GREEN BAY — The countdown started in Jacksonville in hopes of ending in Houston.
In keeping with his tradition of setting a theme for every season, Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy had the team’s video staff incorporate the number of days until Super Bowl LI into the team’s highlight packages for the season.
This year’s Packers – known collectively as the “2016 Confidants” – watched that number drop steadily from their first victory of the year over the Jaguars to their last against top-seeded Dallas in the NFC Divisional playoffs.
While the Packers ultimately finished 14 days from making their Super Bowl aspirations a reality, the number served as a reminder of how close the team came despite the tidal wave of adversity it faced over the course of the season.
“The ultimate goal is a constant as far as the way we coach, the way we prepare, and really it’s a big part of messaging in our program. That’s the goal,” said McCarthy during his season-ending news conference on Thursday.
“We don’t shy away from it. I’m never going to be one to hedge my bets. Under-promise, over-deliver, I think that’s a weak mindset personally. … We had a successful season but we did not reach the ultimate goal of winning the Super Bowl.”
McCarthy spoke for nearly 30 minutes on Thursday, penning the final chapter in what will go down as one of the most challenging, yet rewarding, seasons of his coaching career.
The 2016 Packers, besieged by injury at times, pulled themselves out of a 4-6 hole to win eight consecutive games en route to their fifth NFC North title in six years and fourth trip to the NFC Championship Game under McCarthy.
Green Bay was forced to alter its offense due to injuries to running backs Eddie Lacy and James Starks, placing more responsibility on the shoulders of quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers was locked in during the team’s eight-game winning streak, amassing a 122.1 passer rating over that stretch and finishing the regular season with a league-high 40 touchdown passes.
As well as Rodgers performed, it was how the two-time MVP played in the Packers’ 44-21 loss to Atlanta last week that left a lasting impression on McCarthy.
“You can talk about statistics. You can talk about mistakes, but the energy and the passion he threw out there in that NFC Championship Game, I thought he went to another level,” McCarthy said. “That’s what I’m thinking about and we need that. That is a great example of a great player trying to elevate his teammates.
“That game speaks volumes. I know what the score was. I know how it went. It wasn’t very good, but there’s a lot of things out of that game that we’ll be able to draw from.”
Following the loss to the Falcons, Rodgers discussed the need for the team to make sure it’s going “all-in every year” in an effort to take a big step. He also reiterated his window of opportunity to play at a high level remains as wide as ever.
Nutrition and conditioning play a large part in that plan. Rodgers made a significant commitment last offseason when he altered his diet in an effort to extend his career.
McCarthy believes the 33-year-old quarterback is in “the best shape of his career,” with both understanding how important Rodgers is to bringing a fifth Lombardi Trophy to Green Bay.
“We need to win a championship for everybody,” McCarthy said. “Obviously, he’s the key to our team. He’s the best player on our football team and he’s the best player in the National Football League. But it takes more than one player to win that and we understand that and we need to improve in so many areas, even the areas where we’re very good.
“Going back to Aaron’s statement, all-in, we can control what we control, but everyone in football ops, we need to max out this opportunity, and we’re already working on that next opportunity.”
The Packers already have started building toward next season. McCarthy conducted exit interviews with players earlier this week and mapped out possible areas of emphasis.
After the Super Bowl, McCarthy will begin evaluating his coaching staff and making preparations for 2017. There are a few areas the team already has pinpointed, beginning with an increased emphasis on pass defense during the offseason program.
Injuries were again an issue for the Packers in 2016. McCarthy believes the team has benefitted from its dedication to performance nutrition and analytics, but he acknowledges “we’re just at the tip of the iceberg in that area.”
“The education of the health and wellness of how players prepare to perform throughout the season is better than any of my 11 years here right now,” McCarthy said. “With it, we’ve had all these injuries. We’re constantly researching that. I can promise you these guys are dialed in.”
It’s not just the areas of improvement McCarthy is concentrated on, either. He still sees room for growth in the team’s seventh-ranked pass offense and No. 8 run defense.
If there’s anything 11 years has taught McCarthy, it’s that nothing stays the same. You can’t just plan on the positives staying positive year-after-year, while constantly overhauling whatever doesn’t go according to plan.
In the meantime, the Packers have started building toward next year’s squad with general manager Ted Thompson already scouting down at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
The countdown continues to another year and another chance at greatness. Based on what he’s seen, McCarthy believes there’s plenty of reasons for optimism in 2017.
“I think it’s clear we’re not far from where we wanted to be,” McCarthy said. “We’re one game away from where we wanted to be. If we’re doing comparables, that’s closer than a majority of the league.
“We’re going to look at everything. I’m very open and honest and direct about that. I know there’s areas now we can improve in because there’s things that come up during the course of the season that we can improve.”
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