Winning 15 games in a single NFL season is a feat usually attached with championship hardware and an overwhelming feeling of fulfillment.
In the case of the Green Bay Packers, however, there was no cause for celebration in 2011.
A year in which the defending Super Bowl winners flirted with perfection deep into the schedule ended both swiftly and unpleasantly with a startling loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, rendering the Packers' outstanding achievements during a 15-1 regular season virtually meaningless in the big picture.
That bitter tone was brought on by Green Bay raising the bar to extraordinary heights with its recent run of success. The Packers caught fire during the 2010 playoffs to bring the franchise's league-record 13th world championship back to Titletown and ripped off 19 consecutive victories over a stretch overlapping the past two seasons, during which quarterback Aaron Rodgers ascended into the game's best player.
It's because of those remarkable accomplishments that Green Bay views anything less than attaining another Lombardi Trophy as a major letdown, and the goal hasn't changed heading into a 2012 campaign in which the Packers have redemption on their minds.
"This team, organization and fan base expects championships," Rodgers lamented after the Packers' 37-20 postseason defeat to the Giants. "We had a championship-caliber regular season. We didn't play well [in this game]."
With Rodgers, a near unanimous choice for last year's Most Valuable Player award after establishing a new NFL single-season best for passer rating, again at the controls of a devastating offense that led the league in scoring in 2011, Green Bay should loom as a serious title threat once again. However, the defense will need to atone for a disappointing overall performance for the Packers to have their best chance at returning to glory.
Green Bay permitted averages of 411.6 total yards and 299.8 passing yards per game this past season, ranking at the bottom of the NFL in both categories and marking a steep drop-off from its 2010 level of play, when the Packers yielded the second-fewest points and amassed the second-most interceptions in the league while tying for second in sacks.
"Obviously, when you finish 32nd it's not acceptable, especially the way in which we played the first two years under [coordinator Dom Capers'] scheme," standout outside linebacker Clay Matthews remarked. "So we need to get better, and I think with the guys we brought in here, the attitude, the learning experience from last year, I think we will be better."
The Packers turned to the draft to address their defensive deficiencies, selecting athletic University of Southern California end Nick Perry in the first round and Michigan State lineman Jerel Worthy and Vanderbilt cornerback Casey Hayward in the second. Perry was immediately slotted as a starter opposite Matthews at outside linebacker, with Worthy and Hayward in line to hold down meaningful roles in sub packages.
The unit will have to overcome a potentially crippling blow, however, after starting inside linebacker Desmond Bishop ruptured his hamstring in the preseason opener. The team's leading tackler from last year will require surgery that will sideline him for most or all of the upcoming season.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Green Bay Packers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 RECORD: 15-1 (1st, NFC North)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2011, lost to N.Y. Giants in NFC Divisional Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Mike McCarthy (63-33 in six seasons)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Tom Clements (seventh season with Packers, first as OC)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dom Capers (fourth season with Packers)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Aaron Rodgers, QB (4643 passing yards, 45 TD, 6 INT)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Charles Woodson, CB (74 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 INT)
2011 OFFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 3rd overall (27th rushing, 3rd passing), 1st scoring (35.0 ppg)
2011 DEFENSIVE TEAM RANKS: 32nd overall (14th rushing, 32nd passing), 19th scoring (22.4 ppg)
KEY ADDITIONS: C Jeff Saturday (from Colts), OLB Nick Perry (1st Round, Southern California), RB Cedric Benson (from Bengals), G Reggie Wells (free agent), DE Jerel Worthy (2nd Round, Michigan State), DE Anthony Hargrove (from Saints), DE Phillip Merling (from Dolphins), CB Casey Hayward (2nd Round, Vanderbilt)
KEY DEPARTURES: LT Chad Clifton (released), C Scott Wells (to Rams), FS Nick Collins (released), QB Matt Flynn (to Seahawks), RB Ryan Grant (free agent), NT Howard Green (free agent), CB Pat Lee (to Raiders), S Charlie Peprah (released)
QB: It goes without saying that the 21-2 record Green Bay has produced over its last 23 games wouldn't be possible without the splendid play of Rodgers (4643 passing yards, 45 TD, 6 INT) under center. The reigning league MVP was simply brilliant in 2011, and the Packers needed him to be as well considering the problems on defense. Rodgers' 122.5 quarterback rating for the season was the best in NFL history, and he also set club marks for both passing yards and touchdown throws while turning the ball over a mere six times in 15 starts prior to the playoffs. The personable triggerman also gets high marks for his pinpoint accuracy and good mobility, and at just 28 years of age, is still in the early prime of his career. The backup role is less of a sure thing after the Packers weren't able to re-sign the trusty Matt Flynn, who landed $10 million in guaranteed money and a likely starter's job in Seattle. Graham Harrell moves up the depth chart as a result and owns a solid grasp of the system after a two-year apprenticeship on the practice squad, but the former Texas Tech gunslinger has never thrown a regular-season pass and hasn't stood out in the preseason. The team also plucked energetic rookie B.J. Coleman (Tennessee-Chattanooga) in the seventh round of April's draft, but he's a developmental project at this stage. Acquiring a veteran with starting experience before the season's start could be on general manager Ted Thompson's radar.
