When one takes a real close look at the 2013 season of the Green Bay Packers, it's truly amazing that the team won the NFC North title with all the trials and tribulations that the team had to endure.
Just think about it. The team placed 15 players on injured reserve, including key players like offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, tight end Jermichael Finley and cornerback Casey Hayward.
Bulaga, who had moved over to the other side of the line to play left tackle this season, didn't play at all in 2013, as he tore his ACL in the Family night scrimmage early in training camp. Finley was having a career year until a neck injury ended his season in Week 7. Hayward, who led the team in interceptions with six in 2012, had hamstring issues in training camp and his season was basically washed out due to that situation.
To add to that, the best player on the team—quarterback Aaron Rodgers—missed seven games due to a fractured clavicle. Also, the best player on the defense—outside linebacker Clay Matthews—missed five games due to a broken thumb.
In addition to that, wide receiver Randall Cobb missed 10 games due to a broken leg.
All three were sorely missed.
In the nine games that Rodgers played in, No. 12 had 17 touchdown passes versus just six picks for 2,536 yards. That adds up to a quarterback rating of 104.9.
Matthews only played in 11 games, and he played with a cast on in seven of those games. Still, Matthews had 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles.
Cobb ended up with 31 receptions for 433 yards and four touchdowns in six games. Two of those touchdown receptions came in the final week of the season against the Bears.
Somehow the Packers finished 8-7-1 and still won the NFC North. The main reason was the ineptitude of the Detroit Lions down the stretch, and also the great comeback victory over the Chicago Bears in the final week of the season.
It was in that game that the play of the year in the NFL happened. It was 4th-and-8 with 46 seconds to go at the Chicago 48-yard line. Thanks to a block thrown by fullback John Kuhn, Rodgers was able to elude defensive end Julius Peppers and while moving to his left, hit Cobb with a long touchdown pass with just 38 seconds to go in the game.
But just getting the chance to play for the NFC North title that day took some doing. The main reason the Packers were in that position? That would be quarterback Matt Flynn, who came back to Green Bay after seeing his career head downward with stops in Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo over the past two years.
The reason Flynn even got a shot in Green Bay also took some weird turns.
In training camp, the Packers decided that they were not happy with the development of either Graham Harrell or B.J. Coleman, and they decided to bring in veteran Vince Young.
When all was said and done however, the Packers didn't keep any of their training camp quarterbacks, and instead signed veteran Seneca Wallace to be the main backup to Rodgers. The Packers also signed former Wisconsin Badger quarterback Scott Tolzien to the practice squad.
Then just a week after Rodgers was injured, Wallace also was sidelined with a groin injury. That made Tolzien the starter, as he had been elevated to the roster after the collarbone injury to Rodgers. The Packers also brought back Flynn to backup Tolzien, as Wallace was placed on injured reserve.
Tolzien flashed a strong arm and threw for 717 yards in three games (including two starts), but the former Badger only threw one touchdown pass while throwing five interceptions. After Tolzien was ineffective against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field in Week 12 and being down 23-7 in the third quarter, the Packers decided to put in Flynn to try and get a spark.
Flynn did indeed add a spark, and the Packers stormed back to tie the Vikings at 23 apiece at the end of regulation. The game ended up in a 26-26 tie, but after having three straight losses before that game, the tie was almost considered a victory.
Flynn went on to start four games for the Packers and went 2-2, with the two wins coming because of fourth-quarter comebacks. Flynn certainly added some stability to the quarterback position, as he ended up throwing seven touchdown passes versus four picks for 1,146 yards while he played.
That stability led to Week 17 and the game against the Bears at Soldier Field. Ironically it was the first game against the Monsters of the Midway when Rodgers had his collarbone injury in Week 9. Before that first game, the Packers had thrown 15 touchdown passes versus just 4 picks, and the Packers were 5-2.
But on the last week of the season, the team was 7-7-1, and a win would get the team a home playoff game as the champion of the NFC North. Rodgers led the Packers to a win, but there were many other players who deserve recognition for what they did over the course of the season.
First and foremost is rookie running back Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. Lacy became the first Green Bay running back to rush for over 1,000 yards since the 2009 season. Lacy also added 35 receptions for another 257 yards.
Lacy was recently named second-team All-Pro.
That performance has to make Lacy the favorite to win the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award in 2013. The last Packer to win that award was running back John Brockington in 1971.
