GREEN BAY – As Mike McCarthy set about the lengthy, unpleasant process last week of assessing what went wrong – and, to be fair, the many things that went right, too – during a 2012 season that ultimately ended in disappointment, the Green Bay Packers head coach did so firmly believing that his guys weren't that far removed from another NFL championship, like the one they won just two years ago in Super Bowl XLV.
“I don’t think you just take one segment of one game and determine how close you are to the championship,” McCarthy said, referring to the epic defensive failure in the team’s season-ending 45-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. “Our goal going into the season – looking back on it, part of the conversations I had with the coaching staff and then later with the personnel department – (was) to get this team to improve during the course of the year. I feel like we did that in some aspects, because you want to play your best football at the end of the year.
“San Francisco was the better team (that) night. We did not play our best football in that game, and that’s something I obviously as the head coach have to take a very, very close look at, because I thought we were ready mentally. There’s definitely some things we did not handle schematically, and no one will be tougher on that than ourselves.”
The process began with his players’ exit interviews, then continued with extensive one-on-one meetings with his three coordinators – defensive coordinator Dom Capers, offensive coordinator Tom Clements and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum.
“Everybody has an opinion,” McCarthy said. “I’ve done this long enough now that I feel I have a pretty good filter to sort out what’s real and what’s emotion. That’s really what this process is about.
“I have a lot of confidence in the way we go about our business. We will improve.”
While it would seem to be an unquantifiable – and, perhaps, nebulous – concept, both McCarthy and quarterback Aaron Rodgers suggested that this year’s team, after a Super Bowl-winning 2010 and a franchise-best regular-season record of 15-1 in 2011, lacked the requisite hunger to chase another title. Perhaps the disappointment of back-to-back unseemly playoff exits will change that.
“I think it’s harder because I think once you get there, you understand how hard it is to win one. I think anytime you climb the mountain for the first time, just the excitement, the youthfulness, the new experience part of it, that type of energy is something you can tap into,” McCarthy explained. “Then you look back on it, then you see everything that was involved with it, and now you understand how tough it really is, the responsibility of being a past champion.
“I think the biggest challenge in this business is handling success. Are the individuals on your football team, have they handled the success of winning a Super Bowl and a 15-1 season? And now this year, is that factored into how your locker room operates? Does it factor into how your coaching staff operates? Does it factor into how your personnel department operates?
“Success changes people, and you always want to make sure that it’s for the best. And that’s sometimes not always the truth.”
When asked what set 2010 apart from the past two seasons, Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com last Tuesday that two differences struck him.
"I think there was (were) two things in particular that most people would agree with: One, there was a very strong appreciation (in 2010) for the opportunity, and for whatever reason the appreciation wasn’t the same this year," Rodgers said. "The guys just really were thankful to have a job in some cases, some of the guys we brought in, but also thankful to be able to get into the playoffs and to be somewhere where they felt special and felt important and that it was a very united group, more than we’ve had in any of the eight years I’ve been a part of. And the second was, we were hungry. We hadn’t done it before, there were a lot of doubters out there and we just, you know it’s hard I think when you have success to be able to have the same amount of hunger that you had when you haven’t had that success before, so we need to be able to figure out how to get back to that place."
The one area where the Packers likely did not get a fair shake in the court of public opinion was in how they dealt with injuries. McCarthy’s next-man-up mantra, while certainly necessary to prevent woe-is-me self-pity in the locker room, seemed to extend to the expectations of the team’s passionate fan base. Based on a review of all 32 NFL teams’ injury situations by Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News, no club was more decimated by injuries than the Packers, whose starters lost 83 games to injury. Only eight players managed to start all 16 games, and four starters landed on season-ending injured reserve.
In his post-season press conference, McCarthy disputed the notion that there might be a flaw in the team’s strength and conditioning program.
“I don’t know how we can say if what we’re doing in the offseason is a factor,” McCarthy said before citing the new CBA-mandated 13-week offseason program and in-season practice rules as a possible factor. “
“With the new CBA, it’s really to me the stress points on the athletes is what are they doing before they get here and how they’re doing it before they get here, and once they leave. I think that’s what you have to take a closer look at. You have to look at the training camp – training camp is evaluated as we go through it. It’s a lot of notes on the way we do training camp last year and a number of things will probably be adjusted. I did not like our team, where it was at, coming out of the new offseason format.
