While Mike McCarthy was right when he said that there was much to be learned from the 2013 season, there is one stark lesson that stands above all others:
The Green Bay Packers just aren’t very good without Aaron Rodgers at quarterback.
In a quarterback-driven league, that’s not an indictment, it’s simply the truth. McCarthy’s offense is – by the coach’s own admission – built around the quarterback, and while the emergence of rookie running back Eddie Lacy certainly enhances McCarthy’s scheme, Rodgers still is the one who makes it go.
That’s precisely why the Packers head coach thought the 2013 offense was going to be the most productive in Packers history. Then Rodgers broke his left collarbone on Nov. 4, and it all went to hell in the donut hole of a CT scan machine.
To be sure, prodigal backup quarterback Matt Flynn’s return saved the season, as he engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks that resulted in a tie with Minnesota and one-point victories over Atlanta and Dallas (he also had a fourth-quarter comeback against Pittsburgh, but the Packers ended up losing that game) after veteran Seneca Wallace and ex-practice squad third-stringer Scott Tolzien initially started in Rodgers’ stead.
To their credit, the Packers managed to still win the NFC North at 8-7-1 – despite going 0-for-November (0-4-1) and 2-5-1 without Rodgers – but even their biggest boosters must admit that it was largely because the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears choked away their respective seasons.
While Rodgers’ return against the Bears on Dec. 29 – and his game-winning, fourth-quarter, last-minute, fourth-down touchdown pass to Randall Cobb sent the Packers into the playoffs, perhaps it also delivered one final, valuable lesson in appreciation for the Packers as an organization and for their passionate fans: That a two-decade run of uninterrupted elite quarterback play – with Brett Favre from 1992 through 2007 and with Rodgers from 2008 through 2013 – is not a birthright and not something to be taken for granted.
That could be why, when someone asked McCarthy during his season wrap-up press conference Wednesday whether his team was too reliant on Rodgers, the coach didn’t really know what to say.
While he wanted to answer the question honestly, doing so meant tacitly admitting that the Packers not only weren’t good enough to rise above such a devastating loss, they couldn’t even tread water without him.
“Well, I mean, Aaron Rodgers is the best player in the National Football League. So to say you’re too reliant on him, it depends on what side of the fence you want to look at,” McCarthy replied. “Does he make a difference on a football team? Absolutely. I think that’s stating the obvious. He makes a difference, not only when we walks on the field on Sunday, but when he’s involved in the meetings as a starting quarterback, when he’s practicing, the energy, the ability, the experience, the attitude that he brings to practice field. Clearly he makes a difference when he plays.
“How many teams play with four quarterbacks in a season and win a division championship? So, yeah, it was definitely a challenge. Was our confidence challenged? Absolutely it was challenged. But that’s part of the evaluation. You have to go back and look at, ‘Who stepped up during those times? Who stepped up when Seneca was in there? Who stepped up when Scott played and Matt? Those are the things you have to make sure you go back and look at and make sure that’s part of your evaluation.”
Whether McCarthy’s evaluation will lead to a different ending to the 2014 season than the Packers experienced in 2013 remains to be seen.
In the meantime, here's a look back on the year that was:
Most valuable player: Aaron Rodgers, QB
Never has a player’s absence been more profoundly felt in Green Bay, at least not since the franchise’s renaissance began with GM Ron Wolf’s hiring in late 1991. The Packers were lucky that they never truly found out what life would have been like without Brett Favre. But you can bet your bottom dollar that the ultimate NFL ironman would have missed some time in today’s safety-conscious (in a CYA kind of way) NFL with some of his injuries, and that wouldn’t have been any more an indictment of his legendary toughness than it should be of Rodgers after he missed essentially eight games. While Rodgers would not explicitly say that he played before his collarbone was 100 percent healed, he returned in the nick of time to extend the Packers’ run of division titles to three and their streak of playoff berths to five. But Rodgers unRodgerslike performance in the team’s 23-20 NFC Wild Card Playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers only underscored the point: They need Rodgers on top of his game in order to win anything of significance.
“The performance I had wasn’t good enough to win,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN, 100.5 FM ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com at midweek. “I put a lot on my shoulders. The team expects greatness out of me every week. They didn’t get it on Sunday. So I’m disappointed about that.”
Most valuable player not named Aaron Rodgers: Eddie Lacy, RB
What an incredible breath of fresh air Lacy was. Quiet, humble and easy to like, Lacy not only transforms into a violent, tackle-busting runner with the ball in his hands, he transformed the offense, too. If only Rodgers had been able to join in him the backfield for all 16 games. Even when Ryan Grant was running for 1,200-plus yards during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the Packers didn’t have a running back who commanded such respect from a defense. Lacy will do for Rodgers what franchise all-time leading rusher Ahman Green did for Favre in the mid-2000s.
“It’ll be great to have Aaron and Eddie back and ready to go next year,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “It just makes it so the defense has to defend against everything – the run, the pass, all types of passes, the various runs. It makes, as long as you can execute, it makes playing offense fun. So we’re looking forward to it.”
Comeback player of the year: Johnny Jolly, DT
While there were other candidates, it’s hard to top the incredible story that Jolly was. After three years away from the game while serving an NFL suspension for substance abuse – not to mention six months of a six-year prison sentence in his native Houston – Jolly went from being an addict who was high while watching the team win Super Bowl XLV without him three years earlier to a key contributor on the defensive line. Slowed by a groin injury at midseason and felled by a neck injury that landed him on injured reserve, Jolly didn’t get to write a storybook ending to his 2013 season, but he did prove to be much more than a feel-good story by playing well and giving the locker room a much-needed energy boost. An unrestricted free agent, if his neck is OK he’s worth bringing back, even at age 30.
Offensive player of the year: Jordy Nelson, WR
Nelson did everything he could to explain away his career highs in receptions (85) and receiving yards (1,314) as merely functions of him being healthy for 16 games, and while his position has some merit after he missed four games and parts of two others with a hamstring injury in 2012, it does a disservice to just how good Nelson was this season. Despite playing with Rodgers, Wallace, Tolzien and Flynn, his production remained consistent – despite fellow receivers Randall Cobb and James Jones being sidelined or slowed by injury.