GREEN BAY, Wis. — The player the Green Bay Packers may have missed most this season darted in and out of the locker room Monday as his teammates packed up their belongings.
Receiver Jordy Nelson figures to be back in the fall after missing the 2015 season with a right knee injury.
After a 6-0 start, the Packers limped through the final 10 games of the regular season with a 4-6 record. The offense struggled for long stretches, and Green Bay’s four-year reign atop the NFC North was snapped by Minnesota.
Still, by the end of this season, the injury-riddled Packers (11-7) had forged a grind-it-out mentality that relied just as much on defense as on quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ right arm.
"The goal is not always to come out here and score 100 points every game and a million yards," receiver James Jones said Monday. "The only goal is to win the game. And we did that pretty often this year. Came up short."
The 26-20 loss in overtime Saturday night at Arizona in the NFC divisional playoffs left Green Bay stunned after having stormed back with Rodgers’ two long completions to backup Jeff Janis to tie the game at the end of regulation.
Janis finished with seven catches for 145 yards and two scores, including the 41-yard touchdown on a desperation pass from Rodgers. It was remarkable production given Janis had just two receptions in the regular season.
Then the defense gave up two big plays to Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, including the 5-yard touchdown off a shovel pass that gave Arizona the win and ended Green Bay’s season.
Up to that point, coordinator Dom Capers’ defense held the high-scoring Cardinals to 20 points, 10 below their season average. The defense helped keep the Packers in games all season long while the offense searched for consistency.
Tackle B.J. Raji said he thought the team had a "great nucleus in place," which includes an effective line; a young but promising secondary; and Clay Matthews back to lead the linebacker corps.
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"But I think this place always does a great job of bringing in talent, bringing in guys that can play, guys that are smart and tough, and I don’t think that’ll change," Raji said.
Other key takeaways from the 2015 season and things to watch in the offseason for the Packers:
RODGERS’ TARGETS: By the second quarter of the Cardinals game, the Packers were without their top four projected receivers at the start of training camp because of injuries, with Randall Cobb joining the already sidelined Davante Adams, Ty Montgomery and Nelson.
Jones’ veteran presence helped settle the receiving corps after he signed the week of the season opener. But the offense really started having issues after a blowout loss in Denver in Week 8, and defenses started playing more press coverage. Rodgers didn’t play up to his two-time NFL MVP standards, while the running game moved in fits and starts.
Jones signed a one-year deal, so it’s unclear if he will return. Second-year players Jared Abbrederis and Janis had confidence-building outings late in the year.
If Nelson comes back at 100 percent and the raw Janis takes another step forward in his development, the Packers would have two receivers to open up the field. Adams and Montgomery would give Rodgers two more targets when healthy.
An offensive line maligned by injuries showed it could protect Rodgers when intact, allowing just two sacks in two postseason games.
WHERE’S CLAY?: Matthews made his first Pro Bowl playing primarily inside linebacker. He finished with eight sacks, including the postseason. But his strength remains rushing the passer, and how the Packers view Matthews moving forward might affect what moves they make in the offseason.
JUST JULIUS: Julius Peppers’ future might also impact what the Packers do with Matthews. Peppers turned 36 on Monday, though he told reporters after the Arizona game that he wasn’t sure whether he would return for a 15th season. Counting the postseason, Peppers had 11 1/2 sacks.
OUTSIDE LINEBACKER: Peppers had his best season since 2012. He was part of a deep rotation at outside linebacker on a defense that had 43 sacks in the regular season and nine more in postseason play. Impending free agents Nick Perry and Mike Neal each had good postseasons to make effective closing statements.
GOING FREE: Other potential key free agents: cornerback Casey Hayward, running back James Starks, backup quarterback Scott Tolzien, kicker Mason Crosby, and Raji. The respected DT had a bounce-back year and said he would love to remain part of the core, "but it’s a part of the business, and something you have to deal with it. You just have to see how it goes."