Thirty-one NFL teams begin each offseason haunted by their choices from over the past year. Decisions ranging from free agent signings and draft selections to in-game calls all receive ample scrutiny. Yet those alone aren't the only factors that control the destiny of a football team. Some seasons, anything from a miscalculation by the league to a freak injury can derail what could have been a magical year.
For the second time in as many years, the Packers face the offseason tormented by both the consequences of their decisions and the breaks that didn't go their way.
Green Bay's 2012 campaign was infamously derailed when a botched possession call by the NFL's replacement referees stole away a valuable road win. Looking at that result in a vacuum, the outcome cost the Packers the second seed and a bye week, which in turn sent them to San Francisco in the divisional round rather than the other way around. Obviously, the rest of the season could have played out very differently if the outcome had gone the other way, but a single game in the standings would have made the difference. Remember, the 49ers finished that regular season critically undermanned with defensive anchor Justin Smith unable to suit up for their final two games. The bye week they received allowed Smith just enough time to return to action. Had the "Fail Mary" never been, it's not unreasonable to believe the 49ers never make it to the divisional round. Instead, they defeated the Packers in San Francisco, commencing an offseason of "what if" for the Packers.
2013 played out similarly in many respects. It wasn't poor officiating that doomed Green Bay this time. Rather, a fractured collarbone for quarterback Aaron Rodgers sent the Packers tumbling for over a month, transforming them from NFC North frontrunners and second seed contenders into an also-ran. Green Bay would finish the year 8-7-1, sneaking into the playoffs on the back of the Lions' latest implosion and Rodgers' return for a comeback win against the Chicago Bears.
Rodgers' ailing collarbone was far from the only calamity that befell the Packers this season. Defensive star Clay Matthews missed time with a hamstring pull and later two fractures to the same thumb. In all, Matthews appeared in only 11 games, the fewest for a single season in his career. Making matters worse, the Packers two primary edge-rush alternatives -- linebackers Nick Perry and Mike Neal -- each missed or was limited for considerable time as well. At multiple times during the season, Green Bay was forced to make due with only rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer for half a game or more.
The secondary too endured multiple hardships. The Packers began the year without starting safety Morgan Burnett and slot corner Casey Hayward. Burnett returned for week five, but Hayward would spend virtually the entire season with a multitude of ailments. As a result, Green Bay's defensive would be a sieve the entire year, yielding unconscionable yardage totals through the air and forcing an often Rodgers-less offense to pick up the pieces.
But not all of what burdened the 2013 Packers was the result of mere chance.
The training camp and preseason revealed what many had feared; that GM Ted Thompson's draft classes since the Packers' Super Bowl XLV victory had produced far more misses than hits. The 2011 class proved excruciatingly disappointing, as only three of Green Bay's 10 selections from that year made the 2013 final roster. A fourth, former first-rounder Derek Sherrod, wound up on the Physically Unable to Perform list to start the year and contributed little. Matters deteriorated during the course of the season when Jerron McMillian received his pink slip, reducing the 2012 class to exactly half of its original size. Thompson's uncharacteristic draft misses left the Packers vulnerable when injuries withered down the roster's depth.
Not all the issues with roster construction centered around depth, however. The continued failure to adequately address the safety position since Nick Collins' early retirement continue to plague the Packers defense. Next to Burnett, who was given a $24.7 million extension this offseason that has already been questioned, the team has produced M.D. Jennings, Chris Banjo, Sean Richardson, and the aforementioned McMillian. Jennings and Banjo played average pass coverage but too often took poor angles when chasing down the ball carrier. Conversely, Richardson re-established himself as exclusively an in-the-box safety, performing well against the run but struggling to stick with receivers. McMillian proved incapable of doing either, leading to his departure in early December.
These personnel failures made life difficult for defensive coordinator Dom Capers. The veteran coach found himself under fire from the fans and media who laid the Packers' inability to slow opponents at his feet. Capers attempted a number of mid-year fixes; he shifted away from the Packers' over-reliance on the nickel and utilized more base and dime personnel groupings. In the end, however, Capers' unit simply lacked the horses to run with the league's better offenses.
The injuries alone don't account for the defenses' shortcomings, though. After successfully employing rookie corner Micah Hyde as a blitzer, Capers moved away from the tactic, favoring instead more and more four-man rushes. The results speak for themselves, as Green Bay opponents racked up 3,956 yards through the air, the second-highest such total during the Mike McCarthy era.
Similarly frustrating was Capers shuffling of the safety position. On numerous occasions, the Packers would settle into a rhythm with Richardson playing as a de facto extra linebacker and Burnett sliding back into centerfield only for Capers to disrupt the continuity by bringing Jennings back. Opposing offenses would recognize the change and immediately start pounding the ball, leading to inevitable large gains on the ground. These misjudgments likely cost the Packers at least a few games during their nearly eight-game long stretch without Rodgers.
Capers' fate still hangs in the balance. 2013 constitutes the third consecutive year the defense has failed to meet expectations, and with a cavalcade of players on that side of the ball hitting free agency now could be the time for a massive overhaul. However, Thompson and McCarthy well understand the limitations the roster placed on their defensive coordinator and may instead opt to give him another year with an improved roster to turn his unit around. It doesn't hurt Capers' chances that Rex Ryan and most of the other well-regarded 3-4 coordinators retained their jobs this year. With $66 million invested in Clay Matthews, a player not ideally suited for a 4-3 outfit, any change at coordinator must conform to the Packers' current defensive configuration. Should the team look internally for a replacement, only defensive line coach Mike Trgovac has logged any time calling a defense. It's telling, however, that it's not Trgovac but Winston Moss who lends a hand to game planning. Neither are obvious replacement candidates.
While he's in no danger of losing his job, Thompson too faces serious questions for the first time since his team won the Super Bowl. He remains one of the league's premier talent evaluators, but it's fair to wonder whether the front office brain drain that stole away John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie, and John Dorsey has finally taken its toll. The trio combines for nearly 60 years of scouting experience with the Packers, and younger personnel men like Eliot Wolf, Brian Gutekunst, and Alonzo Highsmith might still require some seasoning before they're fully ready to fill those shoes.
Change is indeed coming to Green Bay, though what form it takes is a matter yet to be determined. Whether through roster adjustments, a coaching switch, or both, the defense will feature a different look next season. With a starting center, receiver, and fullback all set to test free agency, the offense may not trail far behind. Each decision the team makes will yield its own distinct consequence. Like all teams, the Packers need to choose correctly if they want the next six months to position them for a championship rather than another offseason of "what if" and self-scrutiny.