The Green Bay Packers again will have plenty to ponder in the six months between now and the start of training camp.
The abrupt end to another improbable comeback left many in the locker room speechless and stunned after the Arizona Cardinals scored three plays into overtime to hand Green Bay a bitter 26-20 defeat in Saturday's divisional-round playoff game.
Most players either were showering or sitting emotionless at their lockers by the time media were allowed inside the visiting locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium. A few moments earlier, however, the scene was entirely different.
“Guys were upset,” defensive lineman Mike Daniels said. “Guys were upset.”
The playoffs are never easy. Twelve teams enter and only one walks out with the Lombardi Trophy. Each one of the Packers’ last five dismissals from the postseason have been difficult, but the past two losses have been particularly wrenching.
Like Seattle did in last year’s NFC championship game, the Packers nearly pulled off their own incredible comeback in the waning moments Saturday with two plays by No. 5 receiver Jeff Janis, who played extensively after Randall Cobb left with a chest injury and didn’t return.
The probability of Aaron Rodgers connecting with Janis on a 60-yard pass on fourth-and-20 from the Green Bay 4 with 55 seconds remaining was remote enough, considering the second-year receiver had only 95 career receiving yards in 19 regular-season games.
However, the parlay of then reconnecting with Janis on a 41-yard Hail Mary in double coverage to tie the game at 20 seemed nearly impossible. It appeared Green Bay’s luck had shifted after watching a 13-point lead dissolve in the final five minutes against the Seahawks last January.
But the Packers had their hearts ripped out again after Carson Palmer squirmed free of outside linebacker Mike Neal’s grasp. When Julius Peppers left his coverage to pursue Palmer, a Grand Canyon-sized hole opened for Fitzgerald.
Several Packers missed tackles and 75 yards later, Palmer shoveled the ball to Fitzgerald to end the Packers’ season.
“It's just a devastating loss that we lose now in the playoffs when we had several chances to win the game,” said rookie cornerback Damarious Randall, who passed Fitzgerald off on the eventual 75-yard play. “That's just the way the NFL works. They found a way and we didn't.”
Afterward, Packers coach Mike McCarthy called the loss a “microcosm” of their 11-7 campaign — a year that started with Super Bowl-or-bust expectations, turned on its head after the loss of Jordy Nelson and shuffled frequently until an identity was forged in the playoffs.
“We definitely hit a lot of rough patches this year,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “Didn’t do a great job responding sometimes a little bit there during the middle of the season. But overall that made us a pretty strong group. I saw today going out there, making a big play there in the fourth quarter to tie it up. We fought our asses off.”
The question now is where do the Green Bay Packers go from here?
'Clearly it wasn't enough'
The Packers burst out of the starting gate this season, winning their first six games. But even during the 6-0 start, the Packers had a lot of issues on offense this season that McCarthy and his coaching staff will need to examine.
Green Bay's 23rd overall ranking reflects its inconsistency and prolonged struggles that saw a litany of in-season changes by McCarthy, who traditionally is steadfast in his decision-making.
Based on Saturday, it seems like the Packers may have erred in relying on James Jones, Cobb and second-year Davante Adams as their top three receivers this season. Janis wasn’t perfect in his routes against Arizona, but showed blazing speed that forced the Cardinals to stay honest on the back end.
Jones helped bide time without Nelson, but the 31-year-old receiver was neutralized far too often by premier cornerbacks this year. He finished with a career-high 890 receiving yards and 17.8 yards per catch, but was held to one or fewer catches in six of his 18 games.
With Nelson and Ty Montgomery (ankle) returning next year, the Packers will need to determine whether Janis’ emergence and Abbrederis’ steady play means they can bypass taking a receiver high in this year’s NFL draft with their abundance of other needs.
In a way, it was almost fitting the last offensive play the Packers ran this season was the Hail Mary to Janis.
“I love James Jones like a brother. He’s had a great season for us,” Rodgers said. “Jared has dealt with some injuries over the years, and he played excellent. Jeff, very limited opportunities all season and catches his first career touchdown on a scramble play to put us up 13-7, and then the two plays where he just kind of gets behind the guys and goes over to make a play that put us on their side of the field, and then obviously the catch at the end was fantastic.
“So I’m really proud of those guys. Those guys battled.”
Defensively, the Packers came a long way to finish the year sixth in scoring defense. At several turns, the unit was responsible for keeping the Packers in games this season when the offense was sputtering.
It put together a picture perfect first half — holding Arizona to only 75 yards on 25 plays — before the levies started to break in the second half. All five of the Cardinals’ gains of at least 20 yards came after halftime.
“We did a lot of good things, but clearly it wasn't enough,” Daniels said. “We just have to approach this offseason with a purpose.”
And what will that purpose be?
“To get better. Better than what we were this year,” Daniels said.
The hardest part for many players after Saturday's loss was the revelation that it would be the last time playing with several of their teammates.
McCarthy estimates the roster turns over about 20 percent each year under the Packers’ draft-and-develop system. It’s a certainty that not all of the team’s 17 pending free agents will be back next year.
“We know that. That's a part of this business,” Peppers said. “We know this group of guys will never be together again. We build with it. That's the business that we're in.”
The Packers remain in good financial standing. They took care of their biggest potential free agent when they reached a four-year, $41 million extension with Daniels, a tireless workhorse and the face of Green Bay’s interior pass rush for the past three seasons.
With Daniels taken care of, it really comes down to what auxiliary pieces general manager Ted Thompson feels he needs to maintain. The Packers should have anywhere from $25 million to $30 million available this offseason to address the organization's 17 free agents.
Cornerback Casey Hayward, a second-round pick in 2012, could wind up making the most out of the group, though it may not come in Green Bay given the Packers’ depth at the position with Sam Shields, Randall, Quinten Rollins, Micah Hyde and LaDarius Gunter.
Jones, running back James Starks, fullback John Kuhn, kicker Mason Crosby, defensive linemen B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion, and outside linebackers Nick Perry and Mike Neal join Hayward as key rotational players who are all pending unrestricted free agents.
“For as many guys as we got up, I really wish we could have everybody back,” Daniels said. “This group played well together, played hard, fought and just wish we could have everybody back.”
Other free agents include quarterback Scott Tolzien, tight ends Andrew Quarless and Justin Perillo (exclusive rights), offensive linemen Lane Taylor (restricted) and Don Barclay, outside linebacker Andy Mulumba (restricted), safeties Chris Banjo (exclusive rights) and Sean Richardson, though his career is likely over after re-injuring his surgically repaired neck this year.
The Packers will go into this year’s NFL draft with the 27th overall pick in the first round and several needs to address, including tight end, receiver, outside and inside linebacker, and offensive and defensive line. Green Bay hasn’t drafted an offensive skill-position player in the first round since Rodgers in 2005, but may need to consider it.
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