Green Bay Packers 2013 Team Review: A Roller Coaster Ride

Randall Cobb was a high (and low) point during the Packers roller coaster ride

A "roller coaster of emotions” would be an understatement in describing the 2013 season for the Green Bay Packers that ended - somehow - with them winning the NFC North.

At the top of the roller coaster was a 5-2 start with Aaron Rodgers and his new weapon, Eddie “the Hammer” Lacy. Although a rookie, “The Hammer” lived up to his billing, stabilizing the Packers this past season and providing a future in the running game.

At quarterback, the Packers survived Rodgers' fractured collarbone, Seneca Wallace's trip to the injured reserve, and Scott Tolzien's inexperience all before bringing in Matt Flynn. If not for Flynn's heroics against the Vikings (even if it was a tie) and especially the Cowboys, the Packers would have had nothing to play for in Week 17.

I stated back in December that the Packers not only needed Rodgers back, but a little assistance from the Lions would be good as well. In the end, the Lions ended up finishing their on a four-game losing streak. That set up the showdown between the Bears and Packers in the final week of the season, where Rodgers and Randall Cobb finally returned. Let’s look closer at some of the highs and lows of the Packers' roller coaster season that led to their third division title in a row.

The Good

While the Packers suffered at the quarterback position without Rodgers (more on that later), they still managed to finish as a top-10 offense according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) data. But the intrigue begins when we look at how the Packers’ offense performed with and without Rodgers.

Adj. NEPAdj. Passing NEPAdj. Rushing NEP
With Rodgers99.0697.276.77
Without Rodgers-29.64-49.5412.22

Before we go further into these metrics, remember that our Adjusted NEP metrics have been adjusted to reflect the strength of schedule for the Packers.

After losing DuJuan Harris, the Packers leading back through the preseason, the Packers turned to their rookie from Alabama, Eddie Lacy. Lacy wasn't overly effective in terms of Rushing NEP, but you'd expect that from a bruising back. He was efficient enough to be a top-12 back among those who rushed the ball 200 or more times, a feat that shouldn't go unnoticed for a rookie running back.

And it was Lacy who allowed the team to actually run more effectively with Rodgers out of the lineup. The team turned to the ground more - which is obvious when you lose one of the best passers in the game - and as a result, they were one of the best rushing teams in the league during the stretch. Though the strength of schedule was weaker, that's all included within the metrics shown.

Just take a look at what Lacy was able to provide with Rodgers out:

OpponentRush NEP

In essence, Lacy was adding about four points per game for the Packers with Rodgers out, which is along the lines of what you'd see from some of the top runners in the NFL. The rookie back showed that he can help keep the Packers afloat, and given a full season with Rodgers, there is a lot of potential for the Packers’ offense.

The running game, which ranked seventh in the NFL according to numberFire metrics, was a key reason the Packers were still able to make the playoffs this season despite losing Aaron Rodgers for a significant chunk of the year.

The Bad

By losing Aaron Rodgers, the Packers had multiple weaknesses exposed. Let’s start with the backup quarterback situation.

The Packers signed Seneca Wallace after the preseason, and Tolzien was a practice squad player until Week 10. While the sample size was super small and Wallace ended up on the injured reserve, both failed miserably replacing Rodgers.

Then the Packers marched in Matt Flynn for a few weeks since he was familiar with the team from just a couple years ago. Flynn proved to be hot and cold as he continued to deal with elbow problems. However, Flynn led the Packers to a tie and two wins, but in the end he still hurt the Packers with his -9.12 Passing NEP over four and a half weeks.

While the quarterback position had its challenges, injuries, missed tackles, and few forced turnovers doomed the defensive side of the ball. The Packers defense intercepted only 11 passes with none of them coming from the safety position. Using our NEP data, we can see exactly how steep they fell from when Rodgers got injured to when he returned.

