GREEN BAY, Wis. — Based on a record of 8-8-1, this wasn’t a good season by Green Bay Packers standards. Losing at home in the opening round of the playoffs certainly wasn’t a good way to end the season.
However, minutes after walking off Lambeau Field having been defeated by the San Francisco 49ers yet again, coach Mike McCarthy took a quite different tone in his assessment.
"I’m just very proud of this team as far as their ability to continue to overcome adversity," McCarthy said in his post-game press conference. "It hit us at every turn, it hit us again today and these guys just keep fighting and fighting."
He’s not wrong. This was a season in which just about every bad thing that could happen did happen.
Aaron Rodgers, who most acknowledge is the one player that the Packers can never afford to lose, missed seven games with a fractured left collarbone. Not surprisingly, Green Bay won only two of those games in his absence. Top defensive player Clay Matthews missed six games (including Sunday’s loss to the 49ers) with a twice-broken, twice-surgically repaired thumb. More than half of the games that Matthews did play in had him in a cast or a club, which limited his ability to be disruptive.
As if playing without their best player on offense and defense wasn’t enough, the Packers also watched playmaking tight end Jermichael Finley go down to a potentially career-threatening — but at the very least season-ending — injury, missed wide receiver Randall Cobb for 10 games with a fractured tibia, didn’t have left tackle Bryan Bulaga all season and had several other key starters sidelined for multiple games.
That string of bad luck — or poor training, as some believe — forced players like Scott Tolzien, Andy Mulumba, Andrew Quarless, Jarrett Boykin and a host of others into roles that weren’t designed for them to be in.
It was likely with all of that in mind that McCarthy took the perspective that he did.
"I thanked them," McCarthy said of his post-game message to the team. "Proud of them. Unique group to coach. I don’t know if we’ve had a team work as hard. Young, we had some inexperience. Guys had to play probably before they were ready and they stepped in there and they went for it. I thought the veteran leadership was very good this year.
"When I think of this team, I just think of the constant adversity that was thrown in front of them and really appreciate the way they handled it."
That’s a pretty uplifting message for a team that’s now packing its bags for the offseason. But it might perfectly summarize the way this season went for the Packers.
Most of McCarthy’s players didn’t share his positive outlook, though. Even when it was suggested to Rodgers that, all things considered, the season wasn’t too bad, the former Super Bowl champion quarterback wasn’t ready to think along those lines.
"It’s frustrating," Rodgers said. "In the locker room, everybody’s disappointed. Tomorrow is the toughest day of the year because it’s the end and guys go their separate ways. Today’s probably tied for the toughest, as well. It’s the last time this group of guys is going to be together. It’s frustrating. We did some great things this year but we came up a little short."
Rodgers had a much different vision for the conclusion to this season.
"I think a lot of us felt that the way things had gone the last four or five weeks, there was something special about this year and this might be everything aligning right for us to make a run," Rodgers said.
There were tears in the eyes of a few players in the locker room, including the eyes of 337-pound nose tackle — and free-agent to-be — B.J. Raji.
"When you come up short, you feel bad for yourself, for Packer Nation, for your teammates — everybody that’s associated with the Green Bay Packers," Raji said.
Eddie Lacy enjoyed a very good season individually, one that includes him being a second-team All Pro and an alternate for the Pro Bowl, as well as the likely winner of the NFL’s rookie of the year award, but it lacked the team success he was hoping for.
"It’s sad," Lacy said. "Everybody in here is sad. We played our hearts out. We came out to play, but it just didn’t end the way we thought it would."
While the coach and his players had differing ways of viewing the end of their season, it’s the story behind McCarthy’s message that will be the talking point of the offseason. McCarthy’s point that some young Packers players "had to play probably before they were ready" explains why he wasn’t overly critical of the season’s end, but it’s also telling that general manager Ted Thompson may have to take a different approach in the coming months as he builds the 2014 roster.