How in the heck did the Packers get here?
Green Bay has 16 players on the season-ending injured reserve list, including six opening-day starters. Ryan Grant, their leading rusher from a year ago with 1,253 yards and 11 touchdowns, was lost in the regular-season opener. Tight end Jermichael Finley, who was poised for a breakout season and positioned to be the offense's main weapon, and last year's leading tackler, Nick Barnett, were out by mid-October.
The Packers' special teams were not all that special for much of the year, giving up field position and touchdowns to opposing returners while showing little threat of ever breaking one themselves.
Meanwhile, the running game was getting by on fumes. Brandon Jackson is a good third-down back but what he's best known for is his blitz pickup ability. As important as that is to quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the passing game, it does nothing when it comes to actually running with the ball. Jackson led the way with 703 yards and John Kuhn chipped in with 281 to go with his six touchdowns, but it was hard to even sell the play-action pass for much of the season.
Realistically, as they battled down the stretch just to make the postseason, this team's chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy overhead was a year away. But it turns out this isn't a team that's much for waiting. It's not a team that ever felt sorry for itself. It's not a team that ever made excuses. If games aren't won on paper, then they're not lost on injury reports.
"I think every year in the NFL is challenging," Packers GM Ted Thompson said. "We had some injuries this year. Everybody has injuries. The Steelers have had injuries. I don't think that's unique. Maybe the number was a little bit different, but Reggie [McKenzie], John Dorsey and Eliot Wolf and Tim Terry, those guys do a good job all the time. And I think our coaches did a great job of coaching those guys up. "We had a couple of bad days where guys were dropping early in the game. Not at the end of the game, early in the game and [the players] were a part of the game plan and all that sort of stuff. It was tough, but our guys never lost focus. We lost some close games that we felt like we might have had a chance to win. But the resolve of our team, our leaders on our team, our veteran guys, was very special."
This team hung on through back-to-back overtime losses to Washington and Miami. It bounced back from a near-season-killing loss at Detroit , and with its backs against the wall, it forced its way into the playoffs. The Packers did it behind the arm and legs and mind and heart of Rodgers, who has established himself as the unquestioned leader of this team and one of the top passers in the game. They did it with the pass-rushing prowess and fury of outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who racked up 13.5 sacks in just his second-year and finished behind Steelers safety Troy Polamalu for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. They did it with veterans like cornerback Charles Woodson and tackle Chad Clifton and receiver Donald Driver.
But they also did it with a host of players who stepped up their game to levels no one expected. They did it with players that Thompson and staff pulled off their "emergency board" and with young players that coach Mike McCarthy and his assistants fast-tracked into impact roles.
As much as the season was about Rodgers and Matthews and Woodson, it could not have been possible without the play of cornerback Tramon Williams, who led with team with six interceptions in the regular season and three more in the postseason. This year was about guys like undrafted rookie cornerback Sam Shields growing up to the point that he's making plays in the conference championship that punch Green Bay's ticket to Dallas.
This year was about linebacker Erik Walden, out on the street for a month this fall, becoming the fourth player to start opposite Matthews and turning in a performance in the season finale that earned him NFC Defensive Player of the Week and helped Green Bay get to the playoffs. This season was about Tim Mathsay's punting masterpiece in a shutout of the Jets and the finale against Chicago. It was about the discovery of rookie running back James Starks, and the evolution of B.J. Raji into a dominant nose tackle. It was about guys like Desmond Bishop and Charlie Peprah and Bryan Bulaga maximizing their opportunities and playing big when it was needed most.
"I think it's a tremendous compliment to our coaching staff to take players continuously through the year whether they are young players on our roster who just quite aren't ready to play or free agents who are brought into our program at Week 6 or Week 7," McCarthy said. "It's been one of the best coaching performances that I've been a part of from a staff standpoint. Individual coaches go down to the team meeting at 7:45 a.m., and Edgar Bennett is coming out of a 6:30 a.m. early-meeting with James Starks, and that's something that has been going on all season. Kevin Greene has been given two or three outside linebackers, and at 7, 8, 9, 10 o'clock on a Wednesday and Thursday night, you see him walking out of his individual meeting. There is just a lot of one-on-one teaching that has gone on, but ultimately it's about the players. They have put a lot of extra time in to prepare for these opportunities and they gave us the opportunity to continue to grow as a football team throughout the season. That's why we're here at the Super Bowl."
There have been easier roads to get here. But few have been more impressive or more rewarding than the one this team took. In the end, "how" they got here, may be "why" they win.
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W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at email@example.com.