GREEN BAY – The growing pains were real. But boy, were they worth it.
As General Manager Brian Gutekunst looked back on the Packers' 2023 season late last week, he broke down many of his own thought processes as the team struggled for a while before catching fire.
It wasn't easy, but he tried to stay as even-keeled as possible throughout, believing in the process of a young team needing to grow and learn how to win.
"I wanted to see how fast and how quickly this team could get up to speed and competing at a high level," Gutekunst said. "Obviously there was some adversity, like we always have in every year, but to see these guys come out of it the way they did gives you a lot of excitement."
Two relatively minor but meaningful mentality shifts helped along the way.
First, led by Head Coach Matt LaFleur, the team began focusing on the day-to-day process of improvement more than the results. That's a challenge when all the outside evaluation is based on the bottom line, but Gutekunst noted there were unseen small victories of progress to celebrate along the way, even when the team was 2-5 and 3-6. That's when he "saw the results coming."
Second, again as LaFleur noted previously, it became an organization-wide approach to stop offering up youth as an excuse for the struggles. The expectations were to compete at a certain level, regardless of experience, and the players had to be held to that standard.
"Even during that time, as tough as it was, there were some things that were moving in the right direction," Gutekunst said. "It did wear on me a little bit, the whole 'young thing' as an excuse. Not only me but I think everyone here because we knew the kind of players we had.
"It was just a matter of them working together and getting through the kinks and getting through all the things you have to go through. I'm excited where they can take it from here."
The greatest amount of growth was seen from quarterback Jordan Love and the young stable of receivers and tight ends around him, all of whom were first- or second-year players.
As route mix-ups and dropped passes were reduced, and blocking assignments were better understood and executed, there was no seasoned veteran to lead the way. But that was sort of the point from Gutekunst's perspective, as no one's snaps were limited by any veteran hierarchy, only each individual's performance and production.
As a result, once progress was evident, it continued at a rapid pace.
"The biggest thing for me is when you have competition in those rooms, it just allows for guys to accelerate their growth," Gutekunst said. "When they have to compete each and every day for snaps and playing time, I just think it accelerates everything.
"You start to see things. You see guys getting better. You see units getting better. And then it's just a matter of can you get better in time to get into the tournament, and have a chance?"
They did, and they did. In the end, that became the only downer to it all, as a legitimate opportunity wasn't maximized.
Love and the offense were rolling, the defense had turned it around, and the road blowout of No. 2 seed Dallas in the NFC Wild Card round provided belief and put the playoff field on notice.
Ultimately, the Packers had the top-seeded 49ers on the ropes but wound up absorbing rather than delivering the knockout blow.
"Walking off a field where you feel you should have won the game is never a fun feeling, … particularly when you think you had a chance because of the way we were playing," Gutekunst said. "We were playing at such a high level."
The ride was frustrating, exhilarating, gratifying and disappointing at various spots along the way, and it sets up the Packers as Super Bowl contenders in 2024.
They don't get to just pick up where they left off, but in Gutekunst's mind there's no shying away from that objective after everything this last squad achieved.
"With five minutes to go in that (San Francisco) game, we were squarely thinking that's where we were headed," he said. "So, I don't think that'll ever change here. I mean, that's really the only goal. We're not interested in much else."