GREEN BAY, Wis. - 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.
"I'm not saying more things were designed for me, but obviously [Jarrett] Boykin didn't have many reps in games and Myles [White] was our third receiver for a bit. So the focus kind of came to me," Nelson said. "A lot of it is about the opportunity. The more opportunities you get the more comfortable you'll be in running those routes and how to get open."
Defensive player of the year: Mike Daniels, DT
Remember when Cullen Jenkins was such a good pass-rushing complement to outside linebacker Clay Matthews that defensive coordinator Dom Capers started lining the two up on opposite sides of the formation – even though Jenkins was a down lineman and Matthews a linebacker – so they could play off each other? Perhaps that'll be the approach with Daniels going forward. One of six straight picks used on defensive players in the 2012 NFL Draft, Daniels, a fourth-round pick, was the only one who consistently contributed this season. While Matthews was sidelined by a broken thumb – twice – and fellow 2009 first-round pick B.J. Raji's role diminished, the Packers may have unearthed an actual playmaker who was right under their noses.
"It's football. We've been playing this game our whole lives. It doesn't matter the system, whatever. If you're a good player, you're going to make the plays," Daniels said. "We're good players."
Special teams player of the year: Mason Crosby, K
What an astonishing turnaround story Crosby was. A year after putting his job in serious peril by making only 21 of 33 field-goal attempts, Crosby rose to the training-camp challenge of Giorgio Tavecchio, then answered when the team cut his salary from $2.4 million to $800,00 and dared him to earn it back through incentives. And wouldn't you know, he hit every one – just like he hit almost every kick he attempted. Crosby finished the year having made 33 of 37 kicks for an 89.7 accuracy rate, only 26 points higher than the league-worst 63.6 percent "success" rate he had last year.
"My goal was 90 percent, and I wanted to be there. So in that sense it's almost a positive to me," Crosby said of having something to shoot for next year. "I accomplished a lot of goals and a lot of things I wanted to do. But I want to be over that 90 percent for a season. So that definitely will keep my focus sharp for the offseason and I'll keep working toward that."
Rookie of the year: David Bakhtiari, LT.
Yes, Lacy would seem to be the frontrunner for the NFL offensive rookie of the year award, which will be announced on the eve of Super Bowl XLVIII at the annual NFL Honors event. But he wasn't the only rookie to deliver, and there's an argument to be made that after veteran Bryan Bulaga's season-ending knee injury in training camp, the entire season could have been lost had Bakhtiari, a rookie fourth-round pick from Colorado, hadn't risen to the challenge. While he wasn't perfect, there's no denying he was one of the season's saviors.
"I'm a realist. Things are going to happen. It's how you're able to respond to it," Bakhtiari said. "I'm pretty sure the organization is happy. They haven't said anything to me. And I still have my job, so I guess they trust me a little bit."
QB Aaron Rodgers: Finished the regular season having completed 193 of 290 passes for 2,536 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions (104.9 rating). Turned 30 on Dec. 2, in the middle of his seven-game stint on the sidelines after breaking his collarbone on the opening series of a Nov. 4 loss to Chicago. Fought a losing battle to get back on the field sooner and admitted after the fact that team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie saved him from himself by not clearing him until the Dec. 29 regular-season finale against the Bears. Confessed on his weekly radio show that he'll have to work extra hard this offseason to ward off Father Time, who is starting to creep up on him.
QB Matt Flynn: Signed on Nov. 12 after being cast adrift by Oakland and Buffalo and was a godsend. Came on in relief against Minnesota on Nov. 24 and rallied team from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to earn a 26-26 tie that proved vital. It foreshadowed his Captain Comeback routine, which saw him lead rallies against Atlanta, Dallas and Pittsburgh before rubbing off on Rodgers in the regular-season finale. Completed 102 of 166 passes for 1,146 yards with seven TDs and four INTs (86.1 rating). Had one god-awful game – at Detroit on Thanksgiving – but proved that he can do the job when called upon. Will be unrestricted free agent but is open to returning to be his pal Rodgers' backup.
