Four days later and the hangover of the Green Bay Packers’ playoff loss is best summed up with a sound. A gurgling, guttural spewing of air into the void once reserved for anticipation.
The mental image of Colin Kaepernick sprinting untouched around the right end and down the sideline still brings about a pain behind the eyeballs. Recollections of another Michael Crabtree reception or Frank Gore burst up the middle generates that bile taste at the back of your throat. I heard the NFL Network is rebroadcasting the game this Saturday night. I’d rather watch the Kardashians than Kaepernick. Really. God help me.
Now, instead of preparing for an NFC Championship battle with the Atlanta Falcons, the players have gone their separate ways, to rest, recover and get away, coming to grips with the loss in their own way on their own terms. Questions from their de-Kaepitated Super Bowl run remain. Answers are six months away.
It wasn’t just that they lost. It was the way they lost. The win over the Minnesota Vikings was supposed to be a warm-up of sorts for this game. That was the postgame refrain. Gore is a step down from Adrian Peterson, whom the Packers held to a mortal 99 rushing yards. Kaepernick was surely a big step up from Joe Webb, the Vikings’ athletic backup quarterback inhibited only by his innate ability to throw everywhere his receivers were not, including straight up in the air. But there were similarities, right?
And there was a vibe in the locker room after that Vikings win. A look in players’ eyes. A feeling you got that said, “This isn’t done yet.” In hindsight, I might’ve been getting that flu bug going around.
There was reason to think that what worked against the Vikings would work against the 49ers. It would be harder for sure, but the blueprint seemed to be there. Unfortunately, a Sam Shields pick-six on San Francisco’s first drive was the first and last thing to go right for the defense. The “patient, gap discipline, funnel inside, trust your teammate” mantra from last week was either totally forgotten or completely unrecognizable.
Of course that had everything to do with Kaepernick, who exploded onto the scene with a historic day running the ball for a quarterback-record 183 yards and two touchdowns. He was pretty good throwing it, too, tossing it 263 yards with two more scores. Apparently coach Jim Harbaugh made the right call benching veteran Alex Smith. In the end, San Francisco moved on with a 45-31 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers is taking the brunt of the criticism for his unit’s inability to stop the Niners’ young quarterback. When you get steamrolled for 579 yards, that’s bound to happen. But this loss gets stacked on top of abysmal performances in last year’s playoff loss to the Giants and two years prior to the Arizona Cardinals. In those games, Capers’ defense gave up an average of 44 points and 510 yards. So, the fans’ anger is not totally misplaced. There’s also the matter of “holding” Peterson to 409 rushing yards in two games, including 210 in a Week 17 loss that cost Green Bay a first-round bye and a divisional-round home game, likely against the 49ers.
But the fresh cuts from last Saturday were the ones he felt the most.
"I feel awful about the way we played because you want to play your best in that game and we didn't. And I accept responsibility for that,” Capers said. “That's my job to make sure that we play better."
The game was full of “almost” moments. Casey Hayward comes screaming into the backfield on a blitz but fails to get Kaepernick to the ground, with the quarterback pulling down the ball and taking off for a big gain. But if Hayward just comes down the line and pulls up rather than going for the kill shot, there’s a chance Kaepernick hesitates and gets hit by one of Hayward’s teammates. Wouldn’t that have been the type of patient approach that worked a week earlier? Of course that might’ve been assuming a lot on this night.
On Kaepernick’s will-sapping 56-yard touchdown run around the right end, outside linebacker Erik Walden was desperately trying to get to Gore up the middle, even though inside linebacker Brad Jones had that gap covered. Never mind that Gore didn’t have the ball. If either had bitten any harder on the play-fake, their teeth might’ve fallen out. Outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene insinuated Walden wasn't at fault on that play. But if he wasn't supposed to be keeping outside contain, who was?
There was plenty of blame to go around. Tramon Williams had one of his worst performances of the year against receiver Michael Crabtree. Charles Woodson got smoked by Crabtree on a crossing route that ended in six points. Linebacker A.J. Hawk, a frequent target of fan criticism, came up short trying to cover tight end Vernon Davis on a deep route. In Hawk’s defense, it’s a short list of inside linebackers who could’ve made that play and Hawk was a lot closer than you would’ve thought he’d be.
