Packers season report card: Offense and special teams
After a rollercoaster season for the Green Bay Packers, one that concluded with an 8-7-1 record and a first-round exit from the playoffs, the focus in this section of the report card looks back at the offense and special teams.
(Note: A position-by-position report card for the Packers’ defense will be posted Jan. 15.)
A year with Aaron Rodgers missing nearly eight full games revealed how big of a drop-off there is between the former NFL MVP and any backup quarterback. First Seneca Wallace, then Scott Tolzien and then Matt Flynn all got a shot at starting at least one game for the Packers this season during Rodgers’ absence. And while the three backups were only able to lead Green Bay to a 2-4-1 record in their starts, it wasn’t all that bad from a statistical perspective. Rodgers covers up so many of the team’s flaws when he’s out there; Wallace, Tolzien and Flynn certainly weren’t good enough to do that. But that backup trio, along with Rodgers, posted a combined passer rating of 91.7. That ranked the Packers’ quarterbacks No. 9 in the league this season in that important category, ahead of Colin Kaepernick, Sam Bradford and Matt Ryan, and several spots ahead of Tom Brady.
When Rodgers was available this season, he performed at a high level. He was fifth in the NFL in completion percentage, second in yards per attempt and fifth in yards per game. However, Rodgers’ 17:6 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio was not as good as he was in 2011 (45:6) or in 2012 (39:8). The fractured left collarbone that Rodgers suffered was just bad luck, landing in an awkward way while being sacked. Though it took on the high side of a projected 6-to-8 weeks for him to recover and play in a game, that length of missed time was due to a cautious team medical staff and not because Rodgers wasn’t wanting to give it a go.
Flynn was the real surprise this season. After being traded by the Seattle Seahawks and released by both the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills, Flynn’s tryout with the Packers was good enough to get him signed by his old team on Nov. 12. What not even the biggest Flynn supporter could have imagined is how well he’d do after such a short period of reacclimation in Green Bay. Flynn’s performance after taking over for Tolzien in the second half of Week 12 led to a tie against Minnesota (after trailing 23-7), but it was what he helped the Packers accomplish in Week 15 in Dallas — tying for the biggest comeback in franchise history — that he’ll most be remembered for.
Running Backs: A-minus
The difference that Eddie Lacy made for Green Bay this season was exactly what the Packers had been looking for. After a slow start (14 carries for 41 yards in Week 1, a concussion on his first carry in Week 2, missing Week 3), Lacy was phenomenal. He finished eighth in the NFL in rushing yards, third in rushing touchdowns and was one of only two running backs to fumble just once while carrying the ball more than 250 times. Lacy also proved to be a workhorse, finishing fifth among running backs in carries. That also shows how much coach Mike McCarthy trusted him and used him in the offense, as Lacy is now the franchise’s all-time rookie leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. The end result will likely be Lacy winning the NFL’s rookie of the year award.
Behind Lacy, James Starks had a resurgent 2013 season. Injury-prone to the point that it was possible he didn’t make it out of training camp, Starks provided stability and a change of pace. Taking advantage of not being needed as a featured back, Starks thrived and far surpassed his previous best seasons with a 5.5 yards per carry average while posting a career-high three touchdowns.
Johnathan Franklin’s rookie season was forgettable, not performing well in training camp and being placed on injured reserve late in the year. In his only significant playing time, Franklin’s 13 carries for 103 yards in Week 3 was very impressive — especially his 51-yard run, but it ended with him fumbling the ball and watching Cincinnati return it 58 yards for a game-winning score. Franklin only touched the ball seven more times throughout the rest of the season after that fumble.
John Kuhn’s value as a third-down pass protector was never more evident than it was in the Week 17 game-winning touchdown from Rodgers to Randall Cobb. Rodgers called Kuhn the "unsung hero" for the block that freed up more time to make an accurate throw deep downfield. Kuhn was described by running backs coach Alex Van Pelt as "the best pass protector, third-down back in the league as far as protection." That’s high praise, but Kuhn earned it this season.
It was going to be difficult for Jordy Nelson to top his 2011 season (68 catches, 1,263 yards), but he did just that in 2013. Nelson’s 126 targets, 85 receptions and 1,314 receiving yards were all career highs, as well as numbers that put him far ahead of the rest of Green Bay’s receivers. Nelson also led the team with eight touchdown catches.
