GREEN BAY – After four playoff losses in the last five years, John Kuhn knows how to handle the day after:
Just get through it.
And so, that’s exactly what the Green Bay Packers veteran fullback did last week in the wake of the team’s season-ending loss to the San Francisco 49ers
“You just try and do what’s on your sheet right here,” Kuhn said, pointing to the individualized to-do list left in his locker as he packed up his belongings the morning after the team’s NFC Wild Card loss to the 49ers. “I’ve got a 9:40 exit interview with Coach Mike (McCarthy), so I’m going to do that. And then I’ve got an exit interview with my position coach (running backs coach Alex Van Pelt). So I’m just going to go down my checklist and check them off.
“Reality probably won’t set in until tomorrow or the next day.”
For Kuhn, that reality wasn’t just another playoff loss. It was the distinct possibility that he’d played his final down for the Packers. Set to become an unrestricted free agent after seven seasons in Green Bay, Kuhn doesn’t know what the future holds.
“I don’t know. I hope so,” Kuhn replied when asked if he thought he would be back in the locker room next season. “I love it in Green Bay, and I love playing for the Packers.”
He’s not the only person who wants him back. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN, 100.5 FM ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com he would be disappointed if Kuhn isn’t a Packer next season.
“(Kuhn is a) great player, great teammate,” Rodgers said. "(There’s) nobody I trust more on the field than John. He’s an exceptional guy, I love playing with him, and I’d be really sad if we weren’t able to walk out of that tunnel together as we do [when we] come out of the locker room for pregame warmups. John and I have walked together for the last six, seven years, and he’s always been somebody I could really count on the field and just a great football player.”
This marks the second time Kuhn has headed to the open market. After the Packers won the Super Bowl XLV title in 2010, Kuhn was among the free agents who were impacted by the offseason lockout that followed. When an agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association was finally reached and free agency finally began a few days before training camps were set to open, Kuhn was only on the market briefly before signing a three-year, $7.5 million deal to return to Green Bay.
Statistically, Kuhn wouldn’t seem that difficult to replace. In 2013, he carried just 10 times for 38 yards (with one touchdown) and caught only 13 passes for 81 yards in regular-season play. For his eight-year NFL career – Kuhn carried twice for 18 yards in nine games in 2006 for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who then waived him – Kuhn has only 165 carries for 506 yards and 12 TDs, an average of roughly 20 carries per season.
The anomaly was 2010, when he carried 84 times for 281 yards and four TDs after starting halfback Ryan Grant suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the opener and the Packers were scrambling to conjure up a running game.
“Every time you get a chance to go out on the field, you try and reiterate why you’re valuable,” Kuhn said of his limited role. “And whether that’s playing fullback, halfback, shoot, any position on the offense, you want to do the best you can and show people all around the league that you are a valuable player. I think I did that pretty good this year.”
He did, because when Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone midway through the season, the Packers relied heavily on Kuhn to serve as the third-down back because of his extensive knowledge of the offense. That helped alleviate some of the pressure on fill-in quarterbacks Seneca Wallace, Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn, as did Kuhn’s pure pass-blocking ability.
“John is so good at what he does,” Van Pelt said. “I have to say he’s probably the best pass protector, third-down back in the league as far as protection. I don’t know if there’s anybody that’s more sound and doesn’t lose blocks. He wasn’t credited for one sack this season. When he was in there in protection, he was outstanding. Not only in the fact he was on the right guy, but he’d often make adjustments to the offensive line when Aaron was out and quarterbacks may not have been as comfortable making a certain adjustment. John would see it and go ahead and relay it to the line and get it communicated.”
Then, when Rodgers returned, Kuhn had his biggest play of the season, diving to knock Chicago’s Julius Peppers off course so Rodgers could buy enough time to throw his game-winning, playoff berth-clinching touchdown pass to Randall Cobb in the final minute of the fourth quarter.
“The value right there of protecting on third downs is huge,” Van Pelt said. “[If Kuhn left], that would have to fall on the guys. We probably wouldn’t have a true third-down back. It would be more. ‘You stay in, you’re an every down back which we started,’ which we started off early in the season with. At certain points, you have a comfort level with John that’s huge. That would be a hole we’d have to fill.”
Though Kuhn said he wants to stay in Green Bay, he also said would test the free agent market to see if there is another team that would be a better 'fit.'
“There’s a lot of things that you look into in free agency,” Kuhn said. “Obviously contractual – the money thing – but then you’ve also got to also have a good fit. You’ve got to like where you’re living, you’ve got to like the offense. You want to win a Super Bowl, especially later in your career. It’s something that you don’t get a lot of opportunities at, so you want to play for a good team. There’s many things that we will go over and look at. In the long run, we'll try and make the choice that’s best for me.”
With the addition of rookie Eddie Lacy, and a healthy James Starks, the Packers’ run game was much improved in 2013. Next season, the Packers will get DuJuan Harris and Johnathan Franklin – both of whom ended the season on injured reserve – back. If Kuhn returns to Green Bay, the running game that finished seventh in the league may be even better.
“It was a tremendous season,” Kuhn said of the improvement in the running game. “To see the way that we grew throughout the season, the way we constantly were on the rise, getting better each and every week. Eddie, James, Johnathan Franklin when he was healthy, and to take that and to really improve throughout the course of the season, knowing that they’re only going to get better, these young guys, it’s really an exciting time around here.”
Sarah Barshop covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.