“All those things are a part of the evaluation process and you have to take a close look at as you take this next step. Coming off this new offseason program into training camp, it’s obviously different.”
Whether that evaluation process will result in a different feeling at the end of the 2013 season as compared to the end of 2012 remains to be seen. In the meantime, here's a look back on the year that was:
QB Aaron Rodgers: Biggest area of criticism was his league-high and career-high 51 sacks. Of those, ProFootballFocus.com charged 10 to Rodgers. It’s part of the territory with the interception-allergic Rodgers, but he can still improve in that area. Also, Rodgers fumbled five times, losing four – something that rarely happened in his career. In the previous two seasons, Rodgers fumbled six times, losing only one.
QB Graham Harrell: Fumbled in first career NFL regular-season snap when thrust into a goal-line situation against New Orleans on Sept. 30. Saw garbage-time action in three more games. Will benefit from another offseason in the program and a training camp, but could Packers do better, with practice-squadder B.J. Coleman or someone else?
RB DuJuan Harris: Short (5-foot-7) but powerful runner who is intriguing prospect for 2013. Took 53-man roster promotion on Dec. 1 and ran with it. However, running backs coach Alex Van Pelt hesitated when asked if he can be an every-down back.
RB Alex Green: After torn ACL ended his rookie season, finished as the team’s leading rusher (464 yards) but disappeared late in the season, as DuJuan Harris emerged and his knee began giving him troubles. Apparently, not everyone recovers from an ACL tear like Adrian Peterson. Still will be factor in competition for starting running back job.
RB James Starks: Starting to look like his injury luck will never turn. Entered camp as the starter and lasted half of one preseason game, suffering a toe injury on Aug. 9 in San Diego. Came on against Minnesota on Dec. 2 and promptly went down with a knee injury. His 2010 playoff run seems like a distant memory. Simply can’t stay healthy.
RB Cedric Benson: Seemed to be hitting his stride at the time of his Lisfranc foot injury, which turned out to be season-ending, on Oct. 7. Had a pair of 80-yard games and proved valuable as pass-catcher out of the backfield (14 receptions in four games before the injury). Expressed desire to return to Green Bay but is a free agent.
RB Ryan Grant: Had 20 carries for 80 yards and two touchdowns vs. Tennessee on Dec. 23 but was otherwise a non-factor upon his Dec. 5 return. Showed he still has something left in the tank, although once again the team has younger, lower-mileage options. Benson seems more likely to return.
RB Brandon Saine: Key special-teamer who faces a long recovery after season-ending torn ACL.
FB John Kuhn: Respected veteran who knows the offense better than perhaps anyone other than Rodgers. Had 23 regular-season carries for 63 yards and gained four first downs but was largely ineffective in short-yardage situations on straight handoffs.
WR Randall Cobb: Coaches couldn’t wait to use him in varied ways after promising rookie season and figures to only become even more vital to offense with likely departure of free-agent Greg Jennings. Durable, smart and explosive playmaker who has his quarterback’s confidence in spades.
WR James Jones: Good thing fans’ hopes of seeing him traded went unrealized. Proved valuable to offense in setting career highs in nearly every category. Role figures to remain significant next season. Somewhat limited to lining up outside in most packages.
WR Jordy Nelson: Was unable to improve on breakout 2011 in large part due to injuries (hamstring, ankle, knee). Appeared to struggle to get on same page as his quarterback after absence. Still team’s best deep-ball threat (team-leading 15.2 yards per reception). Expect a rebound season in 2013.
WR Greg Jennings: Showed he still tilts the field when healthy. Missed eight games with lower abdominal muscle tear, finished with 36 receptions for 366 yards and four touchdowns in regular season and then caught team-high 10 passes for 115 yards and a TD in two playoff games. Seemingly as good as gone as a free agent, although Chicago Tribune’s Dan Pompei suggests tough market in National Football Post article.
WR Donald Driver: Caught only eight passes for 77 yards and two touchdowns and was charged with three drops out of 13 targets by ProFootballFocus.com. An ignominious end to a storied career in Green Bay as the franchise’s all-time leading receiver. Should’ve declined pay cut after Dancing with the Stars win and gone elsewhere. Will be interesting to see if anyone signs him or if he retires.
