“2014 -- an excellent season for us, something we’re very proud of,” coach Mike McCarthy said in his season-ending press conference. “Our fans… I understand your disappointment, we’re right there with you.
“You have to be able to learn from victories and defeats. That’s the mind-set of a champion, and that will never change.”
Despite not reaching their ultimate destination, there really is something to be said for the journey. So, with that, let’s pause and reflect on a truly special 2014 season.
Packer Nation was breaking a sweat and pacing their collective living rooms after a 1-2 start. Then Aaron Rodgers and Co. won nine of their next 10 games and finished 12-4, claiming another NFC North crown, a first-round bye in the playoffs and the No. 2 seed. Rodgers played quarterback as well as it had ever been played over much of that stretch, and with receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, not to mention Eddie Lacy, John Kuhn and a dominant front five, the Packers’ offense was among the league’s best. A bigger surprise was a Packers defense, which found its way down the stretch behind stellar play from linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers and safety Morgan Burnett, among others. As for the special teams … well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
New faces, fresh faces and old, familiar faces combined for a memorable season. We pay tribute to those players and the plays they made with the 20th Annual Packer Report Awards. Tonight’s guest presenters include WWE Divas Brie and Nikki Bella, the cast of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation,” and music by the Foo Fighters. The NFL Honors show has nothing on this party. Now let’s rip open some envelopes…
Offensive MVP: Rodgers
He told us to “R-E-L-A-X.” And then he lit up opposing defenses in a way that rarely has been seen since the advent of the forward pass. He delivers the ball with surgical precision, has one of the hardest pump fakes you’ll ever see, a lightning-quick release, and legs that will break a defense’s heart on the chance they’ve got all his downfield targets covered. Late in the year he had a mulligan — his worst career game at Buffalo — that was a reminder that he’s neither perfect nor a robot. Then, in the regular-season finale, he showed the kind of gutty and inspirational performance that defines the true greats — re-injuring his calf on a late second-quarter touchdown pass to Randall Cobb but returning from the locker room in the second half to lead his team to a division title and first-round bye. He even called his own number with a sneak at the goal line.
Whether it was six first-half touchdowns against Chicago or a fake-spike toss to rookie Davante Adams at Miami, 2014 was a year that cemented Aaron Rodgers’ legacy not just in the annals of Packers history but in the history of the NFL. Weaved within those 12 victories, 38 touchdowns and five interceptions were some heady records:
His eight three-touchdown/zero interception games tied for first in NFL history with Tom Brady (2007). Rodgers became the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 18-plus scores and one or fewer interceptions in the first seven games of the season. His 13 games without a pick were the third-most in NFL history. Rodgers extended his NFL record by finishing with a 112.2 passer rating — the sixth season in a row his rating exceeded the century mark and the second-best mark in team history to the 122.5 mark he posted in 2011. Best yet, Green Bay was 11-0 in games in which Rodgers eclipsed the 100 mark in quarterback rating. Rodgers was third in the league in touchdowns, second in touchdown percentage and first in touchdown/interception ratio.
Defensive MVP: Matthews
Clay Matthews is one of those rare football players whose numbers are impressive but whose impact is well beyond any statistical measurement. There was a concern that defensive coordinator Dom Capers had devalued Matthews’ pass-rushing prowess for the greater good of the team. Through the first eight games, Matthews had just 2.5 sacks. He dropped into coverage more and rushed less, and there was a fear that there was an “Aaron Kampman-izing” of Matthews going on. A fear that one of the league’s most-gifted rushers simply wasn’t being given enough opportunities to succeed.
As it turned out, Matthews has a whole bunch of ways to get to the quarterback. And he did plenty of that in the second half of the season. He notched a team-best 11 sacks, an interception, two forced fumbles, six passes defensed, 17 quarterback hits and 21 pressures. Those are the tangibles. But more than that, Matthews was the best player on a defense in disarray early in the season. Green Bay’s defense got to the passer sporadically but, worse yet, couldn’t stop the run. Its struggles came to a head in a loss to New Orleans heading into the bye, when Mark Ingram rolled up 172 rushing yards. So, Capers went back to the drawing board, got creative and decided to take his best, most instinctive player and move him to a position he never played.