QB Scott Tolzien: Ex-University of Wisconsin starter who was signed to the practice squad after training camp ended and proved to be a prescient pickup. Showed genuine potential when thrust into action and threw some of the prettiest deep balls you ever did see in a Nov. 17 loss to the New York Giants. Alas, he also turned the ball over too much, something that a player as smart and driven as Tolzien is will grow out of. Finished having completed 55 of 90 passes for 717 yards with one touchdown and five INTs (66.8 rating). Signed through 2014 and definitely worth bringing back and developing.
QB Seneca Wallace: Veteran backup scooped up off the scrap heap on Sept. 2 after Graham Harrell, Vince Young and B.J. Coleman all fell flat as backup options in camp. Played poorly in relief of Rodgers after Rodgers' collarbone injury against the Bears, then completed his first five passes against Philadelphia as the starter the following week before a torn groin muscle sent him to surgery and injured reserve. Classy, wise veteran who would have been helpful to Rodgers if he'd have simply been the old hand who never played. A free agent, he won't be brought back.
RB Eddie Lacy: Fourth running back taken, after Cincinnati's Giovani Bernard, Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell and Denver's Montee Ball. Turned out to be a steal at No. 61, rushing for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns in basically 14 regular-season games because of a concussion on his opening carry vs. Washington on Sept. 15. Takes a licking but keeps on ticking. Dishes out almost as much punishment as he absorbs. If he stays healthy, his future is immensely bright.
RB James Starks: Injury-plagued running back who delivered big-time as a rookie during the 2010 title run had his healthiest, most productive season in a limited role. Ran 89 times for 493 yards and three TDs, averaging a whopping 5.5 yards per carry. Played 239 total snaps but made the most of them. Unrestricted free agent who could be back if market is dry.
RB Johnathan Franklin: Rookie fourth-round pick was unproductive in training camp and preseason, when coaches kept run scheme vanilla to save best stuff for gams that counted. Suffered season-ending neck injury and placed on IR Nov. 27. Shining moment was 103-yard effort at Cincinnati on Sept. 22, but his fourth-quarter fumble was returned for the game-winning touchdown by the Bengals.
RB DuJuan Harris: Came on strong to end 2012 and went into camp as the starting running back according to McCarthy. Knee that troubled him all offseason became an issue again in the Aug. 23 preseason game against Seattle and that was it. Went on IR before the season and underwent patellar tendon surgery. Said this week he expects to be full-go for offseason program. Intriguing player who could be Lacy's complement if healthy.
RB Kahlil Bell: Veteran stopgap signed Dec. 3 after Franklin landed on IR. Did not play a snap from scrimmage on offense but chipped in on special teams. Free agent who's unlikely to be back.
FB John Kuhn: "Great player, great teammate, nobody I trust more on the field than John. He's an exceptional guy." That's what Rodgers said about his friend and personal third-down protector, who's set to be an unrestricted free agent. May have more value to Packers than the other 31 teams, so could be back. Played only 337 snaps on offense but running backs coach Alex Van Pelt called him the best third-down pass-blocking back in the league. Carried 10 times for 38 yards in regular-season play and had two key 1-yard runs in playoff loss: A 1-yard TD and a 1-yard gain on fourth-and-inches. Best play of the year was diving to chip onrushing Julius Peppers in season finale to let Rodgers uncork game-winning TD pass to Cobb.
WR Jordy Nelson: Showed he is indeed an elite-level NFL wide receiver when he was the only legit receiving target when Jones, Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley were sidelined. Played a whopping 1,165 snaps on offense and went hard on every one. Will be unrestricted free agent after 2014 season and has been a total bargain playing for the three-year, $12.6 million extension signed in October 2011. Will make just $2.55 million next season, which is absurd.
WR James Jones: Played final weeks of season with broken ribs, per Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That may explain in part the two drops that he had on tough but catchable balls in the playoff loss to San Francisco. Caught 59 passes for 817 yards, setting a career high for receiving yards. Wasn't the touchdown machine he was the previous year (NFL-high 15) and at age 29, it'll be interesting to see what the free-agent market is for him. Veteran leader who is admired in locker room. Finished year having played 925 snaps, after missing two games with Oct. 13 knee injury. Came back before he should have and toughed it out.
