San Fran ends Green Bay’s season – again. So where do we go from here? « Ol' Bag of Donuts

San Fran ends Green Bay's season - again. So where do we go from here?

(Before we begin: Apologies for not writing more. Hopefully you’ve been following us on Twitter or listening to our podcasts over at the Packers Talk Radio Network.)

So, here we are – again.

Another season of Green Bay Packers football was brought to a disappointing end at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers, this time a 23-20 wild card round defeat at Lambeau Field. The Packers close the 2013 season with an 8-8-1 record.

Whereas last season’s playoff defeat in San Fran was a story of domination and humiliation, this loss was a tale of what might have been. If one or two plays from a fairly large group of opportunities goes Green Bay’s way, the Packers are gearing up for Carolina next weekend. To whit:

  • James Jones with a pair of big drops that, while they would’ve been tough catches to make, were not uncatchable and are absolutely plays you have to make if you want to pull off an upset.
  • Morgan Burnett being just a split-second away from a pass breakup (or more) on the touchdown pass to Vernon Davis. Story of Burnett’s season, really.
  • Micah Hyde just barely missing an interception early in San Fran’s final drive.

Those are just a few examples. There are more. And then, of course, there are these gems:

  • Essentially punting away the first quarter, offensively.
  • Questionable playcalling/horrendous clock management from Mike McCarthy.
  • Key injuries to Sam Shields/Mike Neal/David Bakhtiari (surprise some Packers got hurt!).
  • San Francisco converting on 6-of-12 third down attempts. In two games with Green Bay this year, the Niners were 15-of-30 on third downs (a cool 50 percent). Throw in last season’s playoff game and that number jumps to 23-of-43 (53.4 percent).

Look at all those bullet points. Look at the story they tell. Yes, they are specific to Sunday, but really they aren’t. Many of these same issues dogged Green Bay throughout the 2013 season. And who you are in the season tends to be who you are come January. Then, when you factor in an opponent that has owned you on a mid-1990s Dallas Cowboys-type level, it’s really not that shocking the Packers came out on the short end. That’s not to say the loss doesn’t hurt, because playoff losses always hurt. Badly. But this team, particularly its severely-depleted defense, fought hard and gave all it had Sunday.

The Packers, however, just didn’t have enough. And that’s the biggest issue facing this team as it heads into the long, cold, seemingly endless offseason: How do the Packers take those final few steps to where they will have enough? Because, let’s be honest – even if Green Bay had won Sunday, this team was living on borrowed time and had little to no chance of reaching New Jersey next month.

The 2013 Packers were good enough to provide us with some all-time classic moments and win a rotten NFC North, sure, and those accomplishments should never be glossed over. But Green Bay is called Titletown, not Reach Round One or Two of the playoffs Town, right?

So where do we go from here?

Well, first comes the staff decisions. Namely, will defensive coordinator Dom Capers return? Capers seems to have the support of McCarthy and his players definitely have his back, at least publicly, both of which bode well for his return.

But the defense, despite an inspired effort Sunday, was just not very good again this season. Some fans may have even worse adjectives for the group’s collective performance. Capers’ gameplans seem far too predictable and far too often he was outcoached. For example, Chip Kelly and Marc Trestman are incredibly bright offensive minds, but there is no excuse for the way those relative newbies outsmarted Capers repeatedly, either. Overall, it just seems like a fresh approach is needed. It’s not all Capers’ fault, to be sure, but you can’t get rid of all the players, so a new coordinator seems necessary. Will McCarthy agree, though?

Then there are the contract decisions. And boy, Ted Thompson has a lot of decisions to make. The following is a list of key players set for unrestricted free agency in March. Get ready, it’s long:

  • Johnny Jolly, Matt Flynn, Evan Dietrich-Smith, Jamari Lattimore, C.J. Wilson, Shields, James Starks, Andrew Quarless, Neal, John Kuhn, James Jones, Jermichael Finley, Ryan Pickett and B.J. Raji. That’s 14 names in all.
  • Note that I’m leaving Marshall Newhouse and M.D. Jennings off this list. Both are free agents, yes, but there is less than zero chance either is back in Green Bay next season. Unless the Packers are interested in causing a fan riot, that is.

The Packers, as of now, are roughly $10 million under the cap. That number will jump significantly once all of these contracts come off the books, but Green Bay obviously won’t be bringing all these players back. Who will come back?

Finley seems like a longshot to be cleared by the conservative medical staff, so his return seems unlikely. Jones and Starks are both valuable, but both could be gone based on the depth at their respective spots. It would be nice to see Neal and Quarless return, as both showed real flashes of promise this season, but you have to wonder if someone won’t overpay for them based on those flashes, too. Raji has reportedly turned down an $8 million per year deal multiple times and based on his showing down the stretch, should not come back. He makes zero plays and doesn’t do enough for anyone else to make plays, either.

The rest of those names, barring a gross overpay from another team, should be back next year. Yes, even Flynn, who hopefully has figured out Green Bay is where he needs to be.

Also consider the players with contracts set to expire after 2014, namely Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Tramon Williams. Nelson ($3.875 mil cap hit next year) and Cobb ($1.021 mil hit) are both due tremendous raises and it’s likely both will get them before next season. Easy decisions, yes, but expensive ones, too.

Williams, with a gaudy cap hit of $9.5 mil for 2014 as of now, is an interesting case. After a terrible first half of the season, Williams came on strong to close the year and will turn just 31 in March. He played well enough down the stretch to keep his job, but not at that cap number. Might the Packers, say, extend his contract a couple years in order to bring that 2014 hit down? Seems like the best idea. He likely won’t take a pay cut and if they cut him, he’d be snapped up quick. He’s not what he was, but he’s still solid enough and solid corners are hard to come by.

There are also, you know, FREE AGENTS FROM OTHER TEAMS that could be signed by the Packers. But this is the part where you all laugh because we know Ted will never do that, even though it wouldn’t kill him to add a couple of cheap veterans for depth. That stuff can help you avoid having to rely on, say, a player like Jennings to get it done at a safety spot because you have nothing else behind him.

Lastly, we come to Ted’s bread-and-butter, the NFL Draft. As of now it’s pretty clear they need to find a safety first and foremost. Will a player like Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix be available when Green Bay picks at 21 in May, though? Even if he’s not, that position needs to be a priority within the first two rounds. Inside linebacker is also a huge need. If you’re going to stick with A.J. Hawk at one ILB spot – and clearly the team is never cutting him so just get used to it – then you need a stud at the other spot and a stud Brad Jones is not. After that, it all depends on who stays and goes in free agency. Right now, though, tight end and defensive line look like they could use some bolstering. Can Ted fill all those needs in one draft?

When you add it all up, you find the Packers at a critical juncture this offseason. Their window is not at all closed, due to the emergence of Eddie Lacy and the fact that Aaron Rodgers will be just 30 at the start of next season. Throw in players like Cobb and Nelson and an offensive line that should only get better and the Packers will score points next season in bunches. And with players like Clay Matthews, Shields, Mike Daniels and a presumably healthy Casey Hayward, the defense isn’t a million miles away (more on all this in the coming days).

But unless the Packers add at least a couple defensive playmakers – and maybe a new defensive shotcaller – and can somehow, someway get the injury pendulum to swing their way for once, it’s hard to see the team getting that much better. And that would put Green Bay right back where it is now.

Good, but not great. And seasons that will continue to end like 2013 did.

-Chris Lempesis

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