21 receptions in the postseason, including nine for 140 yards and a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Brett Swain had six receptions for 72 yards in limited snaps. The bottom line with this group is that it dropped far too many passes. Jones was the biggest culprit, but all five played a role in the high drop count.
TIGHT ENDS: C+
The dynamic of this group changed drastically after star Jermichael Finley suffered a season-ending knee injury early in Week 5. Finley had 21 receptions for team-leading 301 yards and a touchdown through four games. He finished as the leader in receiving yards among the tight ends despite missing the final 11-plus games of the regular season. Rookie Andrew Quarless showed flashes, but the fifth-round pick was playing because he had to and not because he was ready. He needs to spend the offseason getting a better grasp of the playbook. Veteran Donald Lee is limping to the finish line of his career, though he did have short touchdown receptions in each of the last two games of the regular season. Tom Crabtree isn’t used much as a receiver, but he’s a very good blocker who should have a spot on this roster for years to come. The Packers re-signed Spencer Havner on Nov. 12, but he was active for just one game before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B-
The Packers allowed 38 sacks, 13 fewer than in 2009. Some of that decrease had to do with Rodgers doing a better job getting rid of the ball, but the offensive line deserves credit, too. Health was a huge key for this group in 2010. Right tackle Mark Tauscher was limited to just four games because of a shoulder injury, but the other four members of the opening-day unit started all 20 games this season. Left tackle Chad Clifton got off to a rocky start but played well enough to be selected to the Pro Bowl. Left guard Daryn Colledge is the group’s weakest link and may not be back next season, but he could always be counted on to play Sunday. Center Scott Wells might be one of the most underrated players on the team. His role as a communicator is often overlooked. Right guard Josh Sitton hasn’t missed a snap in two seasons and has become one of the best young interior linemen in the game. Rookie Bryan Bulaga took over for Tauscher and the Packers didn’t skip a beat. Bulaga made his share of mistakes, but it’s also important to remember the team’s first-round pick was just 21 and would have been a senior at Iowa this season if he hadn’t elected to skip his final year with the Hawkeyes. T.J. Lang ended the season as the backup at every spot except center. The coaches like Lang, who could end up replacing Colledge at left guard. Veteran Jason Spitz gave the Packers depth on the interior, but the team wouldn’t have a difficult time finding an upgrade in that role. Rookie center/guard Nick McDonald was inactive for all 20 games, but he could be the heir-apparent to Wells in a few years. Another rookie, Marshall Newhouse, was inactive for the first 15 games before being placed on injured reserve with a back injury. He might be the left tackle or right tackle of the future, depending on where Bulaga ends up.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B+
This season was nose tackle B.J. Raji’s coming-out party. Everybody was waiting for Raji to fall over from fatigue late in the season after playing so many snaps because of injuries around him, but he kept playing at a high level. Defensive end Cullen Jenkins had a career-high seven sacks despite missing five games during the regular season with a calf injury. Ryan Pickett moved from nose tackle to defensive end this season and continued to be solid against the run, though a bum ankle cost him two games midway through the season. Rookie end Mike Neal, the team’s second-round pick, was active for just two games because of injuries. He could end up being a starter in 2011 depending on where Jenkins, a free agent, and Johnny Jolly, who was suspended this season, end up. What a find C.J. Wilson was in the seventh round of the 2010 draft. The rookie ended up starting two games and was a solid backup. Howard Green was released by the New York Jets in late October, in part because he couldn’t keep his weight under control, but the desperate Packers signed him and plugged him into the lineup a few days later against his old team. Green wasn’t spectacular, but he provided depth. His biggest play of the season came in the Super Bowl, when he got a piece of Ben Roethlisberger’s arm, resulting in the first-quarter interception safety Nick Collins returned for a touchdown. Jarius Wynn was among the final cuts after training camp, but the Packers re-signed him after Justin Harrell suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener at Philadelphia. Wynn was OK. Michael Montgomery was re-signed on Oct. 15, spent three weeks on the roster and was released Nov. 2
Left outside linebacker Clay Matthews had 17 sacks in 19 games, resulting in 121 lost yards for opponents. He also returned an interception for a touchdown against Dallas and finished second in the NFL Defensive Player of the Year voting. What made his season even more impressive was the right outside linebacker spot opposite him was a revolving door of no-names due to injuries. Brad Jones began the season as the starter there but missed the second half of the season with a shoulder injury. Rookie Frank Zombo, a long shot to make the team in August as an undrafted free agent, was a tremendous surprise. He took over as the starter after Jones went down and had five sacks in 14 games, including one in the Super Bowl. When Zombo injured his knee late in the season, the Packers turned to Erik Walden, a midseason pickup. Walden had a career game in the regular-season finale, finishing with 16 tackles and three sacks to earn NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Robert Francois and Diyral Briggs also saw limited time at ROLB. Veteran Brady Poppinga started for Matthews at LOLB in Week 6 against Miami and suffered a season-ending knee injury. The job second-year assistant Kevin Greene did with the outside linebackers was tremendous. Injuries hit the inside spots as well, with starting middle linebacker Nick Barnett missing the last 16 games with a broken wrist. Desmond Bishop, who was mostly a special teams player his first three seasons, stepped into Barnett’s role and played so well he earned a four-year, $19 million contract extension. A.J. Hawk didn’t play a snap on defense in the season-opener at