WR Randall Cobb: Was team's leading pass-catcher (29) at time of his injury, a small fracture in his right leg at the top of the tibia, just below the knee. Suffered on low hit by Baltimore safety Matt Elam on Oct. 13, placed on injured reserve two days later with designation to return. Was eligible to come back Dec. 15 at Dallas but was still on sideline for that game and Dec. 22 loss to Pittsburgh. Came back at Chicago in finale and caught only two passes thrown his way, both for TDs. Clearly a player who tilts the field in Packers' direction when healthy. Entering a contract year and is a core player the Packers want long-term but must rebound with healthy year.
WR Jarrett Boykin: A revelation when given the opportunity after injuries to Cobb and Jones. Played only 10 snaps in first four games; finished having played 691 snaps in the next 13. Caught 49 passes for 681 yards and three TDs in regular-season play. Could slide into No. 3 role fairly easily if Jones gets a lucrative offer and departs. Lacks top-end speed but has size, strength and power. Runs good routes and wants to improve. Has almost unhealthy fear of getting cut, which will keep him from complacency.
WR Myles White: Called up from practice squad amid injuries on Oct. 15 and played 125 snaps before knee injury of his own landed him on IR. Caught nine passes for 66 yards in limited action. Should be healthy by the start of the offseason program and bears watching.
WR Chris Harper: Claimed off waivers from San Francisco on Oct. 18, a fourth-round pick by Seattle out of Kansas State in April. Did little to draw attention to himself but only played two offensive snaps. Played some quarterback at Oregon and has good size but does not appear to have long-term future in Green Bay.
WR Sederrick Cunningham: Undrafted free-agent receiver from Furman who broke his wrist in first week of training camp and stayed on IR all year.
WR Kevin Dorsey: Seventh-round pick from Maryland who missed virtually all of the offseason and all of training camp with hamstring and toe injuries. Spent the year on IR.
TE Jermichael Finley: Appeared to finally be "getting it" and maximizing vast potential when career-threatening neck injury struck Oct. 20 against Cleveland. Had caught 25 passes for 300 yards and three TDs at the time of his injury and was a monster after the catch. Bet on himself with two-year, $14 million deal in February 2012 and now will have a hard time hitting big payday, despite only being 26, because of the C3/C4 cervical spine fusion surgery he underwent after sustaining bruised spinal cord. Could return at bargain rate if market is dry and Packers doctors clear him.
TE Andrew Quarless: Took over as starter after Finley's injury and played 752 snaps – to Finley's 259 – and caught 32 passes for 312 yards and two TDs. Also an unrestricted free agent. The real travesty is that he was on the upswing in 2011 when a catastrophic knee injury at New York Giants in December derailed his rise. Missed entire 2012 season and didn't have speed to spare before the injury.
TE Ryan Taylor: Essential special-teams contributor who played only 173 snaps on offense and caught six passes for 30 yards. Dropped would-be touchdown against Detroit on Oct. 6 and then missed two games with a knee injury. With position in flux, could get a chance to create role on offense with strong offseason.
TE Brandon Bostick: Intriguing Finley-esque player who caught seven passes for 120 yards and a touchdown in 144 snaps before season-ending foot surgery. Quick-twitch athlete who is still learning the game at NFL level after coming out of tiny Newberry College. Could have expanded role if Finley departs or isn't cleared to play again.
TE Jake Stoneburner: Practice-squad call-up on Oct. 15 who saw just 10 snaps of offensive action but chipped in on special teams units. Showed promise in preseason as undrafted rookie from Ohio State and should get a chance this offseason to show he belongs.
LT David Bakhtiari: Rookie fourth-round pick stepped into the breach created by Bryan Bulaga's training-camp knee injury and only had two truly bad games, against Cincinnati on Sept. 22 and against Detroit on Thanksgiving. Otherwise, he faced down opponents' top pass-rushers and more than held his own. Charged with a team-high 10 sacks, five quarterback hits and a team-high 28 hurries.
