FOR RYAN GRANT,the play that summed up 2008 came in the finale against Detroit, when, with alittle more than four minutes left, he broke into the secondary and dashed 80yards for a score. Grant's longest run of the season catapulted him into thetop five in the NFC in rushing and triggered $2.1 million in bonus money. Hiseuphoria lasted only a moment. After a Lions challenge, the replay officialjudged that Grant was downed by contact after 21 yards. He lost the touchdown,the extra yardage and $1.45 million of the bonus—and spent much of theoff-season contending with questions about what went wrong in '08. "Icouldn't get that play back," Grant said. "I had to move on."
Most backs whofit Grant's profile—an undrafted free agent in his second full season—wouldhave been thrilled to finish the year with 1,203 yards. But Grant had raisedexpectations so high the previous season, when he took over as the starter inWeek 9 and then had 201 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff win overSeattle, that he practically couldn't help but fall short. He came late totraining camp in '08 because of a contract dispute, was not in peak conditionand predictably tweaked a hamstring. Though Grant didn't miss any games andrarely complained about the injury, he acknowledges now that it affected hisburst, which helps explain his lack of long runs and his drop-off from 5.1 to3.9 yards per carry. "I probably should have sat out a couple games,"Grant says. "When you're not healthy, you don't have the explosion you needto break that initial tackle."
To win the NFCNorth the Pack will need the Grant of '07. This summer he spent a week and ahalf at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., running hills against resistancefrom parachutes, bungee cords, chains and tires. The drills were designed tosimulate charging up the field with a linebacker wrapped around his waist. Apower runner, Grant believes the key to 2009 is to regain the explosivenessthat allows him to shed tacklers and sprint past them. He's aiming for"definitely more than 1,200 yards. My expectations are higher. We've got todo more."
Much has changedin Green Bay. Heading into last season, all the scrutiny was on Aaron Rodgers,the successor to Brett Favre. The Packers went 6--10, but Rodgers wasn't theproblem—he was fourth in the league in passing yards and touchdowns and sixthin passer rating. Attention this year has shifted to Grant and to AaronKampman. A Pro Bowl defensive end who had 37 sacks over the past three seasons,Kampman is moving to outside linebacker as part of the new 3--4 defense. Ifhe's bothered by the switch, he's too diplomatic to say. "I've playeddefensive end for a quite a while," Kampman says. "This gives me achance to do some new things."
The transitionwill be made easier by the presence of Kevin Greene, who racked up 160 sacks asan outside linebacker mostly in 3--4 schemes and is now coaching the positionin Green Bay. He and Kampman are inseparable on the practice field. Afterdefensive coordinator and 3--4 guru Dom Capers makes a point about the newsystem, Greene, who played for Capers in Pittsburgh and Carolina and knows thescheme about as well as anybody, explains to Kampman exactly what it means forhim. Says Kampman, "It's great to have someone who's been there and donethat."
Assuming Grantregains his form and the defense embraces the 3--4, the Packers should join theVikings and the Bears in a three-way battle for the NFC North. Kampman's sacknumbers may dip a little, but his victory totals are likely to rise. "Thenew defense allows us to be more creative, especially with our blitzes,"backup corner Tramon Williams says. "A lot of guys are going to be comingfrom a lot of places. It's going to be a quarterback's worstnightmare."
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
27--21 in NFL, fourth season with Packers
WRs Jordy Nelson(33 rec., 366 yards), James Jones (20 rec., 274 yards) and Ruvell Martin (15rec., 149 yards) round out the NFL's deepest receiving corps.
First-round draftpick Clay Matthews of USC and veteran Jeremy Thompson (three starts last year)will push Poppinga for a starting job at OLB.
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2008 RECORD 6--10
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 17 > 8 > 8
DEFENSE 26 > 12 > 20
27 at St. Louis
5 at Minnesota (M)
25 at Cleveland
8 at Tampa Bay
22 SAN FRANCISCO
26 at Detroit (T)
7 BALTIMORE (M)
13 at Chicago
20 at Pittsburgh
3 at Arizona
NFL Rank: 30
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .428
Games against playoff teams: 5
The Packers don't face an offense that ranked in thetop 10 last year until Week 17 at Arizona, so their new 3--4 defense will haveevery chance get settled. Expect plenty of hype and distraction before GreenBay's two meetings with Brett Favre and the Vikings. The Week 13 game againstthe Ravens will mark the first December night game at Lambeau.
Jermichael Finley, Tight end
As a blue-chip senior at Diboll (Texas) High in thefall of 2004, Finley was set to attend Arizona on a full scholarship to playbasketball and football. But midway through his senior football season he metwith Texas coach Mack Brown, who told the all-state tight end and small forwardhe should pick one sport or he'd surely fail at both. "I liked that he toldme the truth," Finley says. "So on signing day I decommitted fromArizona and went with Texas."
Finley was drafted by the Packers in the third roundin 2008, and as a 21-year-old rookie he performed about as you'd expect,catching six passes for 74 yards and thinking he wasn't getting the ballenough. But during practices the 6'5", 247-pound Finley wowed teammateswith his speed and vertical leap. He calls to mind other basketball playersturned tight ends, namely Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez. "It's thequickness and the footwork," Finley says.
Although he must improve his blocking to overtakeincumbent Donald Lee, it will be hard for the Packers to keep Finley off thefield this season given how difficult it is for linebackers to run with him andfor safeties to muscle him. As he described the approach he is taking thisseason—"full bore, full throttle"—veteran wideout Donald Driverlistened intently from the adjoining locker, as if charting his youngteammate's growth. "That's it," Driver said. "That's what I'mtalking about, kid."
STAR BURST Hamstring healed, Grant worked in the off-season to get his explosiveness back.