WR Jarrett Boykin: Promising undrafted rookie free agent who made the team after coming in as a tryout player at the rookie orientation camp when Jacksonville inexplicably cut him. Caught four passes in regular-season play, including a critical fourth-and-1 reception at Minnesota in the regular-season finale that resulted in an ankle injury that basically ended his season. Impressive physically (6-foot-2, 218 pounds) and could be a factor as fourth WR next year.
WR Jeremy Ross: Season met a disappointing end with backbreaking muffed punt against 49ers in playoffs, but still a promising player as returner. Saw action on offense down the stretch, largely because he can block as a receiver. Did not have a regular-season catch but has impressed the starting quarterback with his smarts and desire to learn. Could be the team’s full-time return man if he rebounds from costly fumble.
TE Jermichael Finley: Broke the franchise record for receptions by a tight end (61) but was still up-and-down and might not return. Finished strong, in the wake of a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article about how the team was ready to move on. That may or may not have served as motivation, but clearly played better late, as he didn’t drop a single pass over the final six games (including playoffs) after dropping nine in first 12. Still, a big financial commitment ($8.25 million in salary and bonus money) for 2013.
TE Tom Crabtree: Fan favorite who had some memorable moments, including a 72-yard touchdown catch-and-run and a 27-yard TD on a fake field goal. Is team’s best blocking tight end and vital to special teams.
TE Ryan Taylor: Did not progress as expected in Year 2. Was a non-factor on offense, where he caught just one pass. Core special teamer.
TE D.J. Williams: Hard to tell how he fits the team’s plans. Was a healthy inactive for three games, including the team’s season-ending playoff loss. A top pass-catching tight end coming out of college at Arkansas, appeared poised to be big contributor in camp. Wound up catching only seven passes for 57 yards.
TE Andrew Quarless: Didn’t play a single snap after being activated from physically unable to perform list after his 2011 season ended with horrific knee injury. Will be welcomed back in 2013.
LT Marshall Newhouse: Certainly has his shortcomings. Played all 1,256 snaps in 18 games and was charged with nine sacks, eight quarterback hits and 37 hurries by ProFootballFocus.com. Flagged for five penalties, including three holding penalties. Still team’s best option at left tackle.
LG T.J. Lang: Played like himself upon his return to left guard after being miscast at right tackle following Bryan Bulaga’s season-ending hip injury. Had his own injury issues (elbow, ankle) but is one of the team’s resident tough guys. Missed one game (active but did not play). Charged with nine sacks, five QB hits and 12 QB hurries by ProFootbalLFocus.com.
C Evan Dietrich-Smith: Went from team’s center of the future to its center of the present after Jeff Saturday was benched before the second-to-last regular-season game. Charged with two sacks, three hits and seven hurries in 603 snaps at guard and center by ProFootballFocus.com.
C Jeff Saturday: The 14-year veteran was a stop-gap free agent signing after Scott Wells’ departure. The plan was for him to start at least one season, and maybe two, while either Dietrich-Smith was groomed or another center of the future was found. He ended up lasting only 14 games before his benching. Likely to retire.
RG Josh Sitton: Didn’t miss a snap all season until having trouble with a shoe during the NFC Divisional Playoff loss. Committed seven penalties, allowed three sacks, two QB hits and 16 hurries in 1,254 snaps according to ProFootballFocus.com. Headed to first Pro Bowl after replacing Super Bowl-bound 49ers guard Mike Iupati on NFC roster.
RT Don Barclay: Undrafted rookie free agent from West Virginia proved he belonged on the roster in training camp, then was thrust into action and held his own. Was charged with four penalties, five quarterback sacks, four QB hits and 19 hurries in 459 snaps by ProFootballFocus.com. Could’ve used redshirt year but will benefit from experienced gained.
RT Bryan Bulaga: Season ended on Nov. 4 with a bizarre hip injury. In 587 snaps, allowed four sacks, three QB hits and 20 hurries, but those numbers were skewed by his nightmarish performance at Seattle on Sept. 24, when he was charged with two sacks, one hit and eight hurries in 71 snaps. Said after the season that he expects to be ready for the start of training camp. Likely to miss most if not all of the offseason.