The Packers had a great one-two combination at running back, as Lacy was spelled at times by James Starks, who rushed for 493 yards (5.7 yards-per-carry average) and three touchdowns.
Other rookies stood out as well. David Bakhtiari stepped into the starter's role at left tackle after Bulaga was injured. Overall, Bakhtiari played very solidly. So did defensive back Micah Hyde, who played the slot-cornerback position for the most part this season, with Hayward being out.
Hyde also became the primary return man for the Packers and had a 93-yard punt return for a touchdown, as well as a 70-yard kickoff return.
Some veterans turned in very good years as well. On offense, wide receiver Jordy Nelson stands out. Nelson ended up with 85 receptions for 1,314 yards and eight touchdowns. Nelson also got some help at wide receiver from James Jones and Jarrett Boykin, who combined for 108 catches for 1,498 yards and six touchdowns.
Left guard Josh Sitton also had a very nice year and, like Lacy, was named second-team All-Pro. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right guard T.J. Lang also had solid years.
Overall, even with all the injuries, the Packers finished third in total offense in the NFL.
The defense had a few players who took their game up a notch in 2013.
Inside linebacker A.J. Hawk had the best year of his eight-year career this season, as No. 50 had 118 combined tackles, five sacks, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one pick.
Mike Neal moved from defensive end to outside linebacker this year after dropping some weight, and played in all 16 games, amassing five sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
Mike Daniels also had a solid year rushing the quarterback in passing situations, as he was second on the team with 6.5 sacks.
Cornerbacks Sam Shields (four picks) and Tramon Williams (three picks) were solid.
Speaking of solid, there was nothing more solid than the performance of kicker Mason Crosby in 2013. Crosby had a horrible year in 2012, when he made just 63.6 percent of his field goals, as he was just 21-of-33.
Crosby also had to compete with a number of kickers in training camp, most notably Giorgio Tavecchio. Crosby ended up keeping his job, but he still had to make a contract alteration, as No. 2 saw his base salary drop from $2.4 million to $800,000 with his new contract in August.
Crosby ended up having his best year ever in the NFL, as he was 33-of-37 in field goal attempts this year, and scored 141 points overall.
Punter Tim Masthay also was very good in the kicking game.
Finally, when it was all said and done, the Packers won the NFC North, being just a game over .500.
That led to a NFC Wild Card game against the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers at frigid Lambeau Field this past Sunday. Like the team had done the previous four weeks, the Packers took it right down to the wire versus a team which had beaten the Packers three straight times prior to the game.
In the end, the 49ers prevailed 23-20, as kicker Phil Dawson kicked a 33-yard field goal to win the game as time expired.
The Packers were basically one play away from winning the game, but it just wasn't to be.
Still, the team has a lot to be proud of this past season, as the Packers overcame so much during the campaign.
Now the Packers have to focus on putting the best possible roster together for the 2014 season. Under general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers have been a predominantly draft-and-develop team over the last eight years.
Rarely does Thompson utilize free agency, except signing for "street" and rookie free agents. However, Thompson did strike gold in 2006 in true free agency, when he was able to corral both defensive back Charles Woodson and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett that year.
2014 might be the year when Thompson gets the eight-year itch and starts using free agency again. At least according to Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the dean of the beat writers who cover the team.
Besides perhaps getting some help from other veteran NFL players, the Packers have to deal with their own free agents. Not just a few, either. The Packers have a whopping 20 players who will be free agents this spring.
That list includes players such as cornerback Sam Shields, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, wide receiver James Jones, defensive linemen B.J.Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson, outside linebacker Mike Neal, backup quarterback Matt Flynn, fullback John Kuhn, running back James Starks, plus tight ends Jermichael Finley and Andrew Quarless.
All of the players listed above will be unrestricted free agents.
It will be up to Thompson and McCarthy to figure out which players will get the highest priority of returning.
Between bringing back some key free agents, adding at least one other top-notch free agent in the NFL market place (the safety position would be the priority), getting the injured back available to play next year and also having a good draft, the Packers should be in good shape in 2014.
The Packers have won three NFC North titles in a row, but have also gone 1-3 in the postseason during that period.
For the Packers to go deep into the playoffs and win another Super Bowl, I believe the team needs to think out of the box and be aggressive in terms of putting together the best possible roster next season.
Time will tell if that will happen.
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