B.J. Raji called it the elephant inside the Green Bay Packers’ locker room. When players gathered for the start of their offseason program in April, the collapse weighed heavily on them. Nobody wanted to talk about Seattle, Raji said, but nobody could forget it.
Some losses punch a little harder and sting longer. What happened in the final minutes of the NFC championship game was one of those. Raji missed last season with a torn biceps, but even he was affected.
Raji still recalls the helpless feeling as he stood on the sideline at CenturyLink Field, watching his team implode in front of him, unable to do a thing about it.
“I just remember for three and a half quarters, I was like, ‘Man, we’re really going back to the Super Bowl because we’re playing out of our minds right now,’” Raji said. “The last quarter, it was almost like a nightmare from my perspective, just not playing. It was very difficult. You get a hopeless feeling. I’m sure the coaches felt it. Any guy that didn’t play that game, you get that hopeless feeling.”
From the postgame locker room, to the plane ride home, to the first few weeks of the offseason, nobody forgot the gory details. The offseason started, but it was difficult to think about the future.
Until, Raji said, coach Mike McCarthy called players into a meeting. He addressed the loss to the Seahawks directly. His message, Raji believes, helped get the Packers move on with 2015.
“If you can take the emotion out of it,” Raji said, “then you can maybe learn a lesson that you were supposed to learn. Because when you get emotions tied into it, it’s very difficult to let things go. But now, you take a more analytical approach, and less emotional.
“I think coach did a good job in the offseason. We addressed it. We talked about it, and kind of let the emotion out. Everywhere we went, people were talking about that game. So there was no need to ignore that topic. Now, it’s just more analyzing what we could’ve done better.”
There’s a consensus around the Packers’ locker room about what Sunday should be about, and what it shouldn’t.
Players describe their rematch against the Seahawks as just another game. Take the emotion out of it, Raji said. It’s Week 2 of the season. An important game to win, but only for the chance of starting 2-0.
“We've heard talk of it being a revenge game,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “… It's not as if we win this game, all is forgotten.”
No, a win Sunday won’t erase last year’s debacle. Nor would a win in the NFC title game this season. There was a rare opportunity lost on that field in Seattle last January, one the Packers will never get back.
The permanence, more than anything, is what makes moving on from a once-in-a-lifetime loss difficult. The Seahawks know as well as anyone. Two weeks after their miraculous comeback, Seattle was 1 yard from a Super Bowl title.
Quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pass, New England Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted it at the goal line, and the Seahawks felt the same type of misery the Packers experienced in Seattle.
So it’s fitting the Seahawks and Packers sound similar when they discuss what it took to digest their crushing losses. Matthews used the word grief. So did Seahawks coach Pete Carroll.
“There really is a grieving process that everybody has to undertake,” Carroll said, “and individuals take it differently. So we’ve felt like you have to leave room and respect the differences in the people who handle it, and give them time and be there for them and support them and all that.
“I don’t know how Mike’s done it, and what they think there. Maybe theirs is similar.”
Each player inside the Packers’ locker room handled their devastation personally. Pick a locker, and there’s a different story.
Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix didn’t hesitate to pour over the game film. He watched every snap the next day, grading himself. He didn’t skip the Seahawks’ two-point conversion, when the rookie safety misplayed Wilson’s cross-field pass, ensuring there would be an overtime the Packers eventually lost.
Every evaluation mattered, good and bad. Accept it and move on, Clinton-Dix said.
Defensive back Micah Hyde said he never watched the film during the offseason. He got away from football, focused on other things. It wasn’t until he returned to Green Bay for the start of OTAs when he saw the first replays briefly during a team meeting.
“I know what happened,” Hyde said. “I know the final outcome, and just the bitter feeling that I had throughout the offseason. I didn’t want to reminisce on that.”
Even after moving past the emotion of the game, there are reminders.
Hyde is the Packers’ deep man on onside kick recoveries, just like last year. From the same spot, he watched the Chicago Bears’ last-ditch effort Sunday. It was the same play the Packers botched in the defining moment of their collapse to the Seahawks.
It wasn’t until Hyde settled into his seat on the Packers’ bus outside Soldier Field’s visiting locker room when the magnitude of the Bears’ onside kick hit him.
“I was just thinking to myself, ‘What if that would’ve went wrong?’” Hyde said. “In the media, the whole thing would have blown up again. ‘Oh, they didn’t work on it at all, all offseason.’ Which we have. We spent tons of time. We worked on it a lot, and it felt pretty good getting that.”
Later Sunday night, right guard T.J. Lang sat in front of his television. The Packers had returned from Chicago. Lang wanted to watch some football before bed.
He couldn’t get through the Sunday night football telecast without hearing announcers talk about this week. The rematch, it’s been dubbed. After three straight miserable losses – the Fail Mary in 2012, 20-point blowout in last season’s opener, and NFC title game – the Packers finally get the Seahawks inside Lambeau Field.
“We realize we really haven’t played well against them the past couple years,” Lang said, “but it’s a new year. We’ve got them at home now, and we have to take advantage of playing in front of our crowd and playing on our grass.”
Lang said it was difficult for him to move past the NFC title game this offseason. The grieving process took a while. Once OTAs started, and McCarthy began speaking about new goals for 2015, he finally moved on.
Naturally, beating the Seahawks is high on everyone’s list. Maybe revenge won’t be sweet, but it beats the alternative.
“It’s in the back of your mind,” receiver Davante Adams said. “Definitely you want to beat them, because they took something from us that we had our minds set on. It’s definitely going to be in the back of our minds, but you’ve got to have a short memory in this game and just push past it and come out victorious.”