Amidst nearly Super Bowl-esque fanfare, professional football returns to faithful fans starved for gridiron action with the annual Thursday Night Football celebration. The champion Seattle Seahawks and their 12th Man will try to prevail over Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers without benefit of what could kindly be termed "disputed" officiating. Pull out those jerseys, buy some avocados and find the takeout menus--it's time!
The National Football League may be billing this game as the rematch of the "Fail Mary" replacement referee debacle, but true pigskin lovers know it's an eagerly anticipated battle of mercurial offense versus terrifying defense. The Seahawks lost a few of their ferocious defenders and Green Bay discovered something called "the running game," so the stage is set to give Aaron Rodgers and company a fighting chance.
The Packers. Nothing like losing a Peyton Manning or a Rodgers to shake up a team's front office. Ironically, the quarterback's broken clavicle last November may have set up another Packers Super Bowl run in 2014. Aside from RB Eddie Lacy, 2013's Rookie of the Year, there was virtually no offense after Rodgers went down. And that fact seemed to finally light a fire under general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy. As reported by the fly on the wall, the conversation was brief and pointed: "Gee, think we'd better beef up the defense and get serious about an offensive line?" Whether that epiphany translates to stronger trenches play has yet to be decided.
Enter Julius Peppers, stolen from archrival Chicago. Even though chronologically and occasionally motivationally challenged, Peppers can still dump an opposing signal caller in convincing fashion. On the other hand, outstanding NT B.J. Raji is out for the year due to injury. That'll leave a hole--a big one. Currently attempting a super-sized Hans Brinker impression will be undrafted rookie DT Mike Pennel, with second-year DE Josh Boyd working in reserve. This would be a slot for former Viking Letroy Guion, but the transplant hasn't been healthy. The D-line is frighteningly thin--in terms of depth. Not, you know...
The cornerbacks should play well now that Casey Hayward is back from his 2013 injury, but the unit needs to work on that whole ball-catching thing since they managed few interceptions last season. Safety was an area of concern, so the Pack moved CB Micah Hyde to safety and drafted rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix out of Alabama in the first round. Before you ask--since he is undoubtedly sick of telling the story--the DB's name is Ha'Sean but his grandmother cut to the chase with "Ha Ha" to avoid inevitable pronunciation issues. Whether she improved or worsened the moniker is debatable, but "Ha Ha" he's been since toddlerhood.
Although tremendous OLB Clay Matthews is back on the field after nagging thumb problems, the interior linebacking group could be better and could require some depth chart adjustments if the two returning starters can't perform as needed.
The offensive line is now filled with home-drafted product, so we'll see whether Thompson and McCarthy are worth the accolades fans seem intent upon awarding them. One has doubts as long as Mike McCarthy can't seem to help himself when it comes to requiring Rodgers to survive constant attacks while simultaneously leading the NFL in QB rating. That Rodgers has frequently accomplished this feat only encourages the Green Bay coach.
Running back is (in a revolutionary new concept) a position of strength with Lacy leading the "pack." If McCarthy can be counted upon to utilize his trio of rushers, No. 12 could have a dominating season. With all of the respect due to reigning Kings Tom Brady and Peyton Manning and Grand Arch Duke Drew Bress, Rodgers is the best quarterback currently zipping the prolate spheroid.
Constant Injury History: Green Bay seems to constantly be one of the least healthy teams in the league. And it can't all be the weather, Mike.
- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix may be groomed as the nickel back. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has compared the young DB to Carolina Panthers' legend Mike Minter, so stay tuned.
The Seahawks. Are the Seahawks so tough because of excessive practice pounding? For the second time in three years, coach Pete Carroll and the team have been fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for incorporating far more contact into their off-season than is contractually allowed. Perhaps owner Paul Allen needs to explain the "rules" concept to Carroll, who has historically shown apparent comprehension (and possibly ethical) difficulty with this principle.
Nevertheless, the level of talent on the filed, the sidelines and in the front office has essentially guaranteed a successful franchise for the foreseeable future. Stealing QB Russell Wilson (the best deal at the position since Tom Brady) in the third round of the 2012 draft has allowed Seattle to extend contracts for multiple team stars. In fact, this group has such depth that there is only one starting rookie and one second-string rookie on both the offensive and defensive depth charts. Their very own football-toting battleship, Marshawn Lynch, hardly took a pre-season snap.
Young Mr. Wilson is the primary beneficiary of the depth at running back. This offensive balance will allow the 25-going-on-40-year-old signal caller to build on an already impressive set of skills that includes intelligence, character, leadership, scrambling ability, staying healthy ability and a vastly under-rated ability to throw the prolate spheroid. Honestly, he's a Peyton Manning/Steve Young hybrid. On and off the field. Every team not helmed by someone named Manning, Brady, Rodgers, Brees or Luck is kicking themselves on a weekly basis. Spectacular WR Percy Harvin starts the season healthy--and deadly.
The 'Hawks No. 1 defense lost two members of their secondary and some linemen, Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith is recovering from off-season ankle surgery (though he looked just fine with a "pick-six" in the late pre-season) and MLB Bobby Wagner has been nursing an injury. Should Wagner be unable to play, the linebacking corps will shuffle starters, with depth provided by rookie Brock Croyle.
Pre-season shouldn't be time for panic, but the Seattle D was positively anemic in the last pre-season game against the Raiders--even when there were some starters in the game. Yes, the Raiders. However, this squad boasts several legitimate superstars (Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas) and Carroll is a gifted defensive coach, so there should be no reason for undue concern in the Emerald City.
However, Seattle fans need to hold their breath every time premiere safety Earl Thomas goes back on a punt or Percy Harvin sets for a kickoff return. What? Out of seven WR's and multiple DB's and RB's, you couldn't find a non-anchor of your team to put at risk in the all-out madness of special teams returns? Harvin may simply be too talented in this role not to take the gamble, but what's the excuse for an All-Pro safety? And in the event that Thomas is injured, Carroll evidently plans to turn to another relatively unimportant DB--Richard Sherman! And that's cause for concern.
- WR Ricardo Lockette is a roster success story from so far out of nowhere that he went to college someplace called Fort Valley State. A former track athlete, Lockette has worked his way up from undrafted free agent in 2011, to the practice squads of Chicago and Seattle, to backing up Doug Baldwin at LWR. If he's going to pop, it will be this year.
Prediction: Every Packers win is one more chance that Green Bay won't be forced to re-visit Seattle in January--an event that the Seahawks would be more than happy to host. This game will hinge on the ability of Green Bay's offensive line to do something few units seem capable of accomplishing: keeping the Seattle pass-rushers from making life miserable for their franchise quarterback. Green Bay's young center will have the task of handling O-line calls, defensive reads, key blocks and Seattle's crowd noise in his NFL debut. Other than that, it'll be a walk in the field turf.
Tempting as it is to bank on top-flight defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril, this could be Aaron Rodgers' year. As long as his legs hold out. Packers by two.