At 4-6, it was easy to look around and start pointing the finger. Admittedly, I was one of the many fans doing just that. Thankfully, the Packers never did. While the fan-base was divided, they stuck together, they didn’t quit, they just kept going to work. They sold out to one another, and if their remarkable six-game winning streak to win their division and punch their ticket to the playoffs didn’t convince you of that, then their wins over the Giants and Cowboys should have.
I mean really, the fact they were even in the NFC Championship game is preposterous. They were 4-6. On a four-game losing streak. Then won eight straight. EIGHT. Are you kidding me?! When you’re 4-6, and you don’t have a true running game, and your top three corners are injured, and everyone is talking about how Rodgers is in decline and how McCarthy and Thompson need to go, you’re not supposed to run the table, let alone reach the NFC Championship game. That’s just not supposed to happen. That’s crazy talk. Yet Rodgers and company did just that, and they made it look relatively easy, like flipping a switch kind of easy. Which is why we need to pause for a moment and truly appreciate the degree of difficulty in what this team accomplished.
So how did a team that was 4-6, with their backs against the wall, come out and run the table, falling just one win short of reaching Super Bowl LI? I can already hear Packers fans in my ear saying, “Aaron Rodgers, duh.” Believe me, I get it. He played like he’s from another planet, probably Krypton. And there’s obviously no way the Packers win eight games in a row without Rodgers. Nobody would argue with that. Yet we all know in the ultimate team sport, one man can’t do it all. That’s the beauty of the game. Which is why I would posit that the same guys everyone was pinning the blame on at 4-6, are the same guys who deserve a lot of credit for this team’s remarkable turnaround. I’m talking about Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson. I know, just hear me out.
The head coach is always an easy target. It starts with him. It should end with him. And fortunately, for Packers fans, McCarthy sees it that way too. He never quit on this team, or himself for that matter. Even while under heavy scrutiny, he stayed the course. He fully believed in the program and culture he’s built, the guys in his locker room, and his coaching staff.
When injuries were piling up, he stayed positive and just kept getting back to work every week—evaluating personnel, game planning, and exploring ways to improve his ball club. And sure enough, his steadfastness and commitment to himself, his team, and his staff paid off. The belief on this team was real, and it started with McCarthy.
Thompson may not be loved by every Packers fan, but the man did draft Aaron Rodgers. In fact, Rodgers was his very first pick on the job. It’s easy to look back and say the pick was a slam dunk, but 23 other teams passed on him. No doubt about it, Rodgers will forever be the pinnacle of Thompson’s career, much like the trade for Favre was for Ron Wolf’s career. But Thompson’s ability to find value in the draft is probably what he is best known for as a GM. His unwavering draft and develop philosophy is well documented, as many of his picks are lesser known talents, drafted for their potential and projected fit within the team culture and coaching scheme.
The way I see it, there are three unsung heroes that were critical to the Packers’ incredible run this year, and Thompson deserves some credit for bringing these guys in. I’m talking about Ty Montgomery (3rd round – 2015), Geronimo Allison (undrafted – 2016), and LaDarius Gunter (undrafted – 2015).
Montgomery was drafted for his return ability and to add depth to a very young wide receiving corps less than two years ago. His unique skillset and ball carrier vision made the transition from wide receiver to running back look virtually seamless. If you ask me, there’s no way the Packers get to the NFC Championship game without Montgomery in the backfield. They say a quarterback’s best friend is a good running game—Rodgers meet Montgomery. Yeah I know, he wears No. 88, just, it’s fine.
Allison wasn’t even drafted, probably because of his lackluster performance at the combine. His 40-time was one of the slowest in the WR group and he just didn’t stand out. But the combine doesn’t measure work ethic, desire, or passion for the game. Just look at what Allison did on the field this year.
When injuries forced him into action, he stepped up and made plays, especially down the stretch against the Vikings and the Lions. I’m not so sure the Packers win the NFC North Division without Allison’s four catches for 91 yards and a touchdown in the season finale. Without that victory, the Packers would’ve been the No. 6 seed without a home game to start the playoffs. Maybe that changes things, maybe not. All I know is for an undrafted rookie, when the pressure was on, Allison surely impressed.
Gunter, also undrafted, proved to be a serviceable cornerback when the position was plagued by injury this year. I know people want to talk about how he failed against Atlanta, but come on, this guy was tasked with covering Odell Beckham Jr., Dez Bryant, and Julio Jones—in consecutive weeks. That’s a tall order for even a top corner in this league.
There’s no doubt he has a lot of room for improvement, but the experience gained against some of the league’s best is invaluable. Yeah, he gave up some big plays this year, but the defense as a whole was often porous, as we saw in Dallas and again in Atlanta.
Honestly, Gunter may have been the linchpin holding the secondary together. Just think, without Gunter the Packers would’ve been forced to sign a free agent (never easy to just plug and play in Dom Capers scheme), throw a rookie with zero NFL starts into the fire (probably Josh Hawkins), or shift safeties to corner—forcing guys to play out of position (which they actually had to do against the Giants). Should the Packers choose to keep Gunter on the roster, expect his game to significantly improve next year.
These unsung heroes are examples of the right kind of guys brought in by Thompson, whose contributions aided a spectacular playoff run, the likes of which we hadn’t seen since 2010. You may not like Thompson, or agree with all of his personnel decisions, but he deserves some credit for the unbelievable thrill ride that was the 2016 season.
What do you think? Besides Aaron Rodgers, who deserves credit for the Packers remarkable turnaround?