Barry’s last stand in Green Bay provides mixed results

Packers hire Hafley after old defensive coordinator’s dismissal
By: 
Luke Reimer
Green & Gold Express

Coming into the season, the story surrounding the Green Bay Packers was whether Jordan Love could be the next franchise quarterback. While that was the biggest topic of discussion, what flew under the radar was that Green Bay had put together one of the most intriguing groups of defensive players in the NFL.

A good mix of young talent with Quay Walker, Lukas Van Ness and Devonte Wyatt partnered with a strong veteran core of De’Vondre Campbell, Jaire Alexander and Kenny Clark gave many fans and writers optimism that this Packers’ defense could be one of the best units in the entire league.

The most exciting player out of the bunch though had to have been Van Ness. The Packers spent major draft capital on Van Ness, making the Iowa alum a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. While a pass rusher was probably not the number one need in the draft last season, it was hard for Brian Gutekunst to pass up on such raw talent. Adding Van Ness to a passing rushing core of Rashan Gary, Preston Smith and Kingsley Enagbare had the opportunity to vault the Packers defensive line into a very formidable unit. With Gary coming off his ACL tear in the year prior, it was expected that Van Ness was going to play big minutes early.

“Big man. Powerful. Fast. Explosive,” said Gutekunst, after drafting Van Ness. “Really big upside, and we were really excited to get him.”

As a whole in his rookie season, Van Ness finished with 32 combined tackles and four sacks. With Green Bay’s approach to consistently rotate its outside linebackers, those numbers are not bad by any means, and it is certainly a bright sight for Packers fans.

As for Gary, in limited action this season, he still proved to be one of the most impactful players on the defense. Registering 44 combined tackles and leading the Packers in sacks with nine, Green Bay rewarded the Michigan product with a four-year, $107 million contract in the middle of the season.

“It is great to see somebody get paid, especially somebody that you have seen from their rookie year to now,” said Smith, about his reaction to Gary’s contract extension. “Seeing the progression he has made and the leaps and jumps he had, even coming back from injury and with the attitude and mindset he has, I am just always proud. I feel like I am a proud big brother. It is like watching your little brother walk across the stage and graduating to a payday.”

While Clark continued his prolific career in green and gold, it was actually Wyatt who was the breakout star for the Packers’ defensive line and team as a whole. Wyatt upped his stats from the 2022-23 season from 15 to 36 total tackles. His sack numbers also increased from 1.5 to 5.5.

While the defensive line and pass rushers proved to be the strongest part of the Packers’ defense this season, the secondary also had quite a showing. Starting the season with Jaire Alexander, Rasul Douglas and Keisean Nixon slotted in, Joe Barry and the rest of the coaching staff was very confident about the secondary’s ability to limit opposing offenses. Rightfully so, as throughout the first six games of the season, the defense did not allow more than 230 passing yards to any quarterback.

That all changed though right before the trade deadline. After starting 2-5, Green Bay looked like it was going to be sellers at the deadline. That rang true, as when the Buffalo Bills came calling about Rasul Douglas, Gutekunst orchestrated a trade that involved moving Douglas and a 2024 fifth-round pick for a 2024 third-round pick.

Things drastically changed in the Packers secondary, as with an injury to Alexander and a continued injury to Eric Stokes, Green Bay was all of a sudden reliant on Carrington Valentine and Corey Ballentine to anchor the secondary.

More than a loss in play on the field, losing Douglas also caused Green Bay to lose a leader in the locker room. That loss proved to play a major factor for a defense that was quickly unraveling. Even though Green Bay went on a three-game win streak, by taking down the Los Angeles Chargers, Detroit Lions and Kansas City Chiefs, there was a problem arising with Barry and the linebackers.

Even though Walker seemed to improve, there were still obvious areas for growth. While the Packers drafted Walker for his speed and ability to fly around the field, he had still yet to fully diagnose plays on the run, which certainly can and probably will improve. Adding to that, there was an obvious drop in play from Campbell. Campbell still continues to be one of the better linebackers in the NFL, but this season was a far cry from his All-Pro season in 2021. Something that surprised many though from Campbell was a cryptic tweet late in the season.

In the midst of Green Bay’s playoff run, Campbell was battling injuries and sent a tweet saying, “Not going out of my way anymore and I’m not playing through injuries anymore cause when (expletive) goes wrong they always use it against you. I’m treating everyone accordingly and giving them the same energy they giving me. Focus on yourself and your mental 59 you owe it to yourself.”

Whether this comment was directed at players, fans or coaches, it was obvious that Campbell was upset about how he was being treated or how he was being viewed. For a Packers fan, to see someone who was perceived as a leader say this was certainly worrisome. Even more worrisome, when asked about the tweet, Campbell refused to talk about the situation.

“I’m not talking about nothing that happened on the internet,” said Campbell. “If y’all want to talk about the Panthers, we can, but I ain’t answering no questions about nothing on no internet.”

While these comments were alarming, Campbell did come back when needed and helped Green Bay to make the final push for its playoff run.

In all, there was a major shift in the play of the defense from the start of the season to the end of the season. Green Bay started out by playing well against opposing quarterbacks. With the loss of Douglas and injuries to players in the secondary, that quickly switched to poor pass defense.

The inconsistencies on the defensive side of the ball quickly shifted to fans blaming Barry. When Barry was hired, many raised eyebrows, as his career stops were less than ideal. His inconsistencies were a major reason that Green Bay eventually relieved him of his duties, later hiring Boston College head coach Jeff Hafley to take over in the future.