LG Josh Sitton: Veteran had arguably his best season but is merely a Pro Bowl alternate, and not a first alternate at that. Shot his mouth off before Thanksgiving loss to Lions, calling Ndamukong Suh and his cronies "scumbags," but to his credit he owned his remarks. Played a team-high 1,205 snaps on offense and was charged with only one sack and eight hurries by Pro Football Focus.
C Evan Dietrich-Smith: Unrestricted free-agent-to-be who took over for veteran Jeff Saturday with two regular-season games left in the 2012 season and showed he belonged there as he started all 17 games. Missed parts of two games with a knee injury but never missed a start. Charged with five sacks, one quarterback hit and 10 hurries in 1,137 snaps. Played under the one-year, $2.023 million tender last season and should be a priority for the team to re-sign.
RG T.J. Lang: Veteran tough-guy who turned out to be better suited at right guard than on left side, where he'd played most of his career. Showed versatility by filling in for Dietrich-Smith at center when EDS's knee injury knocked him out of two games. Played 1,177 snaps and was charged with three sacks, five quarterback hits and 18 hurries by Pro Football Focus.
RT Don Barclay: Beat out Marshall Newhouse in training camp to keep the job he assumed in 2012 as an undrafted rookie after Bulaga's hip injury that year. Was the only preferred starter on the offensive line to miss a game, missing two with a knee injury. Played 1,043 snaps and was charged with nine sacks, six quarterback hits and 27 hurries in 148 fewer snaps than Bakhtiari. Could be replaced in starting lineup next season
T Bryan Bulaga: For the second straight year, an injury ruined his season. In 2012, it was a Nov. 4 hip injury that ended his campaign after nine games. This year, he didn't even get to the regular season, suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee in the Family Night Scrimmage. Now four months removed from surgery and entering a contract year, the 2010 first-round pick says he's OK with playing right or left tackle after being given the left tackle job during the offseason line shuffle. At this point, he just wants to play again.
T Derek Sherrod: Star-crossed 2011 first-round pick missed all of 2012 while recovering from catastrophic broken leg that ended his rookie season on Dec. 18, 2011. Opened the year on the physically unable to perform list and was finally activated on Nov. 5. Played only six snaps on offense and was charged with one QB hurry by Pro Football Focus. Saw action on the field-goal protection unit as well. Should challenge for a starting job or primary backup slot in 2014.
T Marshall Newhouse: Former starting left tackle was busted down to swing tackle and played only 261 snaps, having been pressed into action by injuries to Barclay and Dietrich-Smith. Charged with three sacks, four hits and 14 hurries by Pro Football Focus. An unrestricted free agent, would probably benefit from a fresh start elsewhere. Has shown he could be competent part-time starter when given time to prepare.
C/G JC Tretter: Rookie fourth-round pick broke his ankle in the first organized team activity practice and opened the season on PUP list. Activated on Dec. 10 but did not see action from scrimmage. Could be the team's center of the future if Dietrich-Smith walks in free agency.
C/G Greg Van Roten: Biggest contribution might have been snapping to Rodgers after Rodgers injured his collarbone Nov. 4 against Chicago and went inside the locker room, hoping to return to action. Van Roten and Rodgers did a few center-quarterback exchanges before it became clear that Rodgers couldn't return to the game. Was placed on season-ending injured reserve with a foot injury Oct. 15. Showed promise as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2012 and will have stiff competition for roster spot next year.
G Lane Taylor: Made roster in camp as undrafted free agent from Oklahoma State and played 14 snaps from scrimmage. Was highly regarded coming out of college and earned a roster spot with solid camp. Should compete for top backup guard job again.
DT Mike Daniels: Did what coaches and scouts hope every player does from his first year to his second year: Improve, dramatically. Finished with 6.5 sacks (and added another in the playoff game) while registering six quarterback hits and 7 hurries. His Pro Football Focus grade (22.4) was by far the highest of any defensive player. Played only 553 snaps but with change afoot on the defensive line, he will emerge as a key cog.
