GREEN BAY – As the offseason heads toward the scouting combine, free agency and the draft, a number of decisions that will affect the 2015 Packers are soon to be made.
In that spirit, it’s worth looking back at the major decisions that helped define the 2014 season, which culminated in Green Bay’s third appearance in the NFC title game under Head Coach Mike McCarthy.
Here are the five most pivotal ones, in chronological order of their occurrence:
1. Re-signing Sam Shields (March 10): Just as Shields was about to enter free agency, the Packers brought him back with a multi-year deal. The move not only gave the Packers a top, veteran cornerback duo the defense would come to rely upon in Shields and Tramon Williams, it also allowed for the focus of the secondary to be upgrading the safety position.
The Packers proceeded to do that, moving second-year pro Micah Hyde to safety and drafting Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round, which immediately turned a position of weakness in 2013 into one of strength in 2014.
2. Signing Julius Peppers (March 15): The Packers hadn’t made a big splash in free agency since signing Charles Woodson in 2006, so this was a shocker. It also couldn’t have worked out better for a defense in need of another playmaker.
Peppers was everything the Packers could have hoped for, recording 9 ½ sacks and six forced fumbles in 18 games. He made arguably the defensive play of the year in stripping Dallas RB DeMarco Murray in the NFC divisional playoff at Lambeau Field, and his leadership in the locker room quickly took hold.
Other moves in free agency soon followed, including the signing of Letroy Guion and the re-signing of James Starks, among others, but the Peppers move trumped them all.
3. Moving Bryan Bulaga back to right tackle (April): It’s easy to forget that when Bulaga went down with a season-ending knee injury in August 2013, he was supposed to be the Packers’ left tackle and QB Aaron Rodgers’ blind-side protector. David Bakhtiari filled in admirably as a rookie in 2013, but when the team reconvened for the offseason program in the spring with Bulaga healthy again, a decision was at hand.
The call to move Bulaga back to his previous position of right tackle, and to keep Bakhtiari at left tackle, worked like a charm. With guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang into their second season of switching sides and a new center – first JC Tretter, then Corey Linsley – working seamlessly into the mix, the Packers put together their best offensive line in the McCarthy era.
4. Sliding Clay Matthews inside (Bye week): Through eight games, the Packers were dead last in the league against the run and had just been railroaded by the Saints’ 193 rushing yards in a prime-time loss in New Orleans.
Over the ensuing bye week, the coaching staff decided to move Matthews from outside linebacker to the inside in the nickel defense on run downs, and the run defense instantly and steadily improved.
After allowing 153.5 rushing yards per game and 4.8 yards per rush over the season’s first eight games, the Packers allowed only 86.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per rush over the final eight in the regular season.
5. Rodgers fighting through the calf (Week 17): When Rodgers went down with a calf injury in the second quarter of the NFC North showdown with Detroit at Lambeau Field on Dec. 28, he had a choice to make.
With the Packers already in the playoffs, he could have chosen to sit out the rest of the game against the Lions and get as healthy as possible for the postseason, which would begin the following week in the wild-card round if the Packers lost.
Or, he could risk it and give everything he had to win the NFC North and give Green Bay a first-round bye, allowing for the maximum possible healing time.
Rodgers risked it, of course, and his second-half performance to beat the Lions meant the Packers needed to win just one home playoff game to advance to the NFC Championship. He battled the bad calf to defeat the Cowboys and get the Packers to the brink of the Super Bowl.