Sherman Finds 12-4 Packers, Division Champions For First Time Since '97, 'Better Team Than A Year Ago' Despite Playoff Loss
With sufficient reason, Mike Sherman could have chosen to launch his review of the Green Bay Packers' 2002 season by pointing with pride to some stellar achievements.
Like, for significant example:
- A second consecutive season of 12-or-more victories, only the second such parlay in team history.
- The only perfect, regular season home record (8-0) in the league during the '02 season; and
- The Packers winning their first division title (NFC North) since 1997 (12-4-0).
But the Green and Gold's general manager and head coach elected to open his season-ending press conference last week by first dealing with the Packers' postseason misadventure against the Atlanta Falcons, clearly still an unpleasant memory, and one which apparently had also colored his overall appraisal of the '02 campaign.
"I look at the season like it's a race...really a marathon," he explained. "And, in regard to that analogy, we ran a good race but we certainly didn't finish the way it needed to be finished...And that's really all that counts.
"And I personally take no solace in the fact that we won a bunch of games - we won 12 games this year. That doesn't do a whole lot for me. I'd rather be 9-and-7 and still playing than be 12-and-4 and out. So I'd like to say that makes me feel better. People have told me what we've accomplished. But the reality is that we're not playing during the time of the season where I expected us to still be playing, and that's tough to deal with."
As he spoke, Sherman was still smarting from that 27-7 playoff defeat, asserting, "My feeling about the loss to the Atlanta Falcons hasn't changed. I thought maybe time would alleviate some of the disappointment I experienced after the game and the following days...but it hasn't.
"I fully expected us to play better than we did. We got beat in all three phases - offense, defense and special teams. I'm still at a loss as to why that happened. I'll continue to struggle with that, I guess, throughout the offseason.
"We went into the game with some players that were not able to participate...We had players play injured and lost some players during the game. But that doesn't explain why some of our healthy players didn't play better than they did. That's kind of what I'm struggling with.
"So I guess to say I'm very disappointed - as I said after the game - is an understatement. My objective every year will be to go to the Super Bowl, as it was this year. For much of the season, we maintained winning at a pace that would warrant us that opportunity to go to the Super Bowl.
"But the reality of it all is that unless you win the Super Bowl...at some point everybody that participates in the postseason is going to experience some form of disappointment. And that's pretty much where I am right now.
"As a coach, you put time in...a personal investment in the season...and when you don't achieve your goal, it is hard - particularly with the commitment that you've made toward this one season.
"And now it's time to start over."
Sherman, subsequently addressing the "big picture," confided, "The question I always ask myself at the end of every season is, 'Have we improved? Are we a better team this year than last year? Are we a better team than when we came in here right after the '99 season....And have we achieved a level of success?...Have we improved each year?
"And I believe that we have. I believe that we are a better team today than we were a year ago. We certainly didn't play that way on Saturday (against Atlanta) but we are a better team. The fact that we were able to win football games at a fairly good clip in spite of the adversity that we faced, I think reflects that.
"Our guys were able to overcome the fact that we had starters miss about 63 starts while we had backups miss about 30 games. And that's a fair amount to overcome and I thought that we were able to do that.
"I guess what that means is...where we are with that...I'm just proud of the attitude that our players and coaches permeate at practice and in the meetings and the preparation for games - that we'll never use injuries as an excuse. They are a reality, however, that we were hit with those injuries. But that would be an excuse, and the players for the last three years have bought into that. And that's important if you want to be successful. So I believe we're making progress there.
"We went into this year with a fair amount of our rookies participating. I believe we had five rookies start about 23 games. And that doesn't include Najeh Davenport, who basically started the Detroit (road) game when he went in on the second series and finished that game up, so you could actually say it was 6 rookies for 24 games. And that bodes well for the future when those rookies participated.
"We had other rookies play significant roles on special teams and in backup capacities as well. I feel very good about that group, as we look toward the future.
"We basically overhauled the receiver position in the offseason. That was a good decision. We're very young at that position but I believe we benefited from it this year and I think we will benefit more from it in the future.
"We had a number of first-time starters this year. Cletidus Hunt started, really, for the first time in his career...Kabeer (Gbaja-Biamila) started for the first time, really, in his career when Joe (Johnson) went down. Driver started for the first time in his career...and a number of other players as well. And I think that's a positive thing.
"That's a reflection, I believe, of the assistant coaches and the job that they do in preparing these young players to play football.
"I'm proud of the veterans. I'm very pleased with our veteran leadership on the team. I thought they did a great job of handling things as they came up during the season and keeping us on task...through times of adversity - whether it be injury or loss...where we lose two games there after a seven-game stretch of winning....And their ability in their leadership to pull us through that. I'm proud of them.
"I'm proud of them as a group. I'm proud of our football team and the service they do here in Green Bay and the community, and the type of people that they are. We've got good guys on this team. I'm proud of the character of the men that we have here. I have had very few problems during this season. Might have had three players late for a meeting this year...one time. And that doesn't usually happen...that doesn't happen at the normal workplace...it doesn't happen in this building, in other departments, but it happens on our football team. We have very few issues in regard to discipline and things happening that need to be addressed and I'm proud of that. That's a big part of our success, in my mind.
"I'm proud of the toughness of our team. We had a number of players play this season...Frankie Winters is having surgery as we speak on his MCL. Guys have played injured. More guys than were listed on injury reports from week to week played injured and fought through some issues there.
"I guess I'm most proud of the chemistry of our football team at this juncture. I thought our locker room was a strong locker room. When you blend the young players, the free agents that I brought in, and the veteran players - you put all of those guys in that melting pot - and I thought they did a great job. They got along real well, the locker room was strong. I think when you have good chemistry, you have people that are accountable. I don't believe anybody's making excuses for the games that we didn't play well in. I believe that everybody says that we could do better.
"I think we were winning games at a pretty good rate there - won seven in a row. No one was jumping up on the table and saying, 'We're this'...'We're that'...Everybody was pretty even-keeled...and they got the big picture...I think that all plays into the character and the chemistry of our football team, which is what I'm most proud of.
"I believe, as a football coach, if that part is right, then you can achieve a lot of things. And maybe because of the chemistry and the character of our team, we were able to overcome some things this year because of that. So that's a priority of mine and will continue to be as I bring people into the Green Bay Packers organization.
Now we're starting to get ready for next season - and we've already started that process. I met with the doctors...salary cap....talked about the future and the future's going to be very bright...I'm excited.
"Disappointed about what happened here at the end of the season because of all that was invested but excited about where we're going and how we're going to get there...We have a good plan in place....We've got the Senior Bowl coming up here this next week to look at some players and off we go.
"The players have been told about the mini-camp and the offseason program, and their commitment is going to be huge in the process...much as my commitment to fix the things that need to be fixed. We had some shortcomings that I need to address and I'll address them and they will be fixed by the time we start next season."