DT Ryan Pickett: Old warhorse played every game for the second straight year and continued to eat up blocks and handle gaps. Had no sacks (five QB hurries) in 546 snaps but his job is to make life easier for the linebackers, and he did that. At 34 and hitting free agency again, he may be approaching the end of the line and could return for reasonable money. Remains one of GM Ted Thompson's few successful forays into unrestricted free agency, having defected from St. Louis Rams in 2006.
DT B.J. Raji: Saw his snap count diminish and his impact continue to be limited. Played 666 snaps and went another full year without a sack. He was credited with three QB hits and 10 hurries by Pro Football Focus. Set to be an unrestricted free agent, his market in March will be fascinating to watch. If he doesn't get any blockbuster offers – particularly to go to a 4-3, where he might feel he can be an impact player – he could return.
DT Johnny Jolly: Compelling story who became a legitimate contributor before injuries derailed his comeback season. Played 294 snaps and was vital to the defense's strong play against the run early in the year. Then, a groin injury followed by a season-ending neck injury at Dallas on Dec. 15 put a stop to his year. Played on a one-year, minimum salary deal and would be worth bringing back if the money is right and the neck injury isn't serious.
DE Datone Jones: Rookie first-round pick had minimal impact after showing All-Oneida moves on the offseason practice field, having come from a nearly identical defensive system at UCLA to what the Packers run. Ended up playing 276 snaps, mostly in sub packages, and had 19 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Will need to be a major contributor in Year 2.
DE Josh Boyd: Rookie fifth-round pick saw his role expand late in the season as he even started taking snaps away from Jones in sub packages. Was inactive for seven of the first nine games but played the rest of the season and finished with six tackles in 117 snaps. Depending on how many linemen don't return, he should have a significant role in 2014.
DE C.J. Wilson: Big-bodied run stuffer who will be a free agent. Carved out a niche before injuries again were a factor. Played 127 snaps and was credited with five hurries. Could be back on a low-money deal but appears to be just a guy at this point.
DE Jerel Worthy: Opened the season on the physically unable to perform list after blowing out his knee in the 2012 regular-season finale and was active for only two regular-season games, plus the playoff loss. Second-round pick played 467 snaps as a rookie in 2012 but only 14 snaps this year. Facing a key offseason after missing last year's rehabbing the knee.
OLB Clay Matthews: After four consecutive Pro Bowl selections, Matthews broke his thumb twice and the Packers felt the agony. Missed four games after breaking it on Oct. 6, and was completely useless in his return on Nov. 10 against Philadelphia while playing with a restrictive club cast protecting it. Shed that cast for a fiberglass cast that gave him use of his fingers, and that's what he had on when he broke his thumb again against Pittsburgh on Dec. 22. Might have been back for an NFC Championship Game berth or Super Bowl. Finished the year playing 571 snaps and registering 7.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and 21 hurries. After $66 million extension in the offseason, you can bet he'll be raring to go in 2014 to prove his worth.
OLB Mike Neal: Conversion from defensive end went better than even outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene, who first came up with the idea, expected. Played 751 snaps, the most of any outside linebacker, and finished with five sacks, four quarterback hits and a team-high 37 hurries. Will be an unrestricted free agent and after staying healthy all year, he could garner interest from teams predicting big things for him. Packers must be careful with the 2010 second-round pick, given his propensity for injury. Couldn't finish playoff loss to 49ers because of a knee injury.
OLB Nick Perry: The 2012 first-round pick's indoctrination to the position continues to be slowed by injuries. After playing only six games as a rookie before season-ending wrist surgery, a foot injury suffered Oct. 13 at Baltimore – on a rare big play, when he forced a fumble just before halftime to set up a key field goal – nagged him the rest of the year. By season's end, undrafted rookie Andy Mulumba was starting ahead of him when Matthews was out. Played 433 snaps and had five sacks (including one against the 49ers) to go along with 23 hurries. Needs to stay healthy for Packers to see what they actually have in him.