Matthews moved into a part-time role at inside linebacker for the final eight games — shutting down opposing running backs, stymying tight ends and rushing the passer from the middle of the defense. He brought a degree of speed, athleticism and explosiveness beyond what anyone else at the position could muster. He was one of only three players in the NFL with at least 10 sacks, a pick and a forced fumble. But by far his biggest contribution was to a run defense that allowed just 86.4 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry over the final eight contests, good for fifth and sixth in the league, respectively, during that span. We can lament his time on the sideline during Seattle’s late-game comeback, but without Matthews, Green Bay isn’t even in that conference championship game. He was named to his fifth Pro Bowl — and showed that he’s probably capable of making the Pro Bowl at six or seven spots on defense.
Special Teams MVP: Hyde
A lot went wrong with the special teams in 2014. So much so that calling them special is a stretch. Blocked punts, blocked field goals and blocked extra points marred this third phase of the game. Of course that paled in comparison to the debacle in the NFC title game. But there were some highlights delivered by the guy in the No. 33 jersey.
Micah Hyde may not conjure images of Desmond Howard, but his third career punt return for a score tied him with the Super Bowl XXXI MVP for tops in franchise history. Hyde became just the fifth player in team history to record two punt returns for touchdowns and averaged 15.8 yards per return, highest in the league among players with at least 14 returns. His 55-yarder against Detroit in the regular-season finale was the first score in a tightly contested 30-20 victory. Earlier in the season, he ripped off a 75-yarder in a rout of Philly. He may have ceded his starting safety spot to HaHa Clinton-Dix, but Hyde continues to be an impact role player for the Packers on defense and, especially, as a return man.
Rookie of the Year: Linsley
Corey Linsley was drafted for insurance and depth. Instead, he was thrust into the starting lineup when anointed starting center J.C. Tretter hurt his ankle and wound up on IR. The stage was not too big for Linsley — a 6-foot-3, 301-pound mauler who played in the “Big House” at Ohio State. Linsley became the first rookie center to start every game for the Packers since the league went to a 16-game schedule in 1978. He was part of an offense that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in points and part of a line that allowed just nine sacks in the last eight games, the second-fewest over that time.
As with any rookie lineman, his first goal was to not draw attention to himself. But talk quickly went from guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang helping the rookie along to a young player who was coming into his own on a dominant offense. Linsley became a trusted bodyguard for Rodgers in the passing game and a road grader clearing the way for running back Eddie Lacy. Rodgers took every opportunity to praise him and, by season’s end, Linsley was operating near a Pro Bowl level.
Best Play of the Year: Clinton-Dix’s PBU; Rodgers’ fake spike
With the star-studded offensive cast the Packers boast, choosing a Play of the Year is never easy. But there were two that stand out above the rest — and one of them was on defense, by a rookie no less.
No one expected Alabama safety HaHa Clinton-Dix to be around when the Packers were making the 21st overall pick last May. While he didn’t start initially, his hard-hitting, instinctive play was immediately recognized, and he reinvigorated a struggling safety corps, where veteran Morgan Burnett desperately needed some help. Clinton-Dix had two huge picks in the title game – along with a couple plays he wished he’d made. But his defining moment was in the Packers’ biggest victory of the year. In what was billed as (and should have been) a potential Super Bowl preview, Green Bay was nursing a 23-21 lead in the fourth quarter against New England. When all-world tight end Rob Gronkowski bolted to the edge of the end zone on second-and-20, Clinton-Dix was in perfect coverage as an equally perfect pass arrived from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. As Gronkowski went to pull the ball in to his chest for the go-ahead score, Clinton-Dix had his left hand between the tight end’s chest and the ball and, as the both went to the ground, Clinton-Dix pulled his arm through to force the incompletion. After Mike Daniels and Mike Neal sandwiched Brady on third down for a sack, Stephen Gostkowski missed a 47-yard field goal leaving Green Bay with the lead.
