GREEN BAY – The significance of Desmond Bishop’s season-ending hamstring injury cannot be overstated.
Certainly it exceeds any hit the Packers’ defense has delivered in recent memory. Surely it qualifies as a significant setback in coordinator Dom Capers’ efforts to restore respectability to the defense.
Bishop either led or tied for the team lead in tackles during Green Bay’s first nine games last season. That was before a calf injury sidelined him for three games until he returned in time for the playoffs.
This year, Bishop looked great until the calf injury flared. After a few days off, he seemed fine going into the preseason opener at San Diego. That’s when Bishop, caught in an awkward position beneath an otherwise routine pileup, suffered the gruesome season-ending injury.
While Bishop looks ahead to a long, diligent rehabilitation, the Packers face the sobering consequences that coincide with his absence.
First, D.J. Smith is the closest thing to a viable option as a replacement. However, his lack of size and ability to strike a blow like Bishop means offenses will try to take advantage of a mismatch in the run game.
Second, Bishop is a much better player than he often gets credit for. Look at his bio in the Packers’ media guide, and the game entries read like this: Led team in tackles … Paced the defense in tackles … Finished with a team-high 11 tackles, etc. It goes on and on.
This isn’t a matter of finding a competent replacement. It’s a matter of hoping to replace a top-level player with someone that approaches competence. To think a play-maker will emerge is wishful thinking.
Third – and this is a bit of good news – if Bishop had to be lost, the sooner the better. That isn’t meant to be callous. The Packers can’t realistically replace Bishop with a comparative talent. Bishop was that good. However, Capers may be able to compensate for the loss – and mitigate the impact – through clever use of the scheme.
While Capers begins to move on without Bishop, the Packers’ offense begins to move on with Cedric Benson at running back.
The move comes with minimal risk and potential for a huge upside. The greatest upside, however, may be Benson’s ability to motivate the current stable of backs.
While James Starks is listed week-to-week with turf toe, and Brandon Saine works his way back after a hamstring injury, Benson gets his shot.
The veteran’s credentials dwarf anything that Starks, Saine or Alex Green bring to the huddle. Whether Benson’s past problems (four arrests during his NFL career) follow him to Green Bay remain to be seen. Sometimes, the reality of a situation demands that the Packers’ front office welcomes in a player with something less than a sterling reputation as being “Packer People.”
Benson isn’t “Packer People.” At least, his past suggests that.
What matters most to a team without a running attack, and a 29-year-old running back just recently without a team, is making this a win-win.
Benson comes in with three straight 1,000-yard plus rushing seasons. He is an accomplished veteran who runs hard, finishes off carries and has quick feet for a big man. The downside is that he’s not the one-cut-and-go back that fits best in Packers’ head coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. Also, Benson’s ability to pick up blitzes will be tested.
Benson isn’t guaranteed a roster spot, but my guess is that this will be an obvious call – one way or another – when GM Ted Thompson executes his final roster cuts.
Either Benson will stand out as being that much better than anything the Packers have had here recently, or he will prove to be too great a risk, either in pass protection and/or the passing game, or simply not explosive enough to make a difference.
My gut tells me that Benson’s presence will do wonders for the recuperative powers of Starks and Saine, and that Alex Green will continue to make strides in his recovery from knee surgery.
What Benson’s running ability will do for the offense isn’t as clear. Benson is a 20-plus carry back in a 10-carry system. He could be a factor in short yardage and goal-line, which shouldn’t be discounted, but is that a reason to keep him?
Ultimately, Benson’s signing serves as a wakeup call to Starks and Co., but nothing more. However, if Benson proves to be a significant upgrade over Starks, Saine and Green, it would be revealing on two fronts:
** Maybe Packers’ fans (and media) don’t know what a quality NFL running back looks like because it’s been so long, and …
** The best teams have at least some semblance of a running game, and the Packers – as mighty as their passing game is – are no exception.
My best guess: Benson makes the 53-man roster and helps the running attack. Why? What was thought to be “great competition” at running back will be revealed as being a mediocre group.
One more thing: The onus will be on Benson to adjust to the Packers’ offense, and not the other way around.
Chris Havel is a Packers News expert and national best-selling author. His latest book is Lombardi: An Illustrated Life. Havel can be heard Monday through Friday from 4-6 p.m. CDT on WDUZ FM 107.5 The Fan, or on AM-1400, as well as Fan Internet Radio (www.thefan1075.com). Havel also hosts Event USA’ Player Autograph Parties the evening before home games.