OLB Andy Mulumba: Undrafted free agent was green as grass but became the latest undrafted outside ‘backer to make an impression. Played 361 snaps and had one sack and nine hurries. Saw action in 15 games including the playoff game and has valuable experience moving forward as he tries to prove he can pick up the position.
OLB Nate Palmer: Sixth-round pick from Illinois State was kept on the 53-man roster coming out of camp based on potential, not performance. Even with injuries at the position, played only 200 snaps and was inactive for the playoff game, when the Packers could have used him after injuries to Neal and Mulumba forced them to play Datone Jones at linebacker.
ILB A.J., Hawk: Eight-year veteran took a pay cut to stay in Green Bay and delivered his best season. Served as every-down linebacker, even in the dime, after injuries hit and finished with a team-high 153 tackles to go along with five sacks, an interception and one forced fumble in 1,078 snaps. May never live up to 2006 No. 5 overall pick status but was active all season and solid in calling the defense.
ILB Brad Jones: One of the great mysteries of the offseason was the team's decision to pay him a three-year, $11.75 million deal that included a $3 million signing bonus. In 2012, he played 828 snaps and had a plus-7.3 grade from Pro Football Focus. In 2013, he was hampered by a hamstring injury and played 649 snaps and had a minus-6.9 grade. He finished with four sacks (including one in the playoffs) along with three quarterback hits and four hurries.
ILB Jamari Lattimore: Injury fill-in for Jones who at times outplayed the guy he was replacing. Inconsistency, though, was his downfall. Still vital to special teams but played only 272 snaps. Showed a knack for playmaking but must improve on mental side of the game to legitimately challenge for a every-down job.
ILB Robert Francois: Quiet veteran who was vital to special teams ruptured his Achilles' tendon against Detroit on Oct. 6 and underwent season-ending surgery. A tough injury at a tough time, as he'll be a free agent.
ILB Sam Barrington: Rookie seventh-round pick parlayed a solid training camp into a spot on the 53-man roster. Only saw action on one defensive snap but showed toughness on special teams. A hamstring injury ended his season after playing in seven games.
ILB Victor Aiyewa: Practice-squad call-up didn't see action on defense after being promoted to the 53-man roster on Nov. 27. Posted five special teams tackles.
CB Sam Shields: Former college wide receiver continued his metamorphosis and became the team's top cover man. Played 902 snaps and had a team-best four regular-season interceptions. Per Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks had a 72.7 passer rating when throwing at him. Played under the $2.023 million RFA tender and is prepared to cash in on the open market. Could command between $8 million and $9 million a year.
CB Tramon Williams: The secondary's elder statesman, he played 1,124 snaps and appeared to regain his 2010 form to a certain extent by season's end. Opposing QBs completed 53 of 93 passes against him with four touchdowns (78.0 rating) as Williams had four INTs (including one in the playoffs) and six pass breakups. With a $9.5 million cap number for 2014, he may need to restructure his deal.
CB Micah Hyde: Rookie fifth-round pick came into NFL from Iowa acting like a longtime pro. Will be haunted by dropped INT that might have won last Sunday's NFC Wild Card Playoff game but acquitted himself well for most of the season. Played 448 snaps and regained nickel job after temporarily losing it at midseason for mental errors. Some see him as a candidate to move to safety, but that has not yet been discussed by coaches.
CB Davon House: Up-and-down season saw him see extensive action midway through the year when Williams was working in the slot as the nickel, but then was the forgotten man again. Pigeonholed as strictly an outside player, he played 533 snaps and finished with one interception and 13 pass breakups, plus a sack.
CB Casey Hayward: What a disappointing, lost season for a player with such promise. As a rookie second-round pick in 2012, he intercepted a team-high six passes. This year, he was limited to three games and 88 snaps by a hamstring injury that dated back to before training camp opened. He reinjured it on Aug. 23 and again on Nov. 10. His return next season will be welcomed.
