It's never easy to come to the end of the regular season and realize that your team is not going to the playoffs. After all of the hard work and aches and pains from mini-camps through training camp, it leaves you with an empty feeling. You're stuck watching other teams battle for the chance to play in the Super Bowl. For the Packers, it's a feeling they haven't had to endure very much in recent years. They've been fortunate. Now they find themselves at a crossroads.
Assuming that Brett Favre comes back, can they re-tool their roster with enough key players to be serious contenders next season? Or will this team have to endure the growing pains of a rebuilding process that could take several years?
As I look back on the 2005 season, with all of the injuries that occurred and with losing starting guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, the situation was just too difficult for the Packer offense to overcome. The team was just not good enough to compensate for losing all of those key players -- guys like Javon Walker, Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport and Bubba Franks. Favre tried to take on too much responsibility and tried to carry this team by himself most of the year. At times his play was absolutely phenomenal and he looked as sharp as he ever has. At other times because of an inability to run the football behind a new offensive line, he probably made some decisions and forced some passes that he normally wouldn't have. When you have the feeling that you're responsible for making everything happen, it's just too difficult for any quarterback.
Even though the Packers lost Green and Davenport, I thought Tony Fisher stepped in and did a nice job in several games. Obviously, a big story this year was Samkon Gado, a guy the Packers picked up as a free agent. Gado was a great addition considering the role that he had to fill and his need to learn the offense quickly. He did an outstanding job and was the highlight of the season.
I also want to commend Donald Driver for having an incredible year. He took on the role of being the primary receiver -- the go-to-guy after Walker hurt his knee. Driver deserves a lot of credit, He had to beat a lot of double-teams to make some very important plays to keep drives alive.
I think the big highlight for the Packers' defense in 2005 was the coaching job of defensive coordinator Jim Bates. He took a defense with pretty much the same group of players from the previous year when they were ranked in the mid-20s and molded them into a Top-10 defense. That's no small feat! Many of the guys were role players -- blue collar guys who worked as hard as they could every day. They bought into Bates' teaching scheme and game plans and did a decent job. I'd like to single out four players for praise: Al Harris, Nick Collins, Grady Jackson and Aaron Kampman.
Harris had a Pro Bowl-caliber year, staying step-for-step with the best receivers Green Bay faced.
Collins showed big play ability especially for a rookie, and I think he's got a bright future. Playing the safety position as a rookie is a difficult chore especially coming from a smaller school like Bethune-Cookman. He did a nice job, adapting to the speed of the NFL and handled his play-calling responsibilities quite well. He's got outstanding speed, and I love his aggressiveness and the way he tackles.
There were some question marks with Grady Jackson at the beginning of the year because he was coming back from knee surgery and had contract issues, but he really came in and proved to be the main run stopper for the Packers front four. As a free agent, he should be a priority for the Packers to get re-signed for next season.
Finally, Aaron Kampman -- another free agent -- had the best season of his career. He's another hard-working guy who showed big improvement in his style of play.
The Packers will need to seriously re-assess their special teams play in 2006. Punter B.J. Sander started off the season punting pretty well and was having a decent season until the colder weather set in. You have to take that into consideration when you look at a punter's average in Green Bay. Sander also had some problems as a holder for Ryan Longwell, and that situation will need to be addressed.
Longwell is also a free agent and as the team's all-time leading scorer has been the centerpiece of the special teams unit for many years. He's a great kicker,especially in the cold weather even though 2005 wasn't one of his better years. If the Packers don't choose to re-sign him, they'll have to find a solid replacement. We've all seen how a team can struggle and lose big games when the kicking game is sub-par.
I'd also like to see the Packers pick up a real speedster who can be a threat as a kick returner. Packers fans won't forget how important Desmond Howard was to the Super Bowl run in 1996.
The biggest concern I have for next season is the offensive line. Both guard positions need to be solidified and the Packers may need more help at center due to the injuries that Mike Flanagan had to endure. You have to really respect and admire the way Flanagan played, but his age and his injury history are working against him a little bit. If the Packers expect to get back in contention for the playoffs next season, everything starts with the offensive line.
If the O-line gets fixed, injuries heal up and star players are brought back, I don't see any reason that the Packers couldn't return to being a very strong, competitive team.
Finally I want to say thanks to all of the great Packers fans who have taken the time to say hello at one of our WDUZ pre-game shows at The Bar in Green Bay or called in on my other shows in Milwaukee, Madison, Wausau and Stevens Point. I've appreciated meeting with fans, re-connecting with old friends and answering questions and receiving comments whether live on the radio, here at Packers.com or on my own web site.
I've always said that Packer fans are the very best in all of sports and I really appreciated your friendliness as I traveled across Wisconsin this season. Have yourself a great off-season and let's all hope the Packers can turn things around in 2006!
Don "Majik" Majkowski was inducted into the Green Bay Packer Hall of Fame earlier this year. His career for the Packers spanned six seasons (1987-92), including being named to the Pro Bowl in 1989 when he led the NFL in passing yards. In addition to his duties with Packers.com, Majik provides football analysis for WSSP-AM, SportsRadio 1250 in Milwaukee, WDUZ SportsRadio 107.5 & 1400 The Fan in Green Bay, WTSO - ESPN 1070 in Madison, WDEZ in Wausau, and WIZD in Stevens Point. Visit Majik's Web site, www.majiknetwork.net, for more information.