But even as injuries continued to mount and questions flew about whether the team had what it took to win close games, the Packers never stopped believing in what they were trying to build in 2010.
Fast forward through two grind-it-out wins over Minnesota and the New York Jets, plus a dominant performance on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys heading into the bye week, and suddenly the Packers have won three straight, sit atop the NFC North at 6-3, and are just one-half game shy of the top record in the NFC – the 6-2 mark shared by the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants.
Considering all the things that were working against this team not long ago, the Packers couldn’t ask to be in a better spot right now with a chance to rest, recuperate, and hopefully get healthy for the stretch run.
“I would definitely say the last three weeks, just the players and the coaches have stayed the course,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy said on Monday in his final comments to the media heading into the bye. “Nobody blinked. I think it says a lot about the volume of character in our locker room.”
McCarthy emphasized that he’s seen the development of leaders in the locker room, and that helped the team weather the storm during that rough patch. He didn’t name names, but with players like linebacker Nick Barnett, running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley and special teams ace Derrick Martin among those on season-ending injured reserve, there have been some leadership voids to fill.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers of course has remained a leader, but the receiving corps of Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson as a group has compensated for the absence of Donald Driver recently to injury while others like Scott Wells, Daryn Colledge and Josh Sitton have stabilized the interior of the offensive line by playing virtually every snap.
On defense, linebacker A.J. Hawk has become the signal caller, nose tackle B.J. Raji has handled a monstrous workload, linebacker Clay Matthews has played with an attacking aggressiveness that rubs off, cornerback Tramon Williams has elevated his game, and fellow secondary mates Charles Woodson and Nick Collins, plus lineman Cullen Jenkins, continue playing through bumps and bruises at a high level.
Throw in the play of guys like Jarrett Bush and Korey Hall on special teams and the development is in all three phases. In other words, the Packers have several players displaying leadership in a variety of ways, and the head coach likes what he sees heading into a tough post-bye stretch of four road games in five weeks.
“I’m very pleased with the growth we’ve had the last few weeks,” McCarthy said. “It’s about winning games, don’t get me wrong. But I think this team is improving week to week, and I think that says a lot about the individuals in that locker room.”
McCarthy confessed that it was a very tough decision to release veteran cornerback Al Harris on Monday morning. Harris had rehabbed his way back from a devastating knee injury in Week 11 last season and was eligible to be activated from the physically unable to perform list.
But citing what he called a “big-picture roster decision,” including the depth chart at cornerback and the considerations for special teams for the immediate future – beginning with the first post-bye game at Minnesota on Nov. 21 – McCarthy said this was the path that was chosen.
“You look at everything involved,” he said. “You look at the development of all the players, particularly in the secondary from the beginning of the season until now, and we feel very good about the progress that we’ve made individually, as a unit in the secondary, and most importantly as a defense.”
Without Harris, then, the Packers will push forward with rookie Sam Shields as the nickel corner behind starters Woodson and Williams, with youngsters Brandon Underwood and Pat Lee also in reserve at the position. Lee is currently out with an ankle injury, but McCarthy said on Monday he wasn’t being put on injured reserve and had made considerable progress in the past week.
“We feel they are ascending,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said of the young corners. “We think they’ll continue to get better.
“You’d like to keep as many good football players, but the numbers game doesn’t allow you to do that really.”
Harris played in a total of 107 games for the Packers, including playoffs, since coming over from Philadelphia in a trade in 2003. The two-time Pro Bowler probably best be remembered for his game-winning 52-yard interception return for a touchdown in overtime to beat the Seattle Seahawks in the 2003 NFC Wild Card playoff game at Lambeau Field. It was the first playoff game in league history decided by a defensive score in overtime.
McCarthy acknowledged that the decision may not be popular among some players in the locker room, but he again pointed to the leadership he’s seen and the faith he has in that to prevent this from becoming a potentially divisive issue.
“You always trust the leadership in your locker room,” he said. “We feel this is the best path for us.”
Take it and run
McCarthy named Shields the team’s new kickoff returner after his one attempt Sunday night against the Cowboys produced an impressive 49-yard return. Shields took David Buehler’s opening second-half kickoff 6 yards deep in the end zone, made a cut to his right and showed off his speed by sprinting down the right sideline all the way out to the 43.
“He looked really good on that,” special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum said. “He looked explosive and extremely fast. They had angles on him and he just outran them.”
Throughout the spring and during training camp, Shields was shaky with his ball security on punt and kickoff returns, having trouble catching the ball consistently. But he worked on it, particularly this past week when he was taking a lot of kick-return reps in practice. Catching kickoffs is also easier than catching punts because of the usually predictable rotation of the ball and the fact that the returner is not normally in traffic while catching a kickoff, so it makes sense that Shields’ first return opportunity came on a kickoff.
“He definitely has a chance to be a big-time returner for us, so we’ll stay the course with Sam,” McCarthy said.
Defensive end Ryan Pickett re-injured his troublesome ankle in Sunday night’s game and left the contest in the second quarter. But McCarthy said on Monday it doesn’t appear the ankle is in any worse shape than it was when he initially injured it at Washington in Week 5.
Pickett tried to play in two games since then – vs. Minnesota in Week 7 and vs. Dallas last Sunday – but he didn’t make it through the first half in either game.
McCarthy indicated Lee and possibly a couple of other players might not be fully healthy following the bye and heading into the Minnesota game, but he does expect the team’s overall health to benefit from the time off.
“My hope is the injury report goes from two pages to one,” he said. “I am being sarcastic in a way, but I think this will really help us.”