The season in microcosm.
Nothing better encapsulated the Green Bay Packers 2013 campaign then their 23-20 last second NFC Wild Card loss to the San Francisco 49ers. Though agonizing, perhaps it is fitting that the green and gold both started and finished their season by suffering defeat at the hands of the same team. The Packers were down (0-2) then up (5-2), then broken (No. 12’s collarbone), then up again (4th and 8—the new 4th and 28), and, devastatingly, down. This time for good.
Finally the injuries that ravaged the Packers to an unprecedented degree this season were too much to overcome. Big-game player Sam Shields injured on the second play from scrimmage never to return. Ditto for starting outside linebacker Mike Neal shortly thereafter. And the loss of rookie left tackle David Bakhtiari could very well have been the difference between the Packers scoring a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter instead of settling for a tying field goal.
But such is life in the NFL. Especially of late for Green Bay.
To my mind, though, this offseason will be much less painful than last. The 2013 Green Bay Packers had one indefinable quality the 2012 squad sorely lacked: toughness. It was exhibited in their miraculous come-from-behind win in Dallas. It was never clearer then when they converted three consecutive fourth downs to wrest the NFC North crown away from the Bears at Soldier Field. And it was on full display today in their wild card loss. The offensive line is nastier. Eddie Lacy is a beast. And James Starks has found his ideal slot as the change-of-pace tailback. Add in John Kuhn’s inimitable football IQ and Green Bay has shown they can run the ball successfully against even the staunchest front sevens.
This, of course, is music to Aaron Rodgers’ ears. Combine that running game—and the sacred play action passes that it affords—with the dynamic playmakers (add Jarrett Boykin to the list of scary wideouts that include Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, and James Jones) and the Packers should average at least 31 points per game next season. Add in a big, athletic tight end (my money is on Jermichael Finley returning to the fold) and this offense will be the best it has ever been.
The old adage that defense wins championships is more often than not the truth. If defense coordinator Don Capers returns next season he needs to be more aggressive with his play calling. (The only blitz I remember being called all season resulted in a big sack today.) Perhaps he was more cautious because Clay Matthews didn’t play and the injuries to Shields and Neal curtailed his flexibility. Regardless: More pressure needs to be put on the opposing quarterback so the other team has to make decisions faster. That’s how turnovers happen. And though better in the second half of the season, Green Bay needs to double their output next season.
If the Packers can again load up on defensive players in the draft—other items on the wish list include an offensive lineman, pass-catching tight end, and backup quarterback—I think they will have little trouble winning the NFC North and securing a first round bye. But the D is the key. Force more fumbles and three and outs. That will help them play with a lead (how many times did they do that this season?) and allow them to be more aggressive with their linebackers and exotic blitzes from the secondary. The special teams don’t exactly standout, but minimal improvements in both return yardage and kickoff coverage are easily attainable. Both Mason Crosby and Tim Masthay are rock solid.
Today is a tough day in Wisconsin and for Green Bay fans the world over. But this season was undoubtedly a success. And I am already looking forward to what should be a stellar 2014 campaign, one that hopefully ends with a win in Arizona.