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Processing bitter endings never gets easier

Pending free agents ponder their futures


GREEN BAY – Less than 36 hours after their season ended once again in such abrupt and crushing fashion, the Packers were left to process yet another combination of drama and heartbreak that suddenly feels like the trademark of this era.

Saturday night's 26-20 NFC divisional playoff loss at Arizona was the fourth postseason overtime defeat under Head Coach Mike McCarthy and the fifth in seven playoff losses that had the opponent scoring the winning points on the game's final play.

Every one of them has been tough to swallow, and the disappointment in the desert is no exception.

"You can replay the game a billion times and say shoulda, coulda, woulda, but at the end of the day, as long as you feel like you gave your best effort, that's pretty much all you can hinge on," outside linebacker Mike Neal said as players cleaned out their lockers on Monday morning. "I believe we did that. We just came up short."

It's hard to disagree with that sentiment, and the only battle cry left is to go for it again next year. No one feels this team is that far away.

"We're disappointed. I think anyone who doesn't win the Super Bowl is disappointed," said left tackle David Bakhtiari, who gutted out the playoff loss on a bum ankle.

"I think we have a hell of a team. We have a lot of great guys in this locker room. It's a matter of putting it together."

How many of those guys will still be in the locker room come next year is the ultimate uncertainty of every offseason. The Packers have several free agents on both sides of the ball whose futures are up in the air.

One position that will naturally receive a lot of attention is wide receiver. Jordy Nelson and Ty Montgomery will be coming back from season-ending injuries, while the emergence of Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis in the playoffs could be a sign of more to come from them.

James Jones is the elder statesman who came back on a one-year contract after Nelson's injury and led the team in receiving yards and TDs. He's certain Nelson will be back better than ever, but obviously uncertain about what his future holds.

"I've said it before, I would love to finish my career here, but I said that last time," Jones said. "It's a crazy business. We'll see what happens.

"(Jordy will) be ready. He'll be ready a lot sooner than a lot of people think he'll be ready. The guy has been in here putting in a lot of work. He sleeps with his ice machine on. He takes all that stuff home and he works hard. He'll be back, and I'm proud of him."

Other pending free agents on offense include running backs James Starks and John Kuhn, tight end Andrew Quarless, backup QB Scott Tolzien. On special teams, kicker Mason Crosby has also played out his deal.

"Obviously, nine years, this has become home for me and my family," said Crosby, who now holds the NFL postseason record for consecutive made field goals with 20. "This is the team I want to play for, and I hope we can get something done so I can continue on."

Defensively, with Mike Daniels now signed long-term, the pending free agents include Neal and Nick Perry at outside linebacker, B.J. Raji and Letroy Guion on the defensive line and Casey Hayward at cornerback.

The Packers built impressive depth at cornerback by drafting Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins in the first two rounds last spring, and that depth was needed when veteran Sam Shields missed a handful of games due to injuries.

It may be tough financially to keep the entire group together, though. Hayward plays a premium position that's always in demand leaguewide, so he's simply in wait-and-see mode.

"You just never know," he said. "We've got some young guys here. I'm pretty sure they want these young guys to play, regardless if I'm here or not."

Others who spoke in the locker room expressed their desire to return as well, but the reality of the NFL is that it's highly unlikely all will be back.

View some of the best photos from Saturday's Packers-Cardinals Divisional playoff game matchup. Photos by Shawn Hubbard Photography.

"There are a lot of free agents, a lot of things they can do with the team," Neal said. "I would love to be here. They've given me everything I could ask for, stuck with me through thick and thin and gave me an opportunity. That's all you can be thankful for."

Team-wise, the Packers had an opportunity they didn't fully seize, but perhaps this year will have hardened and battle-tested them more deeply than their close calls of the past.

An entire season full of up-and-down swings, difficult injuries, plus successful and unsuccessful late-game comebacks, might do that. Next season, everyone will find out for sure.

"I think we faced a lot of adversity, but we had a lot of will, a lot of heart," Starks said. "We fought through everything we were put through, and I think we made a great statement what we're about.

"But some things don't fall in your favor. You just have to learn from those moments and get better from them."

Packers players began the process of cleaning out their lockers and met with members of the media for the final time, following their NFC Divisional playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Photos by Ryan Hartwig,

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