On the other side of the ball, Aaron Rodgers offered a bevy of possibilities to consider, from deep strikes to Jordy Nelson to cross-body throws. Eddie Lacy made his case for consideration, too. But it was an old-school Dan Marino play that shares this award. With 23 seconds remaining and Green Bay trailing 24-20 at Miami, Rodgers rushed the offense to the Dolphins’ 16-yard line to spike the ball and stop the clock. But as he was yelling “Clock!” he looked to his right and spied Jordy Nelson in the slot with rookie Davante Adams lined up wide. What caught his eye was Dolphins cornerback Cortland Finnegan backed up 11 yards off the ball. Rodgers got the snap, but instead of spiking the ball, he faked it. Adams initially didn’t realize what was going on but, when he did, he caught Rodgers’ surprise pass and was savvy enough to get yards and get out of bounds after an 11-yard gain. Lined up on the 4-yard line with 6 ticks left, Rodgers threw a perfect back-shoulder strike to tight end Andrew Quarless on the next play for the game-winner.
Worst Play of the Year: Burnett going to the ground after his INT at Seattle
In a year where so many things went right, there were still some strong candidates for this award, with most of them coming from the final game: Being stopped 4 inches from the goal line on their first drive, the fake punt for a touchdown, Brandon Bostick’s failed attempt to catch the onside kick rather than block his man, and that two-point conversion that never should’ve been caught.
But the winner here is a play that was a conscious decision. And all things considered, the wrong one. When Morgan Burnett pulled down Russell Wilson’s fourth interception of the game at the Green Bay 43-yard line, a field of green lay before him. At worst, Burnett could’ve sprinted to the sideline – untouched – and put the Packers in field goal range. At best, he had one offensive lineman and Wilson to beat for a pick-six that would’ve been “your dagger” and sent the Packers to Glendale, Ariz., for the Super Bowl. Instead, on a wet day, with 5:04 remaining and a 19-7 Packers’ lead, Burnett played it safe and slid to ground, after getting a signal from teammate Julius Peppers.
“Those are decisions that are made in the heat of battle,” McCarthy said of the slide. “I agree with the intent of the decision. I clearly expected us to move the ball and at least change the field position.
“The fact that Morgan went down and then we gave them the ball back at the (Seattle 31-yard line). That’s not Morgan’s fault. I don’t think you go back and question that decision. Why he did it, I understand. The way we were playing at that point, defensively we were in command of the game.”
Unfortunately, that command quickly, and unexpectedly crumbled after that.
Hit of the Year: Shields on Toilolo
Honorable mention goes to Clay Matthews coming out of coverage and taking a 10-yard running start to drop Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in the regular-season finale. There also was safety Sean Richardson decleating Eagles backup linebacker Bryan Braman on Micah Hyde’s 75-yard punt return touchdown. Braman was running down the middle of the field and adjusting his chin strap, of all things, when Richardson put him onto the turf to spring Hyde.
But the winner goes to 5-foot-11, 184-pound cornerback Sam Shields. Against Atlanta, Packers safety Morgan Burnett got his first interception in more than two years when Matt Ryan fired an errant pass to Devin Hester on first down from his 45-yard line. Shields was well behind Burnett in coverage, but sprinted across the field on an angle, catching up and passing Burnett. With Levine Toilolo looking to put an end to Burnett’s play, Shields unloaded all he had on the 6-foot-8, 265-pound tight end at the 24-yard line, knocking him to the ground and allowing Burnett to pick up another 7 yards. Four plays later, the Packers scored to go up 24-7 with just more than 2 minutes remaining in the first half. Shields, the former undrafted free agent and converted receiver out of Miami, was once a player who shied away from contact and being physical. If ever there was a reminder that those days are long gone, it was this play when Shields took down a giant that was 9 inches and 80 pounds bigger.