RB: After allowing two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant to walk at season's end, it appeared the Packers were planning to give James Starks (578 rushing yards, 1 TD, 29 receptions) a shot at becoming an every-down featured back. But with the team still holding concerns about the third-year pro's durability and effectiveness in pass protection, it signed veteran Cedric Benson (1067 rushing yards, 6 TD, 15 receptions with Bengals) in August. Though the 29- year-old lacks game-changing speed and is an ordinary receiver, he's a reliable inside runner who brings a more physical element to the ground attack. Assuming Starks can get over his constant injury issues, expect the two to earn a near-even split of carries, with promising sophomore Alex Green a possibility to figure into the equation as well. The 2011 third-round pick is big and fast with the hands to make an impact on third downs, but is coming back from an ACL tear that limited him to four games as a rookie. Fullback John Kuhn (15 receptions, 6 total TD), a surprise selection to NFL Network's "Top 100 Players" list, is both a fan and coaches favorite for his versatility and hard-nosed demeanor and will again factor in both short-yardage and passing situations.
WR: While Rodgers' stellar work at quarterback was the main reason why Green Bay ranked third in the NFL in both total offense (405.1 ypg) and passing yards (307.8 ypg) a year ago, the contributions of a diverse receiving corps loaded with quality options can't be overlooked. All five members of last season's group are back after the Packers agreed on a restructured contract with franchise icon Donald Driver (37 receptions, 6 TD), though the 13-year vet now serves in a supporting capacity behind dangerous outside targets Jordy Nelson (68 receptions, 1263 yards) and Greg Jennings (67 receptions, 9 TD). Nelson emerged as one of the league's premier deep threats in a breakout 2011 campaign in which he finished third overall with 15 touchdown catches and averaged nearly 19 yards per grab, while the consistent Jennings would have had a fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season if not for a knee injury that cost him three games. Driver began camp as the top slot receiver, though the savvy 37-year-old could lose snaps to talented youngster Randall Cobb (25 receptions, 1 TD), a far more explosive option who's now more comfortable in the offense entering his second season. Returnee James Jones (38 receptions, 7 TD) gives the offense another big-play threat with the skills to start for most teams, and the staff is also high on 2011 practice-squad participants Diondre Borel and Tori Gurley, one of whom could stick if the Packers opt to keep six receivers.
TE: Green Bay boasts a game-changer at the tight end position as well in Jermichael Finley (55 receptions), who bounced back from a torn meniscus in his right knee that sidelined him for much of the 2010 championship run to haul in a career-best eight touchdowns and average close to 14 yards per catch. Though not much of a blocker, his impressive size/speed combination often creates mismatches for opposing defenses, but he can been prone to concentration lapses at times. With main backup Andrew Quarless' season in jeopardy due to a torn ACL, blocking specialist Tom Crabtree (6 receptions, 1 TD) and 2011 draft choices D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor are competing in camp to hold down that spot. Williams is the most athletic and best receiver of the trio, with Crabtree and Taylor both valued for their exploits on special teams.
OL: Perhaps the Packers' only major question mark on offense lies at the critical left tackle position, where longtime incumbent Chad Clifton was released in April after failing his physical. Marshall Newhouse started 10 games in Clifton's place with the latter missing considerable time with a hamstring injury last season, but allowed 10 1/2 sacks and remains a work in progress. Derek Sherrod, Green Bay's first-round pick in last year's draft, is a candidate to take over as Rodgers' blind-side protector, but has been slow to recover from a broken leg suffered back in December and may begin the season on the physically unable to perform list. The rest of the line is in fine shape, with unheralded right guard Josh Sitton regarded among the best in the business at his post, 2010 first-round Bryan Bulaga a rock at right tackle and the versatile T.J. Lang coming off a good season at left guard. Green Bay did lose Pro Bowl center Scott Wells to St. Louis in free agency, but Thompson shrewdly signed former Indianapolis mainstay Jeff Saturday in March to fill the void. Evan Dietrich-Smith returns as the top backup on the interior, with rookie sleeper Andrew Datko (7th Round, Florida State) a possibility to become the swing tackle if Sherrod can't get healthy.