OL Greg Van Roten: Undrafted rookie free agent from Penn was phenomenal in camp during one-on-one pass-blocking drills and began season on the practice squad. Promoted to 53-man roster on Oct. 13 and saw action in seven games as an extra blocker on offense and on special teams. Intriguing prospect.
OL Derek Sherrod: Missed entire season because of horrific leg injury suffered on Dec. 18, 2011 at Kansas City. The 2011 first-round pick was unable to gain clearance from the physically unable to perform list after essentially a wasted rookie year as well. Suddenly entering his third NFL season with little experience and little proof that he was worth his high draft selection. His career might even be in jeopardy given how long the leg has taken to heal.
DT B.J. Raji: One year after getting a Pro Bowl berth he didn’t deserve, he rebounded and played at a Pro Bowl level – but didn’t get the accolade. No matter. It was a bounce-back year for him. Wasn’t all that impressive statistically (zero sacks, 45 tackles) but led the linemen in snaps (768) despite missing two games with an ankle injury and had 25 quarterback hurries. Entering final year of rookie contract.
DT Ryan Pickett: Old reliable vet played in all 18 games (653 snaps) and remained the leader of the guys up front. Was still solid against the run despite advancing age (33). Saw action primarily in the base “Okie” defense and has value that goes beyond numbers.
DE C.J. Wilson: Felled by Nov. 25 knee injury and saw his quick start (2.5 sacks in first seven games) go by the boards. Key to run defense that finished 17th in NFL (118.5 yards per game) and suffered from having to face Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson twice in regular-season play. Set a career high in tackles (37).
DE Mike Neal: Proved to every doubting Thomas why the Packers stuck by him through two injury-riddled seasons and a four-game PED suspension to start the year. Played only 323 snaps as situational pass rusher but finished with 4.5 sacks (second only to Clay Matthews on the team) along with four QB hits and 17 hurries.
DE Jerel Worthy: Rookie second-round pick who flashed vast potential but lacked the discipline that line coach Mike Trgovac demands. Suffered season-ending knee injury in regular-season finale that he claimed was a bone bruise but turned out to be torn ACL. Played 467 snaps but had only 2.5 sacks, one QB hit and five hurries to show for it. Had three offsides/encroachment penalties.
DE Mike Daniels: Rookie fourth-round pick brought some toughness and attitude to the line, especially late in the season when pressed into action because of injuries. Played only 280 snaps but showed some burst as a pass-rusher (two sacks) while delivering a game-altering fumble return for a touchdown against Detroit on Dec. 9. Figures to be key early on next season as Worthy's status appears murky because of knee injury.
DT Jordan Miller: Practice-squad call-up who played just 15 snaps after his promotion on Dec. 11.
OLB Clay Matthews: Now 4-for-4 on Pro Bowl selections, although won’t play in the game after pulling out last week. Finished fifth in the NFL in sacks with 13.0 despite missing four games with a Nov. 4 hamstring injury. Had three more sacks in the playoffs and finished with 14 QB hits and 30 QB hurries in 877 total snaps. A legit superstar who must assume greater leadership role.
OLB Erik Walden: Actually played well for much of the season before abominable performances late in the year against Minnesota (Adrian Peterson, Joe Webb) and San Francisco (Colin Kaepernick). Shared time but still played an OLB-high 882 snaps, recording two interceptions, three sacks, 11 QB hits and 15 hurries. Played on one-year, minimum-salary deal but may not return.
OLB Dezman Moses: Rookie free agent was the darling of the undrafted class. Played 504 snaps and recorded four sacks, five QB hits and 12 hurries while sharing time with Walden after Nick Perry’s season-ending wrist surgery. Might be the type of hard-hitting player the defense could use more of.
OLB Nick Perry: Rookie first-round pick suffered a wrist injury in the Sept. 9 season opener vs. San Francisco, played through it, then suffered a knee injury at Houston on Oct. 14. It was the wrist injury that ended his season after only 211 snaps, during which he managed two sacks – including a forceful blow to Colts rookie Andrew Luck that drew a controversial penalty and $15,000 fine – along with eight hurries. Struggled early on in transition to 3-4 outside linebacker but appeared to be getting more comfortable. Would’ve been helpful against the run late in the year when Walden looked lost.
