GREEN BAY – When Mike McCarthy looks back on the Green Bay Packers’ 2013 season – which is what the head coach has spent the last three days doing, and will continue to do in the coming weeks – he sees three things that explain why he was doing his least favorite thing (a press conference) on Wednesday morning instead of preparing for the Carolina Panthers:
1. An offense that had the makings of unprecedented greatness – until the star quarterback and a few other absolutely crucial pieces suffered significant injuries.
2. A defense that desperately needs more playmakers – either to be brought in, or to emerge from those who didn’t make plays this year.
3. And injuries that, in the final analysis, took their toll -- despite the team’s next-man-up mantra of denial while the games were being played.
And so, with Team 93 (as he likes to call it, since it was the 93rd team in the franchise’s storied history) done for the year after Sunday’s NFC Wild Card Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, and his eighth season as Packers coach (and third full season removed now from reaching the Super Bowl XLV pinnacle) is over, McCarthy believes there is still plenty of reason for optimism – but also plenty of work to do after what he called “a very challenging season” Wednesday.
“We have a lot of quality people and I think it gives you a chance to get through tough times,” said McCarthy, whose team went 2-5-1 after quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a broken left collarbone on the opening series of the team’s Nov. 4 loss to the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field – and didn’t return until the Dec. 29 regular-season finale against the Bears at Soldier Field.
“We’re division champs. We have work to do. There’s going to be change in our team this year, has been every year. The average change to your football team is what, 20 to 25 percent (of the roster)? That will be no different going into [next] season.
“[But] I don’t know how you look at our team, and the way we’re structured, and the economics of the [NFL today] and what the whole league is going through and think that the window [is] closing.”
Perhaps not. But with Rodgers, whom McCarthy called “the best player in the National Football League,” in his prime, there’s no question that the Packers face a critical offseason. And much of the focus will be on the defense, where McCarthy all but made it official that defensive coordinator Dom Capers will return in 2014.
And for his defense to function the way it did in 2009 (No. 2 in total defense, No. 7 in scoring defense, No. 1 in takeaways) and 2010 (No. 5 in total defense, No. 2 in scoring defense, No. 6 in takeaways), it’s obvious what the group needs.
“We need more impact players, we need more players making plays on defense,” admitted McCarthy, whose team has 17 impending unrestricted free agents. “I think that’s stating the obvious. I feel that those guys are here, but do we have more coming in? That’s really what the offseason’s for.”
Whether the Packers have those players in-house is open for debate – and a debate McCarthy probably won’t win. This year’s defense finished tied for 24th in scoring defense (26.8 points per game), 25th in yards allowed (372.3), 25th in rushing yards allowed (125.0), 24th in passing yards allowed (247.3), tied for eighth in sacks (44) and tied for 20th in takeaways (22).
When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV in 2010, their defense included Charles Woodson, who was the reigning NFL defensive player of the year and “only” recorded two sacks, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), 105 tackles, five forced fumbles, 13 pass breakups; safety Nick Collins, who was selected to his third straight Pro Bowl with four interceptions, a fumble recovery, one forced fumble and 17 pass breakups; second-year outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who put up 13.5 sacks, an interception (which he returned 62 yards for a touchdown), and two forced fumbles; a shutdown cover corner in Tramon Williams who had a team-high six interceptions, a sack, 23 pass break-ups, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble; defensive end Cullen Jenkins, who complemented Matthews with seven sacks; inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, who took over for an injured Nick Barnett and had a huge impact with 121 tackles, three sacks, an interception (that he returned 32 yards for a touchdown against Brett Favre), and two forced fumbles; and an emerging defensive tackle in B.J. Raji, who provided interior pass rush (6.5 sacks), was sturdy against the run and required double-teaming.
In four playoff games, Raji, Collins and Williams all scored defensive touchdowns; Collins (one), Williams (three), Raji (one) and then-rookie cornerback Sam Shields (two) had interceptions; Matthews (3.5), Bishop (one), Woodson (one), Raji (one) and Jenkins (0.5) accounted for seven of the team’s 11 sacks; Bishop, Matthews and Shields forced a combined three fumbles; and Bishop (two) and Matthews (one) accounted for the team’s three postseason fumble recoveries.
This year, playmakers were hard to come by. Including the playoff loss, Matthews missed six games with the right thumb he broke twice (on Oct. 6 and again on Dec. 22) and finished with a team-high but career-low 7.5 sacks. Defensive tackle Mike Daniels (6.5 sacks) was a nice surprise in Year 2, and end-turned-outside linebacker Mike Neal (five sacks) had some production at his new position.
But the defense managed only 11 interceptions – Shields had four, Williams three and no one else had more than one. The team played five players at safety – Morgan Burnett, M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian, Chris Banjo and Sean Richardson – and the fivesome ended up without an interception among them. Zero. Burnett did recover three fumbles, including one for a touchdown, but he failed to force one. And second-year cornerback Casey Hayward, after leading the team in interceptions (six) in 2012, missed 14 of 17 games with a hamstring injury.