CB Jarrett Bush: Veteran special teamer reemerged as a viable sub on defense during the second half of the season, playing 129 snaps as the team's dime back. Had an interception and victory-clinching pass breakup against Atlanta on Dec. 8 but botched his assignment to contain 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick while blitzing from the left tackle side on a third-and-8 play late in last Sunday's loss. Kaepernick scrambled past him for 11 yards and a first down that set up the game-winning field goal.
CB James Nixon: Speedy practice-squad call-up who played only two defensive snaps before suffering a season-ending knee injury.
CB Jumal Rolle: Late-season promotion from practice squad who did not play after being called up to the 53-man roster before the regular-season finale at Chicago.
S Morgan Burnett: Signed a five-year, $24.75 million extension in the offseason. Not the kind of kid who'd get fat, happy and complacent after getting paid, but he certainly didn't play like the difference-maker his paycheck would indicate he'd be. Played 938 snaps after missing the first three games with a hamstring injury and failed to register an interception. Did not force a fumble, either. Did have 107 tackles and three fumble recoveries, including one for a touchdown, but simply was not an impact player. Should have made a play on Kaepernick's touchdown pass to Vernon Davis last Sunday. Charged with four touchdowns given up by Pro Football Focus, which had opposing QBs racking up a 135.8 rating against him.
S M.D. Jennings: Beat out 2012 fourth-round pick Jerron McMillian, who would be released later in the season, in training camp for the starting job alongside Burnett. Basically started all year by default, as McMillian, Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo weren't deemed any better by coaches. Played 855 snaps and allowed 16 completions and five touchdowns on 18 targets, according to Pro Football Focus, for a passer rating of 148.8 by opposing QBs. Had one sack, no interceptions and only two pass breakups.
S Sean Richardson: Overcame career-threatening neck injury that ended his 2012 season to play 174 snaps on defense after being activated from the PUP list. Impressive physical specimen who came back from spinal fusion surgery and could challenge for starting job next season. Team was high on him as an undrafted free agent from Vanderbilt in 2012, when he made the roster coming out of camp.
S Chris Banjo: Signed a week into training camp, proved to be a solid special teams contributor. Played 192 snaps on defense and contributed 15 tackles and one pass breakup.
K Mason Crosby: Much-maligned kicker responded in a big way to a horrendous 2012 season and the training-camp competition that followed. Made a career-best 33 of 37 kicks to earn back all $1.6 million he gave up in salary when he took a pay cut to $800,000 before the season. Seems to be in a great place mentally and will aim for a 90 percent conversion rate next year.
P Tim Masthay: Set the franchise record for net punting yet again with a 39.0-yard net. Landed 22 of his 64 punts inside the 20-yard line and only had five touchbacks, as he's mastered the Aussie-style pooch punt. Weather and an inconsistent coverage unit didn't do him many favors but he's rapidly growing into one of the league's top punters. Started the year kicking off in Crosby's place but eventually ceded that job to Crosby as the weather turned and the team wanted more directional kickoffs.
LS Brett Goode: Well-liked, easy-going long-snapper whose biggest highlight of the season was being featured on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. The consummate pro who shows up for work every day, does his job, doesn't draw attention to himself by his behavior or by on-field mistakes, and is beloved among his teammates, including Rodgers.
