On January 11, 2015 the Packers and Cowboys faced off in a divisional round game at Lambeau Field that few fans who live and die with their teams will ever forget. Two years later the two will again face off in the divisional round, this time at AT&T Stadium. In a week-to-week league that is the NFL, two years is an eternity, and it’s not uncommon to see a team turn over nearly half of their roster in that time frame. With that in mind let’s take a look at what has changed with each team’s roster going into this weekend’s game compared to that fateful day almost 730 days ago.
Green Bay: Not much has changed here for the Packers. Aaron Rodgers was the 2014 NFL MVP, and statistically his season was almost identical to 2016 as far as touchdowns, interceptions, completion % and yards passing. He had a slight calf injury and wasn’t quite as hot as he is going into this year’s game, but he was still quite impressive, throwing 19 touchdowns to just two interceptions over the final half of 2014. Against Dallas that day he went 24/35 for 316 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. Calf injury or not, a quarterback can’t play much better than that.
Dallas: Not even going to touch this one, you know what’s transpired.
- Running Back
Green Bay: Eddie Lacy had perhaps his best season as a pro in 2014 with career highs in total yards (1,100+ rushing and 400+ receiving) and total touchdowns (13). He gave Green Bay a credible threat in the running game, and put up 101 yards on 19 carries in the playoffs against Dallas. Of course Lacy is now on I.R. and he has been replaced by a former receiver in Ty Montgomery, who has carried the ball 10 or more times only twice in nearly three months. Clearly the Packers running game was more of a threat in 2014.
Dallas: The names have changed here but not much else. In 2014 DeMarco Murray led the league in rushing for the Cowboys, in 2016 it’s Ezekiel Elliott who led the league. Of course Elliott has been slightly more productive than Murray with a higher YPC and more touchdowns, and it’s clear that Elliott is more of a home-run threat. One could also easily argue that Elliott is much fresher going into this game than Murray was in 2014. Murray had 449 regular season touches, plus 22 more against Detroit in the wild card game, while Elliott only had 354 regular season touches.
- Wide Receiver
Green Bay: Another major difference here is the loss of Jordy Nelson, who was at the top of his game in 2014 as he set career highs in receptions and yards, and of course he will miss Sunday’s game. Another factor that goes unmentioned here is that 2014 was also a career year for Randall Cobb as he had career highs in receptions (91), yards (1,287), and touchdowns (12). Cobb hasn’t even come close to replicating those numbers before or since 2014. The loss of Nelson and perhaps a less-than-peak Cobb may be somewhat mitigated by the fact that Davante Adams was a rookie two years ago and has improved significantly since then. Geronimo Allison provides a little more depth than they had in 2014.
Dallas: Not much has changed here either. Dez Bryant certainly wasn’t as productive this season as he was in 2014, although he is still clearly an elite number one receiver. Terrance Williams is more or less the same player he was two years ago, while Cole Beasley has improved and become a much more consistent player. Beasley flashed plenty in 2014 but he has become much more steady on a week to week basis. Brice Butler provides a bit better depth than Dwayne Harris did in 2014.
- Offensive Line
Green Bay: There has only been one change for the Packers from the game two years ago, however it’s somewhat significant. Left guard Josh Sitton was the starter in 2014 and at the top of his game as he made the second of three Pro Bowls at the age of 28. Due to contract issues the Packers released Sitton this past offseason and replaced him with Lane Taylor, a player who had barely any starting experience before 2016. Taylor has been decent enough but he is not a prime Josh Sitton. Center Corey Linsley and left tackle David Bakhtiari were only in their first and second years in 2014, respectively, and both have improved since then. That is especially the case with Bakhtiari who was second in All-Pro voting among left tackles this year.
Dallas: Everything is exactly the same here personnel-wise aside from the fact that Doug Free missed the game two years ago due to injury and was replaced by Jeremy Parnell. It’s up to you whether or not you believe that is an advantage or disadvantage going into Sunday. Travis Frederick was a second-year player in 2014 while Zack Martin was a rookie, and I think it’s clear that they have both improved since then.
- Tight End
Green Bay: The big difference here is the addition of Jared Cook, a player who historically has been much more effective than the tight ends the Packers had in 2014, Richard Rodgers and Andrew Quarless. This is evidenced by the fact that Cook out-gained both Rodgers and Quarless in terms of receiving yards in only 10 games in 2016, compared to a full 16 for the aforementioned two in 2014.
Dallas: Jason Witten. In all seriousness though, Witten may have lost half a step (not that it really matters), while the depth behind him isn’t as strong with the loss of blocking tight end James Hanna. That’s nitpicking, but still.