It’s hard to say where the needle lands on game plan vs. execution, but it didn’t appear that adjustments were made as the game went on. Capers insists that was not the case.
"It wasn't like we sat there and just tried to do the same thing," he said.
It just looked like it. And had the same ineffectual result.
Of course, the offense was hardly lighting it up. While 257 yards, two touchdowns and an interception might get it done against one of the have-nots of the NFL, it’s not enough for a playoff game. Fair or not, Aaron Rodgers has set the bar to a point where anything less than spectacular — especially in a big game — feels like it’s not enough. Basically, he’s expected to carry the load and pick up the slack. Whatever that means to the situation they’re in.
Human cannonball DaJuan Harris looked good in spurts, but Green Bay wasn’t going to be able to run the ball consistently on the Niners’ defense — although giving Harris more than two second-half carries might’ve been a nice idea considering the way he blasted into the end zone in the first half.
Any early momentum the offense had seemed to evaporate after Jeremy Ross’ muffed kick return. From there it was an alternating cycle of three-and-outs by Green Bay’s offense and a game of tag with the Packers’ defense and Kaepernick. The only break seemed to be that Coors Light commercial with the guys on the mountain.
Now a long and interesting offseason of change begins.
Despite some desperate fan cries for Capers to be fired, McCarthy has said he’s “confident” his coordinator will be back. While that leaves some wiggle room, it’s unlikely McCarthy lets him go after the defense improved from 31st in yards given up last year to 11th this year. That was accomplished without Clay Matthews and Woodson for big chunks of the season, Desmond Bishop for the entire season and Bishop’s backup, D.J. Smith, for the final 10 games.
The return of Bishop will give Green Bay the fiery, physical presence in the run game it’s sorely lacked. First-round pick Nick Perry will be back to challenge Erik Walden for the outside linebacker spot opposite Matthews. And contributions from rookies like Hayward, Dezman Moses and Jerron McMillian will make for a competitive training camp. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said Hayward, Shields, Williams and Davon House will be in an open competition for the starting jobs. The team will be faced with some tough financial calls regarding Woodson and Hawk, two veteran leaders.
Other familiar faces are sure to move on.
Greg Jennings, the team’s best receiver over the past five years, almost certainly won’t be back. While he came on strong upon his return and showed he still has the skills of a No. 1 receiver, in Green Bay, he’s 1A to Jordy Nelson’s 1B. Throw in James Jones, who led the league in touchdowns, and multi-threat Randall Cobb, and it becomes an easy decision to let some other team break the bank on him.
Sadder is the inevitable departure of all-time receptions leader Donald Driver. If ever there was a fan favorite, it was the “Dancing with the Stars” champion with the mega-watt smile whose best moves came on first downs and touchdowns. His end-of-the-year stats — eight catches for 77 yards and two touchdowns — looked like a typical game during his prime. No. 80 hasn’t said what his plans are, but it’s clear they don’t involve a spot on the Packers’ roster.
With Jennings and Driver on the way out, tight end Jermichael Finley may be staying home. A few months ago, it seemed like a lock that he would be released based on inconsistent production, poor attitude and a looming $7 million payday. But he showed up big down the stretch and impressed the coaches playing through a shoulder injury. Finley finished with 61 grabs for 667 yards and two scores. The receptions and yardage totals were third on the team behind Cobb and Jones.
They also need to decide if they'll bring back running back Cedric Benson, who suffered a foot injury in Indy and was lost for the year. He’s a big, one-cut runner who was fitting in and finding his grove. Signed to a one-year, cap-friendly deal, he could be a nice thunder/lightning combination with Harris. Of course, an improved offensive line may be the biggest key to an improved run game.
Green Bay and Rodgers survived without starting right tackle Bryan Bulaga, but they hardly thrived. Bulaga was one of two first-round offensive linemen on injured reserve. Derek Sherrod was the other. And while he hasn't been on the field enough to know what you have with him, he’ll be thrown into the mix with left tackle Marshall Newhouse and Don Barclay, who took over for Bulaga, with the hopes of the strongest candidate emerging. With the Packers ultraconservative approach to free agency, improvement in all areas will need to come from the current roster, supplemented by April’s draft picks.
This Packers team endured a ridiculous amount of injuries. That part was definitely a lot like 2010. The final outcome wasn't. But there's enough talent in place for another run next year. And enough motivation, you hope, for a different result.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.