GREEN BAY – As he wrapped up the past season and briefly looked ahead to 2024, Packers star edge rusher Rashan Gary repeated words like "hungry," "eager" and "excited" for what's next.
The predominance of such emotions is at least partly rooted in what the upcoming offseason will entail – or more accurately, what it won't entail compared to last year – for Gary. He won't be recovering from a major injury.
"I've yet to unpack my season, what I've personally done and what I've overcome," Gary said just a couple of days after the playoff loss to San Francisco. "But what I am is excited (that) I do have an offseason to go back and work on football things, less of the rehab, and just keep adding to my craft."
Gary got back to his old self in 2023 after a torn ACL ended his promising 2022 season around the midway point, with six sacks through nine games. He was lauded from all corners of the building for his dedication and mentality regarding his rehab, and he battled his way back to the field for Week 1, albeit with a limited snap count.
Any restrictions were soon lifted after he terrorized the Saints with a three-sack game in Green Bay's comeback victory in Week 3. A month later, with Gary proving to be fully recovered, the Packers signed him to a massive contract extension.
Then less than a month after that, he recorded another three-sack game, on Thanksgiving in Detroit – the site of his torn ACL a year earlier. That outing also included two forced fumbles, one returned for a touchdown by teammate Jonathan Owens, in a season-turning victory for the Packers.
At that point, Gary had 8½ sacks through 11 games and appeared well on his way to his first double-digit sack season. But with a pair of three-sack, game-wrecking performances on film, opponents began focusing more of their attention on Gary. He recorded just a half sack, in the big home win over Kansas City, the rest of the season to finish with a team-leading nine.
It wouldn't be accurate to say Gary wasn't affecting games or helping the defense, though. Over the last seven games (five regular season, two playoffs), he posted seven QB hits.
More important, his repeated pressures contributed to five of his defensive mates in the front seven recording multiple sacks during that span – Preston Smith (4), Kenny Clark (3½), Lukas Van Ness (3), Devonte Wyatt (2½) and Quay Walker (2½). That's 15½ sacks over seven games (including playoffs) from five players who combined for 15 sacks in the other 12 contests.
In other words, there was a correlation between opposing offenses keeping Gary in check and the notion of an elevated collective effort on defense.
One big question heading into 2024 then is, with new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley on board and possible changes to the schematic look of the defensive front, can Gary still get his sacks while the others also produce at the level they did down the stretch?
That's the objective, for Hafley and his defensive staff to get everyone unlocked in order to realize more consistent performances overall. New contract in tow, Gary is determined to continue in any leadership role thrust upon him.
"That's really it," Gary said regarding the goal of consistency. "We understand what we need to do. We understand what it is to play at a high level. We just have to come in and do it and hold ourselves accountable.
"It starts with me. That's what I'm going to do. For the team and everybody else to get better, it's gotta start here. That's what I'm going to do this offseason. I'm gonna watch my film, get better where I can get better at and be the leader for this team that I need to be."
Conventional wisdom says when a player is two years removed from an ACL injury he's finally all the way back – "That's what they say? I guess we'll see next season," Gary said – but he's focused as much on the team, if not more so, than on himself.
Heading into his sixth year and becoming an elder statesman in the locker room, Gary is as tuned in as anyone that the Packers' promising finish to last season sets up nicely for the next one.
But recognizing what it took for the team to rise, as well as the why behind the eventual fall, must all be part of the process moving forward.
"Closing out the noise and putting us in position to be playing ball in January – it ended not how we wanted it but we still got to the playoffs," he said. "We just gotta finish the job. We got everybody in all three phases that we need to get to where we want to be.
"Just understand coming into next season what it looked like, and let's attack it. That's it."