Season Provided Plenty To Learn From

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If there was one overriding theme from Head Coach Mike McCarthy's season-ending press conference on Wednesday, it's that the Green Bay Packers of 2009, through both successes and failures, gave themselves a lot to learn from.

In the big picture, the youngest team in the NFL played in a number of high-intensity, high-stakes football games, including last Sunday's NFC Wild Card playoff and its heartbreaking finish. That type of experience is a building block in itself.

"I'll say this -- we're a more mature football team this year than we were last year," McCarthy said.

That maturity also stemmed from the ups and downs the team endured, learning experiences that McCarthy emphasized are incumbent upon him and his coaching staff to analyze and carry forward to 2010.

"You need to make sure you go through the process of gathering the information, sort through the emotion of it, and apply it to your program," McCarthy said. "You can definitely learn from the experiences that we've had throughout the season."

Here's a quick look at some on each side of the ball:

OFFENSE

The offense made tremendous strides in shoring up the pass-protection problems that plagued the unit during the first half of the season, while the receivers cut down on their dropped passes and the ground game also found more efficiency.

But through that entire process, as he battled back from all the early sacks and stayed confident in his teammates, quarterback Aaron Rodgers put to rest any doubts as to his leadership capabilities.

McCarthy said that several players during their exit interviews with the coaching staff over the past few days noted Rodgers' leadership, both on and off the field, and what it meant as the offense fixed some of the issues that led to the 4-4 start during the 7-1 finish.

"I think he's clearly taken over the identity of this being his team," McCarthy said of Rodgers, who made the Pro Bowl in his second year as a starter. "That was very evident the last two days. Those are the types of things you look for.

"He was definitely a very bright positive for our football team, both on the field and in the locker room, and we feel very good about that as an organization. I definitely felt that he had a very, very good year."

Unfortunately, one of the hallmarks of the offense - ball security - was lacking when it mattered most in the playoffs. The Packers had the fewest giveaways in the NFL this season with just 16 in the regular season, but they turned the ball over twice in their first three offensive snaps against the Cardinals last Sunday, and a third turnover in overtime ultimately decided the game and ended the season.

The lesson there - and it applies to the defense as well, which led the league in takeaways but recorded just one against the Cardinals - is that success in the playoffs must be rooted in what made the team successful enough to get to that point.

When that didn't happen, the Packers were fighting an uphill battle in that postseason game. Identifying marks of the team need their proper focus at the most important times, and no one can simply assume they'll show up when needed.

"That's something we talk about extensively," McCarthy said. "We didn't try to change who we were going into that game, but we do a good job of taking care of the football all season and taking the ball away. We did not do that in the game."

DEFENSE

The evolution of the defense with the 3-4 scheme was an ongoing process. McCarthy mentioned "growing pains" the unit went through as players learned new positions and new responsibilities, and how the defense got through them will be worth drawing upon in the future.

Shaky run defense in Weeks 2 and 3 led to an increased focus and ultimately the No. 1 unit in the league against the run. Injuries to key veteran starters in cornerback Al Harris and outside linebacker Aaron Kampman at midseason were overcome and the team kept winning in the second half, with younger players forced to grow up in a hurry.

In the end, the scheme change produced a defense that went from No. 20 in the league in 2008 to No. 2 in 2009. But it didn't come from simply drawing the X's and O's on the board differently. A lot of work went into it, both from players and coaches.

"We definitely had a transition as a defense early in the season," McCarthy said. "I didn't like some of the selfishness that went on on our defense early on in the season. We grew through that, we got past that. There were role changes for a number of our players. We had to make some adjustments, and I thought the defensive staff did a very good job with that.

"I think the results and the improvement from last year to this year speak for themselves, but there is definitely a lot of room for improvement, and that will be our focus."

That improvement needs to come against offenses capable of spreading the defense out and attacking with both a vertical and horizontal passing game. The biggest red flag that arose came in Week 15 when Pittsburgh went pass-happy and tore up the defense for 503 yards through the air.

With Harris and reserve cornerbacks Pat Lee and Will Blackmon all on injured reserve, the Packers were definitely deep into their depth chart to field a dime package with six defensive backs. But unfortunately, the Steelers provided a road map that the Cardinals - with equal if not even more explosive offensive personnel - were able to follow in putting up 51 points to win the Wild Card shootout three weeks later.

Even more disappointing to McCarthy, though, were the poor tackling and basic breakdowns that contributed to Arizona's big offensive day last Sunday. In other words, he saw a defense that was headed