Most Disappointing Player(s) of the Year: Guys up front on punts and kicks
Typically, this is a singular award. And not the one you’re shooting for at the start of the year. Sure, there were candidates. Linebacker Brad Jones played himself out of the starting lineup and got his number called for more ill-timed penalties than key tackles. With the tight end position up for grabs early in the season, Brandon Bostick was nowhere to be seen and, aside from one score out of a three tight end set, barely played from scrimmage. Of course his failed catch on a late onside kick at Seattle will define his career until further notice.
But with three blocked field goals, two blocked punts and two blocked extra points, for God’s sake, this award goes to a collection of players who just couldn’t get it right. The Packers had five blocked kicks in the previous five seasons. They had seven in 2014. And what made it seemingly impossible to correct was that it was different players taking turns messing up. Jamari Lattimore (at Miami) and Brett Goode (at Philadelphia) missed their men on the blocked punts. Derek Sherrod (Chicago), Corey Linsley (Buffalo) and Andrew Quarless (Detroit) were the culprits on three blocked field goals. The blocked point-afters were pinned on Tim Masthay for a bad hold (Philadelphia) and Lane Taylor and Josh Boyd (Atlanta). It didn’t help that starting guards Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang were taken off the kicking teams in the weeks following the bye to reduce their load while they played through injuries. Still, it’s a staggering number. That none of these blocked kicks resulted in a loss (and only the game at Buffalo was a loss) was a credit to everything else the Packers did right in those regular season matchups.
Shadows to Spotlight: Guion
Nose tackle Letroy Guion was the “other” free agent signing by Green Bay in the offseason. The one that no one gave much thought to after inking linebacker Julius Peppers. But Guion’s success story is reminiscent of the Packers signing of defensive lineman Ryan Pickett in the same offseason as Charles Woodson. Less hype, but plenty of substance.
Guion came to Green Bay after six seasons in Minnesota, where he started 28 games the past two seasons. For a one-year, $1 million contract, he was expected to provide some quality snaps in relief of starter B.J. Raji. But when Raji went down in late August with a torn biceps, Guion — who missed all but a week of training camp with a hamstring injury — was thrust into the starting lineup. After a slow start in which he worked himself into game shape, Guion became a force on the defensive line and one of the unsung heroes of the run defense’s turnaround. His key stop on a goal-line stand at the end of the first half at Miami made Rodgers’ late-game heroics possible. His career-best 62 tackles were second on the defensive line behind Mike Daniels and his 3.5 sacks were fifth on the team.
The 6-foot-4, 315-pounder also made one of the most athletic plays you’ll see out of a defensive lineman when he shoved Atlanta left guard Justin Blalock and center James Stone into the backfield, deflected a Matt Ryan pass with his outstretched right hand, spotted it in the air and spun around and dove for it, pulling it in for an apparent interception. The play was overruled when replays showed that Guion lost it against the ground, but the tackle’s combination of strength and athleticism is why the Packers have targeted the 27-year-old as a free agent to lock up this offseason.
Comeback Player of the Year: Cobb
After his 2013 season was cut short by a broken leg, Randall Cobb’s 2014 season was one with great expectations. The start wasn’t what he had planned. Cobb just didn’t look like the Swiss Army knife of a player he was in 2012, when he lined up all over the field to slice up defenses. After a loss at Detroit where he had just three catches for 29 yards, Cobb publicly called himself out and said he needed to do more.
That commitment manifested itself into a career year for Cobb — 91 catches for a 1,287 yards and 12 touchdowns. Cobb was a go-to target in the red zone with an NFL-leading 10 scores inside the 20-yard line. Six of his scoring grabs came on third down — tied for tops in the league — including a diving, one-handed grab of Rodgers’ record-tying sixth touchdown against Chicago. And 71 of his 91 grabs went for first downs, a number that led the team and was No. 4 in the league. Playing out the final year of his contract, Cobb assured himself a monster deal that makes him No. 1 on the Packers’ list of free agents.
