PACKERS FOOTBALL FRIDAY: Fab Five 3.0?

FAB5

2007 was a true renaissance season for the Green Bay Packers.  The Packers were entering the second season of the Mike McCarthy era, with few people having ultimate confidence in the new head coach.  After all, McCarthy had been hired away from San Francisco, where he was the offensive coordinator for an offense that wasn’t very good.  The Packers had started 4-8 in 2006, but won their final 4 games and avoided a losing season.  Instead of calling for McCarthy’s head (and Thompson’s head for hiring him) the fans had reason for optimism heading into 2007.

More than any other time than I can remember as a fan the mid 2000s Green Bay Packers were defined by one player.  Brett Favre was the Green Bay Packers.  The #4 jersey was simply what you wore to Lambeau Field to watch the game.  Every passing touchdown was like a life experience as he approached all the major passing records.  Fans hung on every word at every press conference and each offseason prayed to the football gods that Favre would return.

The issue was that the QB and the team appeared that they might be in decline.  After losing the 4th and 26 game to the Eagles, Favre and the Packers had gone 22-26 in the next 3 seasons, which was unfathomable during the Favre era.  Favre was a big part of that decline.  During that 3 year stretch, Favre’s TD to INT ratio was a brutal 68-64.  In 2006 Favre only completed 56% percent of his passes, good for 26th in the league, right behind Matt Leinart and just ahead of Jake Plummer, Rex Grossman and Bruce Gradkowski.

Then 2007 happened.  Favre was reborn.  His completion percentage shot up to 66.5%.  He eclipsed 4,100 yards for the first time in 9 seasons.  He reversed the TD/INT trend with a 28-15 mark.  Favre and the Packers won 12 games that season and a big reason was the offense.  It’s difficult to determine where the credit should go for “fixing” Brett that season.  He was 38 so it certainly wasn’t “development” or the progression of his physical talents.  It was either Favre making a choice to change his attitude and the way he approached the game, McCarthy adjusting the gameplan to give him more high percentage throws and eliminate the opportunities for him to turn the ball over or Ted Thompson providing him with more weapons.

There will come a time when the current team is not so much fun to cover, analyze and write about.  When that day comes and the Corey Webster interception doesn’t make me so upset I’m going to go back and look at that 2007 season.  That 2007 season (and honestly Favre’s 2009 campaign with Minnesota) were utter middle fingers to the normal progression/regression of an NFL players’ career.  That time is not now so I’m going to talk about the group of weapons that Thompson put together.

For the first time in Favre’s career the Packers had 5 receivers who each served different purposes and were effective in what they did.  The Packers actually used 5 WR empty sets for the first time in the Favre era too.  Donald Driver was the team’s #1 option.  Young studs Greg Jennings and James Jones were proving to be future cornerstones of the Packer offense.  Troubled WR Koren Robinson was the team’s #4 option and also gave the Packers an option in the kick return game.  At 6’4″ Ruvell Martin gave the team a big, physical receiver at the #5 spot who was effective on special teams and in the red zone, catching 4 TD on just 378 offensive snaps and 30 targets.

The “Fab 5” was a hit in Green Bay and would be a sign of things to come as Thompson has drafted at least one wide receiver in 7 of the 10 Packer drafts he has overseen.  Injuries and free agent departures kept the Packers from being able to roll out another true “Fab 5” until the 2011 season.  The Packers selected Randall Cobb with the final pick of the second round after winning the Super Bowl in 2011’s draft.  The talented Cobb was added to a receiving corps that already employed Greg Jennings, a not-quite-past-his-prime Donald Driver, James Jones and the incomparable Jordy Nelson.  Tight End Jermichael Finley was also healthy that season and Aaron Rodgers put together a historical season.  Rodgers threw 45 TDs against 6 INT (in only 15 games) that season and the group was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

Even during Rodgers' MVP breakout season he made sure Sports Illustrated focused on his Packers teammates.
Even during Rodgers’ MVP breakout season he made sure Sports Illustrated focused on his Packers teammates.

With Randall Cobb’s re-signing and the Packers selecting 3 receivers in the 2013 NFL draft, the Packers now have their top 5 receivers under contract through 2017 for less than $23 million and their top two guys (both Pro Bowlers) are in Green Bay through 2018.  Seriously.  Think about that.  All of Aaron Rodgers’ weapons are signed up on contracts below market value for this season and two more after it.  The most important weapons will be with Aaron Rodgers until he is 35 years old.  Not only that, but Jordy Nelson will turn 30 this offseason.  The other 4 receivers? Randall Cobb is the oldest one at age 24.  THEY ARE ALL GOING TO GET BETTER.  THAT IS REALLY EXCITING FOR US AS PACKERS FANS AND TERRIFYING FOR LITERALLY EVERYONE ELSE.