- Defensive Line/Edge-Rushers
Green Bay: I’m lumping the 3-4 OLB’s into this group since they function more as linemen then linebackers. With that said, almost nothing has changed here. The Packers have basically the same rotation of down linemen that primarily relies on Mike Daniels and Letroy Guion, with Datone Jones rotating in. They added 2016 first-round pick Kenny Clark to the rotation at defensive tackle, but he doesn’t play significant snaps.
As far as the OLB’s/edge rushers, it’s mostly the same faces with Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, and Nick Perry, with the lone addition being little used rookie Kyler Fackrell. Matthews and Peppers have seen their play dip slightly as they have aged, while Perry had a breakout 2016 with 11 sacks after a quiet first few years in the league. Mike Neal was a rotational pass-rusher for them in 2014 who is no longer on the team, or in the league seemingly, so all in all it’s mostly a wash here.
Dallas: This is the first significant difference for the Cowboys, aside from the whole quarterback thing. In that playoff game two years ago the rotation along the line looked like this: Nick Hayden, Tyrone Crawford, Ken Bishop, and Josh Brent at defensive tackle, with Jeremy Mincey, Anthony Spencer, George Selvie, and rookie Demarcus Lawrence at end. Henry Melton, Jack Crawford, and Terrell McClain were all injured.
In 2016 that rotation has changed significantly, with only Crawford and Lawrence remaining from that game, and additions of Maliek Collins, David Irving, Terrell McClain, Benson Mayowa, Jack Crawford, and Cedric Thornton. That 2014 line was hurting due to several injuries, especially at defensive tackle, and I think it’s quite clear that the current unit is a far deeper, and superior group.
Green Bay: I’m only including their inside linebackers here, and in the 2014 game it seems that the only traditional linebackers that played were Sam Barrington, a replacement-level player who is no longer in Green Bay and seems to be nearly out of the league, and A.J. Hawk, who is out of the league. In the mean time the Packers have replaced them with youth in Jake Ryan, Joe Thomas, and rookie Blake Martinez. Those three have been decent this year, and a definite upgrade over what they had in 2014, but it’s still a pretty uninspiring group.
Dallas: The obvious here is Sean Lee. He missed the 2014 season, but has since returned and had two fantastic years, including a First Team All-Pro nod 2016. He is the best defensive player on the team and his addition is a gigantic upgrade over 2014. Aside from that it’s mostly the same except for the loss of Bruce Carter, and while he miraculously had five interceptions that season, I don’t think anybody would call him a huge loss. Anthony Hitchens is still around, and is better in his third year than he was as a rookie, while the depth is far better with Justin Durant (missed the 2014 playoffs) and Damien Wilson. Rolando McClain only played 9 snaps in the 2014 game, and thus didn’t factor into the comparison.
Green Bay: The starting safeties are the same in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Morgan Burnett, although Clinton-Dix was a rookie in 2014 and has since improved immensely. The starting cornerbacks are completely different though, and the most significant loss is Sam Shields, their best cornerback in 2014, as well as presumably their best corner coming into 2016 before he was forced to miss the year with a concussion after playing just one game. Tramon Williams was the other starter, with Micah Hyde as depth. Williams has fallen off the face of the earth since going to Cleveland in 2015 but he was a good second corner for the Packers with 28 interceptions in eight seasons.
Hyde is still around, while Williams is replaced by a trio of young players in Damarious Randall, Ladarius Gunter, and possibly Quinten Rollins, pending his health. The depth at cornerback is definitely better, but the loss of Shields hurts, especially since this group has given up it’s fair share of big plays and struggles with elite receivers.
Dallas: This is another area where the Cowboys are very different, and better, than 2014. J.J. Wilcox and Barry Church were the starters that day, while Jeff Heath rotated in with Church. That looks similar to what is on the roster now but Wilcox and Heath are both much improved over 2014, each of whom were in just their second year at that time, and then of course you have the addition of Byron Jones who some would argue is the best defensive back on the roster.
The difference at cornerback is even more stark. Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick were the starters in 2014, with Sterling Moore the nickel corner, and Tyler Patmon behind him. Carr and Scandrick are still mostly the same, although Scandrick is probably not quite as good as he was two years ago. However, the big difference comes when you compare Moore and Patmon to Morris Claiborne and Anthony Brown. Moore in particular was surprisingly decent in 2014 but there is just no comparison between the 2014 and 2016 group, the improvement is clear.
Several conclusions can be drawn from this but to me it certainly looks like the Cowboys have improved at every level of the defense, and likely at running back, without taking a step back anywhere else offensively. On the other hand it looks like the Packers have taken an obvious step back at receiver, running back, and in the secondary, while they have seemingly improved on the offensive line, as well as marginally improved at tight end and inside linebacker. Some would argue that Rodgers is playing the best ball of his career, and that may be true, but I think it’s quite clear that his play in 2014 wasn’t far off from where he’s at now. If the Cowboys defense can keep him somewhat contained, and the team in general can avoid killing themselves with critical turnovers or penalties, you have to like their chances.