Back in the final week of the 2013 season, I wrote about how that Green Bay Packers team, while not a raging success by record (the team finished 8-7-1 that year), was one of the more memorable in recent memory because of the vast contrast between that team and the powerhouses that preceded it. Decimated by injuries - including what seemed like the team's coup de grace when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone - the team transformed into a sort of scrappy bunch of try-hards, getting by on zeal and grit. Coming off two seasons that established the Packers as one of the preeminent forces in the league, it was startling to watch the team struggle so much.
It was also a friggin' blast.
When looked at with the burden of expectations - in that season's case and most of them following 2010, a Super Bowl - there were frustrations, sure. But like Deadspin's Drew Magary wrote earlier this year in a column I quite like, there is joy in the work. And like any work worth enjoying, there are bound to be stumbles along the way, opportunities missed, and expectations unmet. Still, in a vacuum, there was plenty of joy in the work of 2013 - a year that saw rookie Eddie Lacy emerge as the team's lead back, plowing and corkscrewing his way through defenses; that saw Matt Flynn, forever the Robin to Rodgers' Batman, finally soak in the glory of having orchestrated a comeback for the ages. And there was joy in seeing the defense, knowing the team was hamstrung without its all-world quarterback, rally to the cause - gutting out a few hard-fought victories with the team on their backs for once. It was a fun one, that 2013.
In 2015, the team went through a lot of the same struggles - injuries, losing streaks, ugly play - only this time around, it was largely without any of that same charm. The endearing qualities that made the 2013 team so fun to root for, so joyful to watch, were replaced with a sense of discontent. One might even say dysfunction. That's not to say there haven't been moments. The heave-ho in Detroit was an instant classic - one of those I-remember-where-I-was endings that make it past the VIP ropes of your memory bank to find a place alongside only the most dramatic, incredible sports snapshots of your life. And who can forget just this past week, when Rodgers once again nearly pulled off the impossible, and a much-criticized wide receiver rise - over one of the best corners in the NFL - to the occasion?
But as a whole, those moments were few in 2015. The work was less joyous and more, well, work-like. The wins, the touchdowns, hell, even the yards were harder to come by. And the effervescence that made the teams of 2011 and 2012 so buoyant was all but gone - like an aging group of factory workers going to work in mills that have taken their toll, callouses and wrinkles formed from the decades of hard labor, but with the memories of their more vibrant years still vivid as ever.
But as I began thinking more about this 2015 season - sometime around New Year's, a time when people often reflect on the past in order to better themselves in the future - I was reminded that the work doesn't need to have joy, in order to still have value.
The back shoulder throws that sailed to the sideline, the missed tackles, the miscommunications. Frustrating, yes. Infuriating even. But there's a certain kind of glue that's spun in the wake of these mistakes. Lessons are learned, resolves hardened, habits conditioned. And like any glue, there is a bond formed when these missteps actually coalesce into something. Something better.
It's not the most glamorous or aesthetically pleasing method of improvement, but when you're building something, you're bound to break a few boards, drop a few bricks, or do what seemed to happen more than a few times this season: drive a nail through your own foot. It's a painful process, but it's work that you just hope will all be worth it, that the bumps and bruises and nicks and cuts of this season will eventually be looked back on as points of pride, scars with stories of how the hard times were a necessary part of the work. To get to something brighter.
For me, that's the lesson of the 2015 season. That the work - the little on-field spats between players, the blown protections, the thrown Microsoft tablets - it's all worth it. Because it's all necessary.
It is perhaps more necessary for this team, a group that once made winning look so easy, than for any other. After all, when you've been sleeping on thousand-count sheets for the last five years, it's good to be reminded of what it's like to camp out in the dirt once in a while, to experience the trials of what got you there in the first place. Of course, many of these Packers weren't around in 2008 and 2009, the last time the Packers faced true adversity, but if you believe in the notion that teams take on the personality of their best player, you believe that even the roster's youngest members feel the anguish and frustration of Aaron Rodgers.
So I suppose it's a good thing, then, that Aaron Rodgers is the guy routinely cited as the player on the team who consistently puts in the most work. Because if he's willing to go through the dregs, to endure the tribulations of a season that's been so hard - that ended in such heartbreak - then so too should everyone else. Just possibly, despite seeing the team's run of NFC North titles come to an end, despite struggles that haven't been as glaring since Rodgers' first year as a starter, and despite losing all of their divisional home games for the first time in over 40 years - maybe the Packers' 2015 season won't mark the end of an era ...
but the beginning of a new one.