OLB Frank Zombo: Came off the physically unable to perform list (hamstring) to find no real role on defense. Was a boost to special teams, earning a pair of game balls, then was inactive for each playoff game. Much like running back James Starks, we may never know how good he can be as injuries rob him of opportunities.
ILB Brad Jones: Converted outside linebacker turned out to be a godsend when both Desmond Bishop and D.J. Smith suffered season-ending injuries. Became every-down linebacker, staying on the field in nickel and dime situations, over A.J. Hawk and also handled the job of making the defensive calls on the field with the helmet radio transmitter. Credited with 101 tackles and two sacks in 828 snaps but was also charged with 11 missed tackles by ProFootballFocus.com. Unrestricted free agent whom the team would like to re-sign.
ILB A.J. Hawk: Led the team in tackles (142) and also had three sacks but did not have a single turnover play for the second straight year. Played 847 snaps but was only in the base “Okie” and nickel package while Jones got the nod in dime, which the Packers played more frequently than past years. With a cap number north of $5 million, may be asked to take a pay cut.
ILB Terrell Manning: Rookie fifth-round pick did not play on defense after a poor, illness-affected training camp but grew into a key special teams role as the season wore on. Ended up playing in seven games as a rookie and could be a player to watch next season at a position in flux.
ILB Jamari Lattimore: Converted outside linebacker who was a non-factor from scrimmage (eight snaps) but was on all the special teams units.
ILB Robert Francois: Saw extensive action on defense last season while injuries sidelined Hawk and Bishop but did not play a single snap from scrimmage this year. Still a key special teams player.
ILB Desmond Bishop: Arguably the team’s best defensive player last season, went down with a ruptured hamstring tendon in his right leg in the Aug. 9 preseason opener and missed the entire season. Still isn’t 100 percent and faces a difficult offseason trying to regain his impactful form. On a defense lacking big hitters and playmakers, he was sorely missed.
ILB D.J. Smith: Took over for Bishop in the starting lineup, just as he had the year before, and looked the part despite being undersized. Then, suffered a torn ACL on Oct. 14 on a somewhat blind-side block against Houston and was done for the year as well. Played 385 snaps before the injury and had two sacks, one QB hit and five hurries. Team needs him to make a speedy recovery.
CB Tramon Williams: Returned to health after a shoulder injury led to a disastrous 2011 season, but still didn’t play like he did in 2010, when he was viewed as a shutdown corner. Williams had only two interceptions on the season – both against Chicago on Sept. 13 – and was credited with 22 pass breakups. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Williams played 1,240 snaps over 18 games (including playoffs) – mostly against opponents’ top receivers – and allowed 63 completions in 115 targets for 852 yards, missed six tackles and had an opponent QB rating of 77.2 against him. Against the 49ers, he allowed six completions for 75 yards. Now, he’ll face competition for a starting spot.
CB Sam Shields: A week into camp, he’d tumbled down the depth chart, had a bum elbow and appeared to be circling the drain. But the coaches stuck with him and were rewarded, as he regained his starting job, then came back from a six-game layoff because of a sprained ankle and turned out to be a difference-maker in the passing defense. Continued improvement would allow Williams to avoid covering the top WR on every down.
CB Casey Hayward: Showed immediately upon arrival as a second-round pick that he belonged, and when Charles Woodson went down with a collarbone injury Oct. 21, it was Hayward that manned the slot corner spot and did so brilliantly. Ended up with six INTs and showed some skill as a blitzer, although he had a costly whiff on Kaepernick on a flat-free blitz against the 49ers in the playoffs. Barring a sophomore slump, the sky’s the limit.
CB Davon House: Was in first position for the No. 2 cornerback spot before a shoulder injury in the Aug. 9 preseason opener at San Diego threw him for a loop. Ended up having to wait until Oct. 21 to make his season debut after a wasted rookie season in 2011 and proved to be a solid, physical option at outside corner. Reinjured his shoulder and also suffered a hip injury late in the season and was inactive for the regular-season finale and both playoff games. Worth watching in 2013.