The 2012 leading receiver, Randall Cobb, had a fractured tibia disrupt his season. Though he played in just six regular-season games, Cobb was off to a fantastic start with 16 catches for 236 yards and two touchdowns in the first two games. Cobb returned to the field just in time to catch an NFC North-clinching touchdown in the final minute in Chicago.
To expect James Jones to lead the NFL in touchdown receptions for the second consecutive season would have been ridiculously improbable. However, Jones turned in a 2013 season that was nearly as good as he was in 2012. Jones had a career-high 817 receiving yards on 59 catches, even after missing nearly three full games with an injury.
Jarrett Boykin continued his rise from an undrafted player who was cut by the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars to a legitimate receiving threat. Boykin even had a few big games without Rodgers, which is a positive sign for him. He was shut out in 28 snaps in the playoff loss to San Francisco and only had two catches for eight yards in Week 17, but Boykin’s overall performance this season showed him making great strides.
Tight Ends: C-plus
Jermichael Finley was off to a great start this season as a receiver, forcing defenders to miss 10 tackles on his 25 catches. Then, a season-ending neck injury sent Finley to the hospital and has put his career in jeopardy. The Packers weren’t ready to go 10 games without Finley. He was so important to the offense, and there wasn’t a similar tight end waiting in the wings behind him.
Andrew Quarless had back-to-back games of six catches for 66 yards and one touchdown late in the season, but as a receiver, he couldn’t make up for the loss of Finley. Brandon Bostick showed he is still very early in his development, Ryan Taylor only had nine targets and Jake Stoneburner only played 10 offensive snaps after being called up from the practice squad.
Most troubling for Green Bay’s tight ends in 2013 is that none of them performed well as run blockers. Despite Lacy’s production, he got very little help from Finley, Quarless, Taylor or Bostick. This group was better in pass protection, though.
Offensive Line: B-plus
Losing Bryan Bulaga during the Family Night scrimmage was not the way that the Packers drew it up. However, if it had to happen, the team was fortunate it happened so early in training camp, allowing fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari to spend the next four weeks getting comfortable as the starting left tackle. While Bakhtiari showed that he has work to do as a run blocker, he was pretty much a non-story this season, which is a credit to him. Protecting the blind side of the franchise quarterback isn’t an easy task, but Bakhtiari did quite well in that area.
At right tackle, Don Barclay was adequate. For a player who was undrafted in 2012, it was about as well as could have been reasonably expected. He seemed to regress as a run blocker, but he made good progress in pass protection.
At the two guard spots, Green Bay had the best duo in the NFL. Josh Sitton made a seamless transition to left guard and was named a second-team All-Pro. Sitton has been great his entire career so far, but 2013 was his best yet. T.J. Lang put together his best season in his first year at right guard. Both Lang and Sitton also stayed healthy for all 16 games, a very important factor in helping out Bakhtiari and Barclay.
The sack totals were still fairly high this season with 45, the ninth-most in the NFL, but it was an improvement over allowing the second-most in the league (51) in 2012. The offensive line deserves a lot of credit for the progress made as a running team, especially between the tackles with Evan Dietrich-Smith, Sitton and Lang.
Mason Crosby went from the NFL’s worst field-goal kicker in 2012 (63.6 percent) to having a career-best season in 2013 (89.2 percent). Crosby beat out Giorgio Tavecchio and Zachary Ramirez in training camp through a series of extended field-goal competitions and didn’t let up once those competitions were over. He was a perfect 22 of 22 from distances shorter than 40 yards and went 10-for-11 between 40 and 49 yards. It was beyond 50 yards where he struggled in 2012 (2 of 9), but he even improved from that range in 2013, making 4 of 6 tries.
It wasn’t a great season by Tim Masthay’s standards. His 39.0 net average ranked Masthay 21st in the NFL and his total average of 44.6 yards per punt placed him 22nd. Few punters were needed as infrequently as Masthay was, with just 64 attempts (28th-most in the league). The rating system at ProFootballFocus also wasn’t too kind to Masthay, ranking him 24th among punters in their chart.
The player who began the season as the returner, Jeremy Ross, was cut after three games. Ross went on to make a huge splash with Detroit, while the Packers turned to Micah Hyde. Though Hyde was secure with the ball, his 24.1 yards per kick return ranked him 14th out of 23 qualified players. Hyde ranked better as a punt returner (fifth in the NFL at 12.3 yards), as he benefitted statistically from a 93-yard return. The blocking on special teams was rarely any good, not giving Hyde or Ross (or Cobb or Franklin) much room to work with.
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