Adj Def NEPRankAdj Def Passing NEPRankAdj Def Rushing NEPRank
Wks 1 thru 832.0727th41.123th-8.415th
Wks 9 thru 1762.8927th35.9327th34.0927th

Swiss cheese is an appropriate metaphor for the Packers’ defense in 2013, as the pass defense was fairly suspect the entire season according to our Adjusted Defensive NEP metrics. Teams were able to attack and score at will. The pass defense actually had results that were indicative of an average pass defense towards the end of the season, but it also came against some of the easier opponents on their schedule.

The run defense looked to be the bright spot on the team, but once one injury happened, the rest fell like dominos. At one point in the season, the Packers only had two starting inside linebackers. Two linebackers ended up on the injured reserve while Brad Jones, Jamari Lattimore, Mike Neal, Nick Perry and Clay Matthews dealt with injuries that lasted all season. When you have a banged up linebacker corp and two of your top cornerbacks on injured reserve as well, that limits the potential play making abilities of the defense.

Yet, despite what was exposed on defense, they hung in there when it counted most. The final regular season stand was against Chicago’s duo of Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, as Jay Cutler tried to toss three hail mary passes for a touchdown. Each time he did, the defense was there, and if it wasn’t for Sam Shields’ interception on the third pass, the Packers might have left Chicago empty-handed.

What Should They Do?

Despite winning the division and getting Rodgers healthy enough to play, this will still be a busy and tough offseason for the Packers.

First, they should look into a better strength and conditioning team.

No, I’m not actually serious with that comment, as injuries happen to every team. Some teams can adjust better than others, and some are lucky enough to avoid the injury bug. The Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010 despite over a dozen guys on the IR. Depth is one answer for dealing with injuries and this draft class is deep at many positions this year.

The Packers priority will be addressing the safety position and the draft may not be the only answer to solving that issue. There are plenty of options in free agency with big-ticket names like Jarius Byrd down to solid veterans like Michael Huff and Will Allen.

However, if GM Ted Thompson decides to fill the void at safety through free agency, he will have the most money he has been able to spend since 2006. The final salary cap number is out and the Packers will have over $35 million to spend. Very few teams have that much cap room with even fewer having the benefit of being a consistent playoff contender and great salary cap management. Thompson needs to be aggressive this year with his own players as well as a couple free agents in he wants another championship in TitleTown.

But before Thompson signs a free agent at safety, he cannot let Sam Shields walk away. While Thompson reportedly said he would let Shields test the market, that will only drive up the price for the young cornerback. In a division where the Packers see Jeffery, Marshall, Calvin Johnson, and Cordarrelle Patterson twice a year, cornerbacks are a premium. Tramon Williams is showing his age (and is expensive), and Shields is ready to be the top cornerback on the team. If the Packers can’t agree (and all signs are pointing to they can), the defensive ranking from above might drop to dead last.

Thompson can’t overpay for Shields though either. James Jones is set to test the market and starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith (EDS) could be allowed to see what offers he gets as well. The team doesn’t seem as concerned with letting Jones go since Jarrett Boykin is waiting in the wings, but having to plug in a new center next year could deal a blow to the chemistry the offensive line seemed to have last year.

Drafting will be key this year, especially if Thompson doesn’t make any splashes in free agency – which wouldn’t be much of a surprise anyway. The safety position will be addressed but linebacker depth is needed too. The Packers pride themselves on drafting and developing so depth is needed for a premium position in Capers’ defense.

The money is there for Thompson to keep some of his top free agents. In a perfect world, he would extend EDS and Shields (which would take up $12 to $16 million of the cap), extend veteran minimums to Johnny Jolly, Ryan Pickett, Neal, and Flynn, and offer restricted free agent tenders to M.D. Jennings and Jamari Lattimore. I don't expect all of those moves to happen, but at least $13 million would be left over after all those moves allowing TT to still make some big free agency splashes.

With Aaron Rodgers and now Eddie Lacy, the Packers will always be in contention to make the playoffs. But Thompson might not get another opportunity to strengthen multiple areas of the team at once. With the right moves, Thompson won't have to keep experiencing roller coaster seasons and be able to see the Packers continue to be perennial Super Bowl contenders.