GREEN BAY — Like many coaches, Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers breaks down the NFL’s 16-game season into four quarters.
Quarter one is in the books for the Packers, a season-opening stretch that, by most statistical measurements, was decidedly average for a team expected to contend in the NFC. But after taking stock of his injury-riddled team during its mini-bye between last Thursday’s victory over Chicago and Sunday’s game at Dallas, McCarthy didn’t appear the least bit worried.
“We’re 3-1 and we’ve had a couple of days for everybody to reboot,” he said Wednesday. “Everybody feels good.”
If only that were the case. Most of the walking wounded were back at practice in some capacity Wednesday, a positive sign given how injuries at offensive tackle, running back, wide receiver and a few spots on defense shaped Green Bay’s performance in its first four games. That doesn’t mean everyone will be ready to play Sunday, but having only one player — linebacker Joe Thomas — not in uniform for practice illustrated the No. 1 takeaway from the season’s first four games.
For these Packers, the best is yet to come.
“I know what four weeks tells me about our team,” McCarthy said. “But I also know that some of the things that we’ve been able to do are based on who you played or how you played the game or how the games went — as an example, the injury situation. You have to factor all that in.
“That’s why you have to watch yourself when you just look at the big numbers — total yards, points scored, field position, things like that. I think it’s important to stay in-tune because this game is about trends, it’s about behaviors, and you always want to make sure the team is always trending the right way.”
Presently, the Packers are trending upward. Their next two opponents — Dallas and Minnesota, both on the road — represent stiff challenges, but the competitiveness Green Bay has shown while short-handed hints at how good it could be once it gets healthy. And if there is a silver lining in what has been an alarming number of injuries, it is that not a single starter has been lost for the season. Indeed, the biggest names on injured reserve are backup offensive linemen.
The Packers are slow starters anyway, usually hitting their stride in November and December. Since many consider them one of the top two or three teams in the NFC already, there is no telling how good they could be if they regain their health and realize their potential. And with a 3-1 start, they’ve put themselves in excellent position to capitalize should those things happen.
“I feel great about the first quarter,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. “We beat a really good football team (Seattle) in the opener. We lost a tough one against a really good football team (Atlanta) in Week 2. Then we had a bunch of injuries and we beat two teams who we’re supposed to beat at home, which obviously helped, but we were short-handed in those games. For us to come through, especially in the Cincinnati game, I think that could be a game you look back on at the end of the year that turned our season around.”
McCarthy spent extra time with the coaches and players during the mini-bye and said he’s excited because “the area for improvement is quite large.” That’s the point. This remains a team with significant potential.
The best way for the Packers to improve on their first quarter is to get healthy, especially on offense. Tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga played one game apiece and have yet to play together, effectively slapping a set of handcuffs on McCarthy, the team’s play-caller, and Rodgers.
Both have remained effective despite having to make critical adjustments, mainly going to a passing game with shorter routes and keeping backs and tight ends in to block because the protection couldn’t be trusted. If Bakhtiari and Bulaga return against the Cowboys, the playbook will expand immediately.
“I’m sure it will add some things to do,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “Obviously, we’re more comfortable with our tackles outside who actually play tackle. It will allow Aaron to be more comfortable. But I think we’re very multi-dimensional with what we can do and do what we need to do to be productive.”
Injuries haven’t set back the defense quite as much, though losing end Mike Daniels was a blow. Daniels’ return would be critical against the Cowboys, whose offense is based on halfback Ezekiel Elliott running behind the best line in the NFL.
Losing cornerback Davon House didn’t help the defense, either, though it did hasten the insertion of impressive rookie Kevin King into the lineup. If House plays Sunday, it will allow the Packers to move troubled cornerback Damarious Randall inside, where he’s better suited.
“It can be good,” House said. “We’re 3-1 and I don’t think we’ve had all our starters playing at once. We’ll see what happens this week and hopefully we’ll get us all back. But we could be dangerous.”
The best thing about the 3-1 start is it kept the Packers in the mix for home-field advantage in the playoffs. They haven’t been world-beaters yet, but they have room to get better and their history says they will.