I mentioned in Tuesday’s draft preview that I felt better about the Packers receiving corps than any other position on the team.  I think a lot of that has to do with Ted Thompson being an elite evaluator of receivers.  He always has been.  The Packers new “Fab 5” is loaded right now and potentially in 2016 or 2017 going to be the best group of receivers the Packers have ever had.  The group could be even stronger even sooner but it was forced to let go of Charles Johnson, another Ted Thompson pick who is already the best receiver on the Vikings.  I had Adams graded as a 2nd round pick, Abbrederis as a 3rd rounder and Janis as a 5th rounder.  While that might not mean much to you, the fact that Thompson drafted them all certainly should.

It seems unlikely that the Packers would actually use the new “Fab 5” in a full-on empty set on a regular basis.  While the idea of Davante Adams and Jeff Janis outside with Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Jared Abbrederis in the slot makes me very happy and would create a lot of issues for even the deepest defensive backfield, why would you take Eddie Lacy off the field?  Also, the Packers (and I) are higher on Richard Rodgers than the general public.  Just because the Packers might not use all 5 at a time doesn’t mean they can’t all contribute.

The Packers have utilized a no huddle offense of late where the team’s 3 receivers stay on the field most of the time and stay in the same position most of the time.  In 2013 it was James Jones and Jordy Nelson on the outside, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley on the inside with Eddie Lacy in the backfield.

In 2014 Jones and Finley were replaced by Davante Adams and a combination of the aforementioned Rodgers and mainstay Andrew Quarless.  It’s certainly possible that the Packers will continue to move forward in that fashion and use the continuity of all 11 preferred starters returning for 2015 to be an even more lethal offense than the league’s #1 scoring unit was a year ago.

It’s also possible that if Janis and Abbrederis are good (they probably are) and are ready to contribute in 2015 (I’m not so sure about this) that it opens up other options for the offense.  In 2011 part of the Packers record breaking attack was that the defense didn’t know who was going to be unleashed upon them on any given play, and they also didn’t know where that player was going to line up.

According to our friends at Pro Football Focus in 2011 Green Bay Greg Jennings had a 50.2% to 49.8% slot-to-boundary ratio.  Randall Cobb was 62/38 and Donald Driver was 65/35.  The Packers huddled, they deployed receivers in different spots and they set fire to NFL defenses.

That type of versatility might be back on the table.  If it’s not back on the table in 2015 it’s going to be back on the table in 2016.  It’s certainly possible that McCarthy, Clements and Rodgers believe that the no huddle attack where the receivers stay in their position and don’t allow defenses to get a break is the best way to destroy opposing offenses.  It’s also possible that Green Bay decides to start deploying these weapons in different ways.  It’s long been said that all of the Packers receivers learn all of the Packers receiver positions.  They know the route combinations for the outside spots and for the slot spots.

There’s no reason to believe that the Packers are going to shy away from their base 11 personnel in which they use a tight end and Eddie Lacy to keep the ability to run the ball on the table.  With that said if Janis and Abby can play it really does bring other options into the fold.  They can use 4 WR sets with Lacy or Richard Rodgers as the 5th player.  The Cobra formation with Randall Cobb at running back suddenly becomes more dangerous if the 3rd receiver is an effective Janis or Abbrederis as opposed to a Jarrett Boykin that didn’t have a lot of talent and had lost the faith of Aaron Rodgers.

Imagine a Cobra formation with Nelson and Adams outside and Abby in the slot, or one with Nelson in the slot and Adams and Janis outside.  Imagine a 4 WR Cobra with Cobb next to Rodgers, Adams and Janis outside and Nelson and Abby inside.  It’s really hard to defend that.  It’s really hard to even know what personnel to use to try to defend that.

Ron Wolf once said that one of his biggest regrets was not giving Brett Favre enough weapons to work with.  This has never been a problem for Ted Thompson.  The Fab 5s under Thompson have been one year moments of greatness, a quick burning flame.  This 5 has a chance to be straight fire for at least the next 3 seasons.  Good luck, NFL.

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Ross Uglem is a writer at PackersTalk.com. You can follow Ross on twitter at RossUglem

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