As Mike McCarthy set about the lengthy, unpleasant process last week of assessing what went wrong – and, to be fair, the many things that went right, too – during a 2012 season that ultimately ended in disappointment, the Green Bay Packers head coach did so firmly believing that his team wasn’t that far removed from another NFL championship, like the one his team won just two years ago in Super Bowl XLV.
“I don’t think you just take one segment of one game and determine how close you are to the championship,” McCarthy said, referring to the epic defensive failure in the team’s season-ending 45-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. “Our goal going into the season – looking back on it, part of the conversations I had with the coaching staff and then later with the personnel department – (was) to get this team to improve during the course of the year. I feel like we did that in some aspects, because you want to play your best football at the end of the year.
“San Francisco was the better team Saturday night. We did not play our best football in that game, and that’s something I obviously as the head coach have to take a very, very close look at, because I thought we were ready mentally. There’s definitely some things we did not handle schematically, and no one will be tougher on that than ourselves.”
The process began with his players’ exit interviews, then continued with extensive one-on-one meetings with his three coordinators – defensive coordinator Dom Capers, offensive coordinator Tom Clements and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum.
“Everybody has an opinion,” McCarthy said. “I’ve done this long enough now that I feel I have a pretty good filter to sort out what’s real and what’s emotion. That’s really what this process is about.
“I have a lot of confidence in the way we go about our business. We will improve.”
While it would seem to be an unquantifiable – and, perhaps, nebulous – concept, both McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers suggested that this year’s team, after a Super Bowl-winning 2010 and a franchise-best regular-season record of 15-1 in 2011, lacked the requisite hunger to chase another title. Perhaps the disappointment of back-to-back unseemly playoff exits will change that.
“I think it’s harder because I think once you get there, you understand how hard it is to win one. I think anytime you climb the mountain for the first time, just the excitement, the youthfulness, the new experience part of it, that type of energy is something you can tap into,” McCarthy explained. “Then you look back on it, then you see everything that was involved with it, and now you understand how tough it really is, the responsibility of being a past champion.
“I think the biggest challenge in this business is handling success. Are the individuals on your football team, have they handled the success of winning a Super Bowl and a 15-1 season? And now this year, is that factored into how your locker room operates? Does it factor into how your coaching staff operates? Does it factor into how your personnel department operates?
“Success changes people, and you always want to make sure that it’s for the best. and that’s sometimes not always the truth.”
When asked what set 2010 apart from the past two seasons, Rodgers said two differences struck him.
"I think there was (were) two things in particular that most people would agree with: One, there was a very strong appreciation (in 2010) for the opportunity, and for whatever reason the appreciation wasn’t the same this year. The guys just really were thankful to have a job in some cases, some of the guys we brought in, but also thankful to be able to get into the playoffs and to be somewhere where they felt special and felt important and that it was a very united group, more than we’ve had in any of the eight years I’ve been a part of. And the second was, we were hungry. We hadn’t done it before, there were a lot of doubters out there and we just, you know it’s hard I think when you have success to be able to have the same amount of hunger that you had when you haven’t had that success before, so we need to be able to figure out how to get back to that place."
The one area where the Packers likely did not get a fair shake in the court of public opinion was in how they dealt with injuries. McCarthy’s next-man-up mantra, while certainly necessary to prevent woe-is-me self-pity in the locker room, seemed to extend to the expectations of the team’s passionate fan base. Based on a review of all 32 NFL teams’ injury situations by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, no club was more decimated by injuries than the Packers, whose starters lost 83 games to injury. Only eight players managed to start all 16 games, and four starters landed on season-ending injured reserve.
In his post-season press conference, McCarthy disputed the notion that there might be a flaw in the team’s strength and conditioning program.
“I don’t know how we can say if what we’re doing in the offseason is a factor,” McCarthy said before citing the new CBA-mandated 13-week offseason program and in-season practice rules as a possible factor. “
“With the new CBA, it’s really to me the stress points on the athletes is what are they doing before they get here and how they’re doing it before they get here, and once they leave. I think that’s what you have to take a closer look at. You have to look at the training camp – training camp is evaluated as we go through it. It’s a lot of notes on the way we do training camp last year and a number of things will probably be adjusted. I did not like our team, where it was at, coming out of the new offseason format.
“All those things are a part of the evaluation process and you have to take a close look at as you take this next step. Coming off this new offseason program into training camp, it’s obviously different.”
Whether there will be a different feeling by the end of the 2013 season remains to be seen. Until then, here’s a look back on the 2012 season:
Most valuable player: Aaron Rodgers, QB
While his numbers were down from last year’s NFL MVP season, Rodgers remained the straw that stirred the Packers’ drink, and not just because McCarthy’s offense is quarterback-centric. Ben McAdoo, who became Rodgers’ quarterbacks coach following the departure of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin and promotion of Tom Clements, argued that Rodgers was even more valuable this season, and he might be right. Defenses geared to prevent the big play used Cover-2 schemes against the Packers almost constantly, and Rodgers’ numbers reflected it. While his quarterback rating was still the NFL’s best (108.0), his touchdown passes dropped by six in one more regular-season start (39, down from 45) and his interception total went up (eight, from six). He still finished with more than 4,000 yards passing (4,295, eighth in the NFL), but the most telling statistic was his yards per attempt, which plummeted from an NFL-high 9.25 yards last season to only 7.78 this year. He also took a league-high 51 sacks, some of which were his fault.
Most valuable player not named Aaron Rodgers: Randall Cobb, WR
Cobb was the one offensive player the Packers could count on, as Greg Jennings (eight games) and Jordy Nelson (four games) missed time with injuries and the role of lead running back was played by no fewer than five actors. Cobb did miss the regular-season finale at Minnesota, but he still led the team in receptions (80) and receiving yards (954) while finishing second in touchdown receptions (eight). Whether he was lined up in the slot or out wide or in the backfield (10 carries for 132 yards), Cobb was the go-to guy in the offense, just as McCarthy apparently had envisioned before the season, as he tried to curtail in training camp reporters’ mentions of how Cobb was being used in practice. Cobb also was the primary returner on both punts and kickoffs – he finished with a franchise-record 2,342 regular-season all-purpose yards – although he may not continue in that role next season if Jennings departs as expected and he becomes even more vital to the offense.
Most improved player: Sam Shields, CB
After bursting on the scene in 2010 by playing very well as the third cornerback in the nickel as an undrafted rookie free agent who was three years removed from playing wide receiver at the University of Miami (Fla.), Shields returned to form and now looks like he could challenge Tramon Williams for the team’s No. 1 cornerback gig. Although he missed six games with an ankle injury suffered Oct. 14 at Houston – a game in which he had one of his five interceptions (two in the playoffs) – he returned and won back his starting job. It was quite the journey for Shields, who found himself tumbling down the depth chart in training camp, at one point finding himself behind Williams, Jarrett Bush, Davon House and rookie Casey Hayward in the cornerback pecking order. His greatest improvement was in tackling, as he missed 10 tackles last season according to ProFootballFocus.com but just four in 2012, leading cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt to call him the team’s best-tackling cornerback.