Head coach Mike McCarthy: Was unwilling to give a self-evaluation when asked Wednesday about how he'd done this season, saying, "I don't know, that's probably a question for Ted. I'm not really ready to … What did I do? I didn't win the last game, so I didn't do a good enough job." The team's struggles in the immediate aftermath of Rodgers' injury, going 0-4-1 in the five games including the loss to the Bears, made one wonder what role the head coach played in not overcoming the obviously huge loss. Still got a young team missing its star player to the playoffs, which cannot be pooh-poohed. Took exception when a reporter asked in a roundabout way about his first-and-goal call for a handoff to Cobb on what turned out to be the Packers' final possession of the season. Didn't intentionally get Lacy hurt by his decision not to kneel out the final 15 seconds of the first half against Atlanta on Dec. 8 and insisted he did not err in that situation. As the offensive playcaller, those types of second-guesses come with the territory. Called it the most challenging season of his career – more so than his rookie season of 2006 or the 2008 season where his team went 6-10 after the acrimonious departure of Brett Favre – which is really saying something. Now eight years in, only Curly Lambeau coached more regular-season and playoff games in Green Bay than McCarthy. His challenge going forward will be to keep his message fresh and replenish a coaching staff that, after years of continuity, could lose a few key cogs. He has control over staff hires, so those will be on him to fill. Must continue to work on his relationship with Rodgers, who angrily argued with him on the sideline in Cincinnati in September and can be challenging and headstrong.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers: Appears to have survived the angry Packers fans who were calling for his head again this season. Certainly had his ups-and-downs but cannot be held solely responsible for the defense's inconsistencies. Weathered the storm without Matthews, Jolly and Hayward, all of whom were missed. His unit 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). Does what he can with young, inexperienced players in his complex system, but might be better served to dumb down some of its more challenging aspects as simplifying may allow some younger players to play faster and more decisively. Will never have a unit that will be comprised of solely veteran players, not with Thompson as the GM, but getting some impact players would help ease the pain of playing youngsters.
Offensive coordinator Tom Clements: Even without Rodgers for essentially eight games, coordinated an offense that finished No. 3 in yards (400.3 per game), tied for eighth in scoring (26.1 points per game), seventh in rushing (133.5 yards per game, and tied for fourth with 4.7 yards per attempt) and sixth in passing (266.8 yards per game). With a head coach who calls the plays, it's hard to gauge just what Clements' strengths and weaknesses are, but the team's red-zone failings (a 50.8 percent touchdown rate, compared to 68.0 percent a year ago) has to be one of his offseason priorities.
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum: As is always the case, the injury epidemic took its toll on special teams, where 39 different players saw action. Slocum made sure Crosby got his act together after last year's train wreck of a season, watched Masthay evolve into one of the league's better punters and worked diligently on a return game that struggled, especially on kickoffs. He was among those who decided to jettison returner Jeremy Ross, who was made an example of after his muff against Cincinnati in Week 3. Ross went on to be very productive for the Detroit Lions, perhaps simply benefitting from a change of scenery. Goal for next season – aside from better health – has to be to get the return game going, as the Packers were 30th in the 32-team NFL with a 20.3-yard average on kickoff returns. Hyde, who took over for Ross, did have a 93-yard punt return that helped the Packers finish seventh in return average (11.3).
The FRONT OFFICE
General manager Ted Thompson: While the architect of the 2010 Super Bowl XLV title team still remains a top talent evaluator, his recent drafts have had their stinkers. The 2011 draft, at this point, is Cobb and a bunch of players who either haven't been healthy (including the first-round pick, Sherrod) or guys that are no longer on the roster. Thanks in part to untimely injuries, the 2012 draft class, which had six straight defensive players taken to start, did little to contribute this season beyond Daniels. Perry, Worthy, Hayward, McMillian and inside linebacker Terrell Manning, who was cut at the end of training camp, were either inconsistent or injured or both and did little to excite. The team's ability to add quality undrafted free agents is also under a bit of scrutiny, as some wonder if too many overachievers might be a bad idea. Thompson is facing a key offseason with 17 unrestricted free agents and some interesting players to prioritize. It will also be fascinating to see if Thompson, who hasn't added a free agent of significance since 2006, finally makes a move on the market. It will also be a very important draft, as the Packers will pick 21st in the first round, and another year where Thompson doesn't have three trusted advisors and friends – Seattle GM John Schneider, Oakland GM Reggie McKenzie and Kansas City GM John Dorsey – to help him. While the executives who remain are solid football men (college scouting director Brian Gutekunst, pro personnel director Eliot Wolf and senior personnel advisor Alonzo Highsmith), it's difficult to not at least wonder how much Schneider, McKenzie and Dorsey, who are all good enough to now be running their own personnel departments, are missed.
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.