CB Jarrett Bush: It seems like forever ago, but he actually started at corner opposite Williams in the opener. Gave up a touchdown in that game and was never heard from on defense again, save for 20 snaps at Houston and prevent/Hail Mary plays when the Packers flooded the field with DBs. On special teams, he was a deserving captain who led the club with 17 tackles there. Role is unlikely to change going forward with so many cover options.
S Morgan Burnett: The coaches have Pro Bowl aspirations for him, but did not play at that level. Was the only defensive player to play all 1,259 snaps and ranked second on the team in tackles (137) while registering two sacks and two interceptions. Did well in handling back-end communications but was thrust into tough spot after Nick Collins’ release and Woodson’s broken collarbone, serving as a leader in third NFL season.
S Charles Woodson: Transitioned from cornerback to safety at coaches’ behest and appeared to be taking to it when he fractured his collarbone Oct. 21 in St. Louis. At age 36, it’s hard to say whether his season would have been more productive (625 snaps, 1.5 sacks, one interception, one forced fumble, five missed tackles) had he played a full year. With a $10 million cap number, he may not return – and if he does, it will almost certainly be at a reduced salary.
S M.D. Jennings: Was the nickel and dime safety in the season-opener against the 49ers when Woodson would move to the slot but was benched after playing poorly. Returned to that role after Woodson’s injury and played better. Gained notoriety for his role in the controversial Sept. 24 loss at Seattle, when his apparent victory-clinching interception was ruled a Golden Tate touchdown by replacement officials.
S Jerron McMillian: Rookie fourth-round pick took Jennings’ place after the opener but wasn’t an appreciable upgrade. Did show the ability to hit – including a flag- and fine-drawing hit on Giants tight end Martellus Bennett on Nov. 25 – on a defense that doesn’t have many big hitters. Was viewed as a ballhawk coming out of Maine but seemed more adept as a box safety than in centerfield.
S Sean Richardson: Made the 53-man roster coming out of training camp as an undrafted rookie free agent before undergoing neck surgery. Impressive physical specimen who was Hayward’s college teammate at Vanderbilt.
Head coach Mike McCarthy: Went into the season with a plan to play younger players and mix personnel to keep team fresher for the stretch run after last year’s 15-1 season came crashing to a halt. Delivered on promise to make defense a better tackling outfit. Led team to second straight NFC North crown and was on the cusp of a second straight season sweep of the division before 37-34 loss at Minnesota to end the regular season. That loss proved costly, as the team went from the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye to the No. 3 seed and an NFC Divisional date at San Francisco, where McCarthy and his staff were outcoached by Jim Harbaugh and his staff, who used the bye week to their advantage. The no-drama coach had a few blunders, most notably throwing his challenge flag in the finale against the Vikings on a play that was going to be automatically reviewed, and opting to punt down 14 points to the 49ers with the ball at midfield in the fourth quarter of the playoff loss. Was publicly questioned by his quarterback on more than one occasion. They’ll have to make sure they’re on the same page going forward, since the franchise sinks or swims with them.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers: Had the villagers at the wrought-iron gates of 1265 Lombardi Avenue with torches and pitchforks after his defense gave up 579 yards – including an NFL single-game quarterback record 181 yards rushing by Colin Kaepernick – in the playoff loss. In truth, after back-to-back top 5 defenses his first two years, he righted the ship after last year’s dreadful performance, getting his unit up to No. 11 in both scoring defense and total defense while seeing a whopping eight rookies’ faces in his meeting room. While sacks were up to 47, the unit’s calling card had always been takeaways, and 23 (including 18 interceptions) weren’t enough.
Offensive coordinator Tom Clements: A brilliant quarterbacks coach whom Aaron Rodgers credits most for his development, the jury’s out on his work as a coordinator. The numbers show a precipitous drop in production from the previous year – the Packers averaged 359.4 yards per game in 2012 compared to 405.1 in 2011, and averaged 27.1 points per game in 2012 compared to 35.0 in 2011 – but how much of that is related to Clements’ promotion is unclear. What seems true is this: The loss of Joe Philbin, who left to become head coach of the Miami Dolphins, was genuinely felt. Clements’ promotion led to Ben McAdoo shifting from tight ends to quarterbacks, Jerry Fontenot moving from running backs to tight ends and Alex Van Pelt, a quarterbacks coach by trade, being brought in as running backs coach. It will be interesting to see whether those roles remain the same in 2013.
