Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY

Rewinding and Unraveling

Our W. Keith Roerdink tries to make sense of the loss at Arizona and a 2015 season that started with such high expectations.

Disbelief gives way to disappointment a week removed from the Packers’ overtime playoff loss at Arizona. It’s like a Seasonal Affective Disorder specifically tied to Green Bay’s season ending. A heavy, lethargic feeling sinks in: Football is still being played, but the Packers are nowhere to be seen. It’s the hangover of unmet expectations, frustration and possibilities crushed.

What if Michael Floyd hadn’t caught that deflected pass for a touchdown? What if the Packers had gone for two at the end of regulation? What if Damarious Randall had followed Larry Fitzgerald on that overtime crossing route? What if Sam Shields had pulled in even one of the three Carson Palmer passes that hit him in the hands?

The questions will persist long past the conclusion of Super Bowl 50. They’ve replaced the unwelcome nightmares of a year ago involving fake field goals, unlikely two-point attempts and botched onside kick recoveries at Seattle. But, ultimately, they’ll go unanswered.

In truth, Green Bay had probably gone as far as it could without Jordy Nelson — and then Randall Cobb, who bruised a lung on a ridiculous one-handed grab that sadly was negated by offsetting penalties. As amazing as Jeff Janis’ 41-yard Hail Mary catch was — not to mention the 60-yarder before that — two Hail Mary’s in the same season is already a gift from the football gods. Could the Packers have really gone into Carolina and pulled off another upset with a receiving corps of James Jones, Jared Abbrederis and Janis? It’s highly unlikely. But that’s why you play the game. And you would’ve loved to see them have the chance. Before it became a mirage, a win in the desert was there for the taking.

When Nelson went down in August in Pittsburgh, Green Bay lost its No. 1 receiver and one of the NFL’s best deep threats. For anyone unsure whether Nelson or Cobb was truly the Packers’ No. 1 receiver, it was answered emphatically when the Packers’ offense limped down the stretch of its worst offensive performance in the Mike McCarthy era, finishing 23rd overall and 25th in passing.

Unfortunately, Cobb solidified himself as a No. 2 receiver who needs a big, fast player like Nelson on the other side of him to really excel from the slot. For all the things Cobb does well, he’s not someone who can take the top off a defense and exploit a single-high safety. Nelson, meanwhile, might have earned a raise this year by not playing. He’s clearly more valuable than anyone realized.

Jones returned to the team and led it with 890 receiving yards, tying for the lead with eight touchdowns. A 31-year-old veteran who was re-signed off the street isn’t normally a recipe for success, but his chemistry with Rodgers was evident from that first game at Chicago. Though he struggled at times, there were games when he looked like the only offense it had — unless you count catching the defense with 12 men on the field.

On the flip side was Janis, a player that fans were clamoring to see pick up the slack for Nelson but couldn’t create chemistry with his quarterback if he had test tubes and a lab coat. He has Nelson’s size and is even faster — possessing a 4.42 40 time. But there’s more to being an elite NFL receiver than those measurables. A Division II player out of Saginaw Valley State, Janis is still learning the NFL game. His routes aren’t as crisp as they need to be, his hands not as consistent, and it was obvious he was far from Rodgers’ favorite.

But to enter that playoff contest with just two catches for 79 yards on the season and finish with seven receptions for 145 yards and two scores when Rodgers was forced to go to him, feels like a failure of coaching that leaves you wondering how, in a year like this, someone with his ability couldn’t be worked into the mix in a bigger way. Take away his 101 yards on two catches on the final drive of regulation at Arizona, and he still had a respectable five catches for 44 yards and a score. That’s not terrible. If nothing else, the loss at Arizona serves as a confidence boost for a young player hoping to make an impact beyond just being a special teams demon.

The offensive struggles hardly lwere imited to the receivers. Second-year tight end Richard Rodgers shared the team lead with eight scores and had what had been the play of the year — prior to Janis’ playoff grab — with the “Miracle in Motown” Hail Mary for the win. But he struggled to break tackles or be a threat in the middle of the field.