Consummate Pro Award: Peppers and Nelson
The Packers added more than just pass rush with the surprise signing of free agent linebacker Julius Peppers last spring. They added a veteran voice and leader that their locker room hasn’t had since Charles Woodson departed. Leading up to the Packers Nov. 9 rematch against Chicago following Green Bay’s bye and a bitter 44-23 defeat at New Orleans, Peppers delivered a passionate pregame speech that re-focused the team and put into motion a 7-1 finish to the season. Not one to normally speak up, the 34-year-old vet spoke of “seizing the moment.” It was exactly what they team needed to hear in that moment. As big of an impact as his words were, they were underscored by a season in which he had 45 tackles, seven sacks, 17 quarterback hits and two interceptions returned for touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball was Jordy Nelson, who put together one of the all-time great seasons in Packers history with a franchise-best 1,519 yards on 98 receptions and 13 touchdowns to earn his first Pro Bowl bid, along with second-team All-Pro honors. His season totals make him just the eighth receiver to ever post 95 or more catches, with 1,500 or more yards and 13 scores. Nelson also led the league with seven catches of 40-plus yards — another franchise-best total. And in a league full of “look at me” personalities, Nelson amassed his totals with a humbleness and grace that draped a season screaming to be noticed in quiet greatness.
Most Improved Player: Barrington
Fans can be forgiven if they don’t remember that in the same 2013 game that Rodgers went down with a collarbone injury, rookie linebacker Sam Barrington was also lost for the year with a hamstring injury. Barrington, a seventh-round pick in 2013, put in the time during the 2014 offseason and remained patient through a strong training camp. After Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore struggled to fortify the position next to A.J. Hawk, Barrington finally made his first start on Oct. 19 in a blowout win over Carolina. He’d start again the following week at New Orleans, but after the defense’s worst showing of the year, Clay Matthews was moved to inside linebacker and started alongside Hawk.
Barrington would get his chance again against New England and re-entered the starting lineup with authority. He dropped Patriots running back Shane Vereen after a 2-yard gain on second-and-4 and then stonewalled bruiser LeGarrette Blount for no gain on the next play. He finished the day with seven tackles, a quarterback hit, a pressure and deflected a Tom Brady pass in the second half for good measure. A thick, explosive athlete, Barrington started the final five regular-season games and, despite being a part-time player through the season, finished seventh on the team with 68 tackles.
Thunda on the Tundra Award: Lacy’s TD against Philadelphia
It would be a huge miss to not hand out an award to Eddie Lacy, arguably the most exciting player on the Packers’ roster. A running back who is equal parts Tasmanian Devil and rampaging rhino, Lacy literally knocked the helmets off defenders in scoring runs against Minnesota. There were career days at New Orleans, stutter-steps that left Atlanta linebackers in his wake and beastly bursts up the middle that dragged Detroit defenders. Lacy spun and bucked and pushed and dragged and bowled over defenders for 1,139 yards and nine touchdowns on 246 carries. He was especially dangerous down the stretch, running for 592 yards on 117 carries over the final six games. As defenses tired, Lacy pounded them for an extra half-yard per carry -- a 5.1-yard clip. But Lacy did his damage through the air as well, with 427 yards on 42 receptions and four scores.
It was on a scoring pass against Philadelphia in which Lacy made his best play of the year. Facing third-and-10 at their 31-yard line, Aaron Rodgers dumped off a pass in the left flat to Lacy. He plucked the high pass out of the sky at the 27-yard line. He evaded a half-hearted tackle from an Eagles cornerback at the 17. After spinning out of a bear hug by defensive end Vinny Curry, Lacy ran over defensive backs Nolan Carroll and Malcolm Jenkins at the goal line to score, getting a shove at the end from teammate Andrew Quarless. Cornerback Cary Williams was more than happy to let Packers receiver Davante Adams shove him safely out of Lacy’s way.