While Williams started to approximate his 2010 form during the second half of the season – he had a vital interception in the loss to the 49ers – Raji was missing in action, finishing his second straight season without a sack and surely giving the Packers pause when considering whether to re-sign the unrestricted free agent-to-be.
Woodson, cut in the offseason and never offered a pay cut, spent the year in Oakland; Jenkins left the Philadelphia Eagles for the New York Giants and Collins remained retired after a career-ending neck injury suffered in 2011.
“I've always believed this: To be a real top-notch defense, you have to have two or three guys that are what I consider difference-makers – where sometime within a 60-play game, you're going to see two or three plays that really have an impact and influence the game. You've seen that happen with us here when we've been a top five defense.
“The first two years we were No. 2 and No. 5, and we had guys like Woodson, who was defensive player of the year, and Clay Matthews, who [had] a great year his rookie year. The next year, we won the Super Bowl. We had guys that impacted the game. Look at the Super Bowl game – we had an interception for a touchdown, we had Clay knock the ball out on the fumble, we had Jarrett Bush's interception. You make those kind of plays in a game, that's what gives you a good chance.
“We know that Clay is certainly one of those guys. He’s proven it. He still led us in sacks and tackles for loss and probably played 50 percent of the time. I think we have some guys that we have to continue to work and develop and they have to step up. You never know where that comes from. Hopefully, we’ve got some guys in this group that we’ll see them develop into difference-makers.”
The offense, meanwhile, was loaded with them – only to see most of them go down with injuries. Rodgers, of course, was the biggest blow, but wide receiver Randall Cobb was leading the team in receptions when he suffered a fractured tibia against Baltimore on Oct. 13 that caused him to miss 10 games; a week later, tight end Jermichael Finley suffered a career-threatening neck injury that occurred just as he was realizing his vast potential; and wide receiver James Jones suffered a knee injury against the Ravens and missed the next two games, then played at less than 100 percent before playing with two broken ribs at the end of the season.
Even the brightest spot on offense – breakout rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who set a franchise single-season rushing record for a rookie with 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns – served as a reminder of what could have been: After facing a steady diet of two-shell coverages all last season when defenses didn’t respect their run game, the Packers finally had the antidote in Lacy – and then didn’t have Rodgers to take advantage.
“I hate doing this, especially because I call the plays, (but) I felt that this was going to be the best offense that we’ve ever had here. I thought we were going to go past 2011,” McCarthy said, referring to the team that set the franchise scoring record (560 points, second-most in NFL history) while Rodgers (45 touchdowns, six interceptions) won the NFL MVP award and the team finished 15-1.
“When we came out of the [Oct. 27] Minnesota game (a 44-31 road victory), I thought we really, really hit our stride … I felt very, very good about our offense, and our numbers reflected it, too.
“[At] 5-2, I felt very good about our team, yes.”
Rodgers went down the next week, and it was a struggle thereafter. Even though Rodgers (and Cobb) returned in time to beat the Bears and earn the team’s third straight NFC North title and fifth straight playoff berth, the injuries had had their effect. The Packers finished with 15 players on injured reserve, and according to research done by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, the Packers’ starters missed 70 games due to injury, tied for fifth-most in the NFL. Only the New York Giants (91), Indianapolis Colts (83), New England Patriots (74) and Atlanta Falcons (72) had more.
It marked the third time in four years that the Packers had been at or near the top in Gosselin’s injury rankings. Last year, the Packers lost a league-high 83 games to injury among starters. In 2010, they led the league with 91 starters’ games lost. Asked if he learned anything about injuries and their causes this season, McCarthy’s initial answer was simply, “No.”
“Injuries are a moving target. It’s part of the game,” he then added. “Everything we do from a training standpoint. You look at our facilities, the way our players are cared for, the nutrition, the practice structure now – we’ve made a number of adjustments in favor of helping us be a healthy football team and we didn’t get that done.
“It’s a challenge. It’s a challenge when you can’t get guys to practice. It’s a challenge when you have a young football team and the same guys aren’t playing together each and every week. And it shows up, and it definitely showed up this year.
“So that’s why I go back to, our team, I’m proud of them. We didn’t get the goal now. I’m not sitting here saying I’m happy because I’m here on Wednesday at a press conference. We didn’t hit the target and we’ve got to find a better way to keep guys healthy. We’ll continue to strive to do that.”
McCarthy said he spent Monday and Tuesday doing exit interviews with every player on the roster, including members of the practice squad. On Wednesday, he and his staff were finally going to watch the film of Sunday’s loss. After that, coaches would rank every player on the roster before starting thorough, every-snap evaluations of each player, after which they would be re-ranked in about a month. And in the coming weeks, McCarthy said every coach would be evaluated.
After that, McCarthy will be able to put this year’s disappointment behind him and focus on 2014.
“Clearly [it was] the most challenging season,” McCarthy said. “I look back at my first year, -- the first game, [sitting at] 1-4, there were certain points in that season I felt like I got ran over by a truck. This year, it just seemed like it never stopped.
“It was a great learning experience for me, both from a positive and challenging way. With that, we will take our information. We will do everything that we need to do as push forward to next season.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.