GREEN BAY – Head Coach Matt LaFleur spoke with the media Monday for roughly a half hour to wrap up the Packers' 2023 season.
Here are five things we learned:
- The emotions from the bitter ending are still raw, but there's a lot to be proud of.
Perhaps this line from LaFleur best sums up where he is mentally 30 hours after returning from the NFC Divisional playoff loss at San Francisco: "I'm really disappointed that we're not preparing right now for Detroit."
That said, falling just one win short of another trip to the NFC title game with the youngest team in the league doesn't happen if not for the team's dedication to improvement and its culture of togetherness.
When the Packers' record was 2-5, or 3-6 a couple weeks later, with frustrations mounting, the season could've gone completely off track. It didn't, and the players and coaches turned it into a success.
But the chance was also there for the ultimate success, and losing out on that still hurts.
"I thought the team we were at the beginning of the year was certainly not the team we were at the end of the year," LaFleur said. "Definitely disappointed how it ended. For the majority of the game I thought we outplayed them. I thought we had plenty of opportunities to win the football game and didn't make some critical plays. There were some other things that went against us that just happen.
"But I was really proud of just the resiliency of the group. I've said that many times and the willingness to work and to come together and continue to fight for one another, I think that's absolutely imperative."
He later added: "That's what's so rewarding about this team. It's tough right now because it obviously still stings but, quite frankly, a lot of other teams may have faltered."
- The team's expectations clearly change for 2024, but nothing can be taken for granted in the meantime.
In the final team meeting Monday morning, LaFleur stressed to the players how important it will be for each individual to own his offseason and put in the work to make personal strides.
"Just because we got to a certain spot doesn't mean that's guaranteed moving forward," he said. "So, what are we going to do to get better?
"The expectation is that when they come back April 15th, they're better than the team that left today and that's not just going to happen by chance."
While much of this past season was about proving those wrong who had counted the Packers out, next season will begin with those outside perceptions in a totally different place.
LaFleur said the team has "earned" that, in part due to the personnel department's ability to "hit the jackpot" in the last couple of drafts. But now it's on all those young players with promise and so much still in front of them to make the most of it.
"Getting guys that love football, that love the grind, if you find people that are willing to work and they love it, then they've got a chance of hitting their potential," LaFleur said. "Whatever that ceiling may be, you have a chance of hitting that."
- Of all the lessons QB Jordan Love learned in Year 1, the most important might've been the last one.
Love tried to do too much on the final drive against the 49ers, making a bad decision and a risky throw back across the middle of the field on first down that got intercepted, ending the Packers' season.
It's a reflection of how much he grew and accomplished in his first year as a starting quarterback that the final play was so shocking.
He had become the hottest and maybe the most dangerous quarterback in the postseason field with how he performed over the previous two months, throwing just one interception in the nine games preceding the playoff defeat.
"Every situation he's been in he's learned from it," LaFleur said. "So I would fully expect that to be the case after this last game.
"When you get in a position, when you're down, you try to make the big play. You try to make it, but you can't force it. And I think that's kind of the lesson from that. Certainly there was nothing there and sometimes the best play is a throwaway."
LaFleur added he felt good about where the Packers were on the final drive, down by three, gaining one first down, with just under a minute left and two timeouts.
But he also emphasized the game never should've come down to that, given all the earlier squandered chances for more points.
"There were so many plays in that game, that had they gone different, we might have had a different result … probably 10 plays in the game," LaFleur said. "That's one of the ones that's tough to deal with, but I think he'll be better for it in the long run.
"That play didn't lose the game. There were plenty of other opportunities there for us. We shouldn't have been in that situation, quite frankly, is the way I saw it when I watched the tape."
Two issues linger as they relate to Love's immediate future. First is the continued focus on late-game situations that cost the Packers a number of games during the season, not just the last one. LaFleur said he saw considerable improvement in that area in practice, even if it didn't manifest itself against the 49ers.
Second is whether or not Love's position coach, Tom Clements, who turns 71 this spring, will continue coaching. LaFleur said that's up to Clements but he absolutely wants him back given the impact he's had on Love and the rest of the coaching staff.
Overall, there's nothing but excitement regarding Love's development and what he means to the franchise from here.
"He had a hell of a year. Let's not look past that. He really did," LaFleur said. "Just to see the growth … The results speak for themselves, but the growth of him as just the commander out there. He's an extension of us, and I thought the ownership that he showed, the leadership that he showed, was a great sign for us."
- Competition at kicker is expected after rookie Anders Carlsons struggles and big playoff miss, but LaFleur wanted to set the record straight.
After Carlson missed a 41-yard field goal with just over six minutes left that would've given the Packers a seven-point lead, FOX sideline reporter Tom Rinaldi shared a comment from LaFleur in a production meeting that he would "pray" every time the Packers attempt a kick.
LaFleur clarified Monday he made that comment "in jest" and was "having fun" with a discussion that was not meant the way it was portrayed.
That said, Carlson's miss extended a run during which he missed at least one kick in 10 of the Packers' last 12 games, so nothing is certain at that spot moving forward.
"We want competition at every position, so we're always going to bring in competition," LaFleur said. "I'm a firm believer that competition brings out the best in one another."
- Nothing's been decided regarding any potential changes to the coaching staff.
LaFleur is just beginning the evaluation process while curiosity swirls around defensive coordinator Joe Barry, whose unit continued its extreme swings of up-and-down play until smoothing out after Christmas and finishing the season strong.
"I'm going through everything right now," he said. "I want to certainly sit down with every assistant before any decisions are made."
He's not putting a timeline on the process.
Finding a more consistent level of play on defense is certainly the goal, however that may be achieved. LaFleur was more involved in defensive game-planning late in the season and might continue doing that as he evaluates everyone's role, including his own.
He noted he's not "close-minded" about turning over the offensive play-calling if it's necessary he focus more time on other aspects of the team. That would seem an extreme step given the rapport he's developed with Love, but his point is that nothing's off the table in working through how to improve.
"That's going to be the next step, is to go through and figure out how we can be a little bit more consistent," LaFleur said. "And it's not just on defense. It's in every phase, right? … Looking at what we do well, how can we best put our players in position to have success. That's going to be part of this next process."