DL: Green Bay was in need of reinforcements to a defensive front that was plagued by depth issues in 2011, with cornerstone nose tackle B.J. Raji (22 tackles, 3 sacks) failing to match his impact from the previous year under a heavy workload and dependable end Ryan Pickett (33 tackles) advancing in age. That explains the selection of Worthy, a quick and powerful player with a terrific upside, in the second round and high-motor Iowa tackle Mike Daniels in the fourth. Both have the attributes to improve a pass rush that was often sporadic and a factor in the team's defensive downturn. To help keep Raji more fresh and presumably more effective, veteran Daniel Muir (11 tackles with Colts) was signed in the spring to serve as the backup at the nose. The 322- pounder made 26 starts for Indianapolis the last three seasons and adds a big body to the mix. Worthy is slated to work in a rotation with run-stopper C.J. Wilson (26 tackles) and fellow holdover Jarius Wynn (19 tackles, 3 sacks) at right end while also spelling Pickett, who turns 33 in October but remains an asset versus the run, on the other side. Thompson also took a chance on ex- Dolphin Phillip Merling, a disappointing former second-round pick cut loose by Miami in April, while adding journeyman Anthony Hargrove (18 tackles, 3 sacks with Seahawks) in free agency as well. The latter won't be available until midseason, however, after being handed an eight-game suspension for his active participation in the 2009 New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal. Mike Neal, who like Merling hasn't lived up to his billing as a second-round selection, will start the season on a four-game penalty for testing positive for a banned substance.
LB: Last season's defensive struggles can't be blamed on Matthews (50 tackles, 6 sacks, 3 INT), as the relentless outside linebacker continued to be a pass- rushing force despite drawing constant double teams while also maintaining his excellence in coverage. Erik Walden (60 tackles, 3 sacks) was largely a liability on the other edge, however, which prompted the Packers to pluck the gifted Perry with the 28th overall pick of the draft. The rookie will need to learn the nuances of playing as a stand-up linebacker in Capers' scheme after operating as a down lineman at USC, but does possess natural pass-rush skills that could free up Matthews to become a double-digit sacker again. The loss of Bishop (115 tackles, 5 sacks), a thumper in run support as well as an outstanding blitzer, is clearly a concern, though fill-in D.J. Smith (43 tackles, 1 INT) acquitted himself well in three emergency starts as a rookie in 2011. The former Sports Network FCS All-American will slot in alongside returning regular A.J. Hawk (84 tackles, 1.5 sacks), who'll be aiming to rebound from a so-so season, with Robert Francois (18 tackles, 2 INT) back as the top inside reserve. Walden was re-signed as insurance in case Perry undergoes a slow learning curve and to aid in special teams, an area in which fellow backups Brad Jones (19 tackles, 1 sack) and Jamari Lattimore are adept in and intriguing undrafted rookie Dezman Moses may get a chance to make a mark.
DB: Though the 2011 Packers gave up chunks of yardage through the air, a secondary that's been renowned for coming up with game-changing plays under Capers' direction was able to keep up its opportunistic ways. Green Bay led the NFL with 31 interceptions, with headliner Charles Woodson (74 tackles, 2 sacks, 17 PD) tying for the league's individual lead with seven picks. The 35- year-old will have a slightly altered role in his 15th pro season, working at strong safety in the base defense while continuing to deployed in the slot in nickel looks. That re-arrangement creates an opening at cornerback that will probably be filled by one of two youngsters, either Hayward or Davon House. The latter was a fourth-round pick last year who saw little game action as a rookie, but has the size and speed to develop into a useful player in time. The Packers are set at the other corner spot with Tramon Williams (64 tackles, 4 INT, 19 PD), now recovered from a shoulder problem that hampered his play a year ago, and 2010 rookie find Sam Shields (45 tackles, 4 INT, 13 PD) and special-teams ace Jarrett Bush (30 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 INT) have plenty of experience in Capers' system if House or Hayward struggle. Last year's secondary encountered difficulty withstanding a career-threatening neck injury to steady free safety Nick Collins, released for medical reasons in April, but the Packers believe replacement Morgan Burnett (107 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) can take a big step forward in his third season and also has high hopes for M.D. Jennings, who made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2011 and is the favorite to man the back end when Woodson moves to the nickel.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Cobb routinely put the offense in good field position with his prowess in the return game, with the playmaking young receiver placing second in the NFC with a 27.7 yard average on kickoffs and recording a above-average 11.3 average on punts. He produced a touchdown in both phases during his debut campaign. Kicker Mason Crosby justified the five-year contract Thompson handed him prior to last season by drilling a career-best 85.7 percent (24-of-28) of his field goal tries, including a club-record 58-yarder at Minnesota in October. Punter Tim Masthay delivered a good year as well, averaging over 45 yards per kick and placing 23 of his 55 attempts inside the 20-yard line, and was rewarded with a four-year contract extension in August as a result. Green Bay also is in good hands at the long-snapper position, where Brett Goode has performed flawlessly in his four years with the team.
PROGNOSIS: The Packers picked the worst possible time to have their lousiest game of last season, but were also the best team in the league over the course of the 16-game schedule. And if a defense that wasn't up to par in 2011 can regain its previous bite, look out. Rodgers gives Green Bay a distinct advantage over just about every opponent it'll face, and complacency won't be an issue after last year's early ousting in the playoffs. Matching their one- loss performance might be a stretch, as the NFC North appears to be strong and there are a few tough non-division matchups on the schedule, but the Packers' talent and pedigree clearly puts them on the short list of Super Bowl contenders once again. That's all dependent on a healthy Rodgers, however. If he's out for any extended period of time, the whole dynamic changes.