Philadelphia and some thought he might end up on the trading block, but he bounced back with a fine season. Hawk led the group with three interceptions and his role as the lead communicator for the defense was praised by the coaching staff. Hawk is due $10 million in 2011, the final year of his rookie contract, so there’s no guarantee he’ll be back for a sixth season with the Packers. If Green Bay keeps him, Barnett could get kicked to the curb. Brandon Chillar is a solid backup who was limited to just eight games because of injuries. Matt Wilhelm is technically an inside linebacker, but was strictly a special teams player after being signed midway through the season. Inside linebacker Maurice Simpkins started the year on the practice squad before being promoted to the 53-man roster, but he was active for just two games before being released. Francois, who was cut by the Packers three times this season, was valuable because he could provide depth both inside and outside.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say the two most positive developments on the team this season happened in this position group. One was Tramon Williams becoming a Pro Bowl-level cornerback in his first season as a full-time starter. Williams finished with nine interceptions, including three in the postseason. The other was rookie Sam Shields, an undrafted free agent, becoming a dependable nickel back. He was one of the stars of the NFC Championship Game with two interceptions. Cornerback Charles Woodson, the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2009, had some problems with penalties early but was a huge difference-maker down the stretch. Jarrett Bush was OK as a dime back — he had an interception in the Super Bowl — but that seems to be about as high as he can go on the depth chart. Cornerbacks Pat Lee and Brandon Underwood weren’t needed in the secondary because Williams and Shields stayed healthy. At free safety, Collins played through injuries early in the season and earned another Pro Bowl nod. His touchdown in the Super Bowl turned out to be a huge play in a six-point game. Rookie Morgan Burnett, a third-round pick, began the season as the starter at strong safety but suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 4. He was replaced by Charlie Peprah, who had one career start entering his fifth NFL season but made the most of his opportunity. Atari Bigby spent the first eight weeks of the season on the physically unable to perform list with an ankle injury. He ended up being active for just six games because of a groin injury. Reserve safeties Anthony Smith and Derrick Martin were more valuable on special teams than on defense; both ended up on the IR. Cornerback Josh Gordy was promoted from the practice squad late in the season and was active for two games. All of his work came on special teams.
SPECIAL TEAMS: C-
Nobody on the roster improved during the season more than first-year punter Tim Masthay, who got a shot of confidence with a good Week 7 performance against Minnesota and took off from there. Masthay had fantastic games against the Jets in Week 8, the Bears in the regular-season finale and again in the NFC Championship Game. Kicker Mason Crosby was 22 of 28 on field goals, including a career-long 56-yarder in the opener at Philadelphia. The Packers finished tied for 24th in punt coverage and 13th in kickoff coverage. That last number is deceiving, however, because the Packers allowed a long kickoff return that set up the winning score against Atlanta in Week 12, a 71-yard kickoff return to 313-pound offensive lineman Dan Connolly during a loss at New England three weeks later and a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against Atlanta in the playoffs. Granted, part of the problem on the coverage units this season was injuries. There were times late in the week this season when special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum didn’t know who would be on his coverage units because the Packers had so many players who were questionable with injuries. Still, coverage is an area the Packers need to improve. They also need to find a dynamic returner, perhaps in the draft. Green Bay ranked No. 22 in punt returns. Not only did Williams muff a couple attempts in the playoffs, but do you really want your top cover corner risking injury by returning punts? There was a revolving door at kick returner, with Nelson, Shields, Lee and Starks all giving it a crack. None were very good at it. Bush blossomed this season as a gunner on punts.
HEAD COACH: A
There were a few times this season when the Packers could have fallen apart. They suffered back-to-back overtime losses to Washington and Miami in October to drop to 3-3 and the injuries were mounting. But Green Bay recovered with a victory over Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings on a nationally televised Monday night game to begin a four-game win streak. The Packers’ playoff hopes took a hit on Dec. 12 when they suffered a 7-3 loss at Detroit, but they played a great game in defeat the following week at New England and didn’t lose again. McCarthy kept his team focused on winning the Super Bowl. He never used injuries as a crutch. He spoke with confidence throughout the season, especially down the stretch. That attitude seemed to rub off on his players.
FRONT OFFICE: A
By all accounts, the 2010 draft appears to have been a very solid one for the Packers. Bulaga was viewed as the left tackle of the future, but was needed at right tackle. It could have gotten ugly after Tauscher got hurt if the Packers had taken somebody other than Bulaga with that 23rd overall pick. Neal and Burnett look like players, though injuries slowed their development. Fifth-round picks Quarless and Newhouse both have potential, Starks was well worth a sixth-round pick despite missing his senior season at Buffalo, and Wilson provided more than you could ask of a seventh-rounder. Ted Thompson didn’t draft Raji and Matthews in 2010, but this was the year his two 2009 first-round picks proved they were stars. The best week of the season for Thompson and his staff came in late October, when they added four players because of injuries. Two of them, Green and Walden, ended up being valuable performers on defense. The other two, Briggs and Wilhelm, were fixtures on special teams. This franchise looks like it’s ready for a great run over the next five years, and much of the credit for that should go to Thompson and his assistants in the front office.