FOR RYAN GRANT, the play that summed up 2008 came in the finale against Detroit, when, with a little more than four minutes left, he broke into the secondary and dashed 80 yards for a score. Grant's longest run of the season catapulted him into the top five in the NFC in rushing and triggered $2.1 million in bonus money. His euphoria lasted only a moment. After a Lions challenge, the replay official judged 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 the off-season contending with questions about what went wrong in '08. "I couldn't get that play back," Grant said. "I had to move on."
Most backs who fit Grant's profile—an undrafted free agent in his second full season—would have been thrilled to finish the year with 1,203 yards. But Grant had raised expectations so high the previous season, when he took over as the starter in Week 9 and then had 201 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff win over Seattle, that he practically couldn't help but fall short. He came late to training camp in '08 because of a contract dispute, was not in peak condition and predictably tweaked a hamstring. Though Grant didn't miss any games and rarely complained about the injury, he acknowledges now that it affected his burst, which helps explain his lack of long runs and his drop-off from 5.1 to 3.9 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 need to break that initial tackle."
To win the NFC North the Pack will need the Grant of '07. This summer he spent a week and a half at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., running hills against resistance from parachutes, bungee cords, chains and tires. The drills were designed to simulate charging up the field with a linebacker wrapped around his waist. A power runner, Grant believes the key to 2009 is to regain the explosiveness that 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 to do more."
Much has changed in 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 the problem—he was fourth in the league in passing yards and touchdowns and sixth in passer rating. Attention this year has shifted to Grant and to Aaron Kampman. 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. If he's bothered by the switch, he's too diplomatic to say. "I've played defensive end for a quite a while," Kampman says. "This gives me a chance to do some new things."
The transition will be made easier by the presence of Kevin Greene, who racked up 160 sacks as an outside linebacker mostly in 3--4 schemes and is now coaching the position in Green Bay. He and Kampman are inseparable on the practice field. After defensive coordinator and 3--4 guru Dom Capers makes a point about the new system, Greene, who played for Capers in Pittsburgh and Carolina and knows the scheme about as well as anybody, explains to Kampman exactly what it means for him. Says Kampman, "It's great to have someone who's been there and done that."
Assuming Grant regains his form and the defense embraces the 3--4, the Packers should join the Vikings and the Bears in a three-way battle for the NFC North. Kampman's sack numbers may dip a little, but his victory totals are likely to rise. "The new defense allows us to be more creative, especially with our blitzes," backup corner Tramon Williams says. "A lot of guys are going to be coming from a lot of places. It's going to be a quarterback's worst nightmare."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: MIKE MCCARTHY
27--21 in NFL, fourth season with Packers