Packer Preview 2008

Welcome to the Aaron Rodgers 2008 season preview.

Oops, I mean the Green Bay Packers 2008 season preview. But you can’t really blame me for the mistake — even before Brett Favre announced in July that he wanted to come back to football, Aaron Rodgers this season was set to be one of the most scrutinized NFL players in recent memory. And since Packers management in effect turned away Favre for the highly unproven Rodgers, the eyes of all of football nation — not to mention those here in Wisconsin — will be on Rodgers, criticizing, evaluating, and second-guessing his every play.

Well, if Aaron Rodgers had enough time on his hands to read the sports page on Channel 3000 — and though we welcome all page views, I sort of hope this time of year that he doesn’t — I would tell him to relax. The fate of Packer Nation does not weigh entirely on him being the Steve Young to Favre’s Joe Montana. The Packers have a ton of talent surrounding Rodgers, so his teammates should be able to bail out 2005’s 24th overall draft pick should he suffer some growing pains while learning how to be a starting quarterback week in and week out in the NFL.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt Rodgers’s fortunes that he plays in one of the weakest divisions in the weakest NFL conference. How weak is the NFC? Weak enough that a team with a mediocre-at-best (not to mention injury-prone) quarterback that finished dead last in 2007 at stopping the pass is being hailed by some as this season’s NFC champion.

I’m speaking of the Minnesota Vikings, the hated division foe that will come to Lambeau Field on Monday night for the first game of the Rodgers era. Whether the Packers prevail (as I’m guessing they will) for their fifth-straight victory over Minnesota will probably have less to do with Rodgers’s play and more to do with how detrimental the Packers’ injury situation is. In fact, if I had to pick the leading factor that will determine how competitive the Packers will be in 2008, it would not be the play of Aaron Rodgers, it would be the overall health of the team.

The Packers’ injury list is long, but thankfully getting shorter. Linebackers A.J. Hawk (chest), defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (knee), and defensive tackle Ryan Pickett (hamstring) returned to practice this week. All three have been MIA in the preseason but look to be ready for Monday night’s opener. All three will be key if the Packers’ hope to continue the defensive success they had last year (6th in points per game allowed). (DT Johnny Jolly is also a concern, but for another reason; he faces a September 16 court date after being arrested in July with about 200 grams of codeine. But even if the case goes to trial, it is unlikely to happen during the season.)

Perhaps greater injury concerns exist on the offensive side of the ball, with center Scott Wells unable to shake a lower back muscle injury and running back Ryan Grant looking to bounce back from a hamstring that has kept him out the entire preseason. And before anyone dismisses Grant’s importance week one against the Vikings, remember that Grant was the only running back in 2007 who rushed for more than 100 yards against Minnesota — 119 yards on November 11, when the Packers embarrassed the Vikings 34-0 at Lambeau. Grant (as well as Brandon Jackson and rookie surprise Kregg Lumpkin) needs to be solid to take pressure off Rodgers not only Monday but throughout the season.

If Grant can repeat his 2007 success (929 yards and eight touchdowns over the last ten games), plays will open up for Rodgers and one of the most talented receiving corps in the NFL. Even if James Jones misses extensive playing time with a knee injury (which is doubtful), the tandem of Donald Driver, Greg Jennings, promising rookie Jordy Nelson, and tight end Donald Lee bests the depth of most teams.

Bottom line: If the Packers get most of their banged-up players back healthy for week one as they are expecting, and if they can keep in-season injuries to a minimum, they should win the NFC North by two games, with a record of 10-6 beating out the Vikings (or maybe even the Lions, now that Mike Martz is gone) at 8-8. With a very talented supporting cast and strong defense, Aaron Rodgers will likely emerge as the best quarterback in the division. And while a second consecutive trip to the NFC Championship game seems unlikely, who would have imagined it — or Brett Favre playing for the Jets in 2008 — last year?

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