Special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum: While kicker Mason Crosby was an inconsistent mess, his coach was steady. Things weren’t always perfect on special teams – Crosby’s misses and Jeremy Ross’ fateful muffed punt in the playoff loss to the 49ers stand out – but the unit was the team’s most consistent in terms of overall work on returns, coverage and in the kicking game. According to statistics compiled by the Chicago Bears using highly regarded Dallas Morning News columnist Rick Gosselin’s special teams ranking formula, Slocum and assistant Chad Morton’s group finished 15th in the 32-team NFL in a 22-category composite. The group also had some memorable plays: Tight end Tom Crabtree’s fake-field goal touchdown on fourth-and-26 against Chicago; fullback John Kuhn’s fourth-down conversion deep in Packers territory on a fake punt against New Orleans; a successful surprise onside kick recovery against St. Louis; a blocked punt by Davon House against Jacksonville. But there was also the boneheaded punt return lateral at Chicago and Ross’ game-turning blunder in the season-ender.
The FRONT OFFICE
General manager Ted Thompson: While he still tried to claim that he took the proverbial “best player available,” the truth was that he saw a major deficiency on defense and set his mind to rectifying it by using his first six draft picks on that side of the ball. He traded up three times to accomplish his goal, moving up instead of letting the board come to him. The draft netted one sure-fire keeper in cornerback Casey Hayward in the second round, but the jury is still out on first-round pick Nick Perry, second-round pick Jerel Worthy, fourth-round picks Mike Daniels and Jerron McMillian and fifth-round pick Terrell Manning. Thompson once again was on his undrafted free-agent game, inking two who were vital to the cause down the stretch: Fill-in right tackle Don Barclay and outside linebacker Dezman Moses, both of whom showed potential and did the job, even when it wasn’t pretty.
In free agency, which is not his milieu, Thompson let Pro Bowl center Scott Wells walk as an unrestricted free agent (four years, $24 million to St. Louis), then saw Wells suffer a foot injury on his 21st snap of the season opener with his new team. Wells ended up on injured reserve with the designation to return, and did so for the Rams’ final six games. Thompson replaced him with five-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, who at 37 years old was supposed to bridge the gap until the next Wells was found or Evan Dietrich-Smith was ready. With two regular-season games left, the coaches decided Saturday had given all he could and benched him for Dietrich-Smith. Meanwhile, the club avoided using its franchise tag on tight end Jermichael Finley by reaching a two-year deal worth $14 million, but now a decision on Finley and his $8.25 million cap number looms. Defensive line pickups Philip Merling and Daniel Muir were non-factors, while 2011 seventh-round pick Lawrence Guy left the practice squad for a spot on Indianapolis’ 53-man roster and showed promise for the Colts. The August signing of running back Cedric Benson was looking better and better each week until the Oct. 7 foot injury that ultimately ended his season. Two other running back signings served their purpose, although the practice-squad promotion of DuJuan Harris turned out better than the emergency Dec. 5 signing of proud veteran Ryan Grant, whose role was limited.
Thompson also shuffled the deck on his scouting staff, promoting longtime college scouting director John Dorsey to director of football operations; area scout Brian Gutekunst to Dorsey’s old job; Eliot Wolf to pro personnel director and Alonzo Highsmith to a special advisory role in-house after years in the Southwest. Thompson will now have to prove as adept at cultivating talent in his personnel department as he’s been with young players on this roster following Dorsey’s departure for the Chiefs’ GM job. With John Schneider in Seattle, Reggie McKenzie in Oakland and Dorsey in Kansas City, Thompson has lost his three top lieutenants to GM jobs elsewhere in a 36-month span. Whether he tabs his longtime best friend, ex-Packers, Seahawks and Titans exec Mike Reinfeldt, for a spot on his staff remains to be seen. Reinfeldt, Thompson’s old teammate with the Houston Oilers, was inexplicably let go by the Titans last month, even though he was no longer overseeing day-to-day personnel moves.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.