Eddie Lacy was without a doubt the biggest mystery and disappointment on the offensive side, with more games of 10 yards or less (four) than 100 yards or more (three). Emphasis is on biggest, because he looked to be playing more than 20 pounds over his playing weight of a year ago. He finished with a team-leading 758 yards on the ground, but more fumbles (four) than touchdowns (three). In the playoff loss at Arizona, he went off for a 61-yard run but was pulled down short of the end zone, which was probably preferable to collapsing in the open field from exhaustion. Luckily for Green Bay, James Starks was on hand all season to keep it afloat with 601 rushing yards, 392 receiving yards and five total touchdowns in a career year.

Aaron Rodgers, depending on your school of thought, was either part of the problem — looking at times like he had a personality transplant with Jay Cutler — or the only reason they won 10 games. Regardless, he rarely looked like a two-time league or Super Bowl MVP — at times overthrowing his receivers or simply failing to see them get open. With injuries at receiver and on the offensive line, and unexpectedly poor performances by Lacy and receiver Davante Adams, he threw for his fewest yards as a 16-game starter with 3,821 and had the lowest quarterback rating of his career at 92.7. That said, those numbers still place him middle of the pack among starting signal-callers. He managed to tie for 10th with 31 touchdown passes even though he was sacked 45 times, the third-highest total of his career. But it simply wasn’t good enough for a player who is the NFL’s all-time leader in passer rating.

If you had to describe the offense in two words, it would be “consistently inconsistent.”

Defensively, that unit went from 18th in yards in 2014 to 15th in 2015 and went from tied for ninth in sacks to a tie for seventh. They rose two notches in interceptions but actually snagged two fewer than a season ago. There were times — like against San Diego — when they bled yards. But they also showed they were capable of getting a key stop when it mattered — like against San Diego, when Randall batted away a potential game-winning toss.

It was a unit that seemed to play better as the year went on and saw meaningful contributions from rookies Randall and second-round pick Quinten Rollins at cornerback, and eventually Jake Ryan at inside linebacker. Other young players, like defensive lineman Mike Daniels and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, upped their game to near Pro Bowl proportion, while veterans like Clay Matthews and ageless Julius Peppers continued to provide big plays.

Of course, when it got to overtime in the desert, it was Randall — who had played so well during the year and for much of the previous three hours with an interception in the end zone and deflection in the end zone — who would fail to diagnose the proper coverage on Fitzgerald, setting up a 75-yard catch and run and eventual win by the Cardinals.

Woulda. Shoulda. Coulda. Didn’t. Despite a 6-0 start that may have cranked expectations to an unrealistic level, this team often was hovering closer to the level that saw it lose at home to Detroit for the first time in more than 20 years (on a day when it unveiled former GM Ron Wolf’s name in the Lambeau Field Ring of Honor, no less) and to Chicago on a rain-soaked Thanksgiving night when Packers quarterbacking royalty Brett Favre and Bart Starr shared the field at halftime.

All things considered, maybe we should’ve seen this coming.

And now, much like in the wake of the loss at Seattle, a long offseason awaits. The players have gone their separate ways, some parting Green Bay for the final time. GM Ted Thompson will need to sort through the team’s list of unrestricted free agents to figure out who will be along for another run in 2016.

But Nelson’s return will be the biggest reason for optimism. With him back in the fold, along with Cobb, rookie Ty Montgomery, Janis, Adams and Jared Abbrederis, the receiving corps will resume its place among the league’s upper echelon. It’s hard to imagine Lacy having a repeat performance of this season. And if the defense and special teams continue to make incremental improvements, the Packers will be in the hunt for a fifth Super Bowl. It’s a pretty good bet that Rodgers will look a lot more like the 2014 version of himself than 2015.

But talk like that is premature right now. And September feels very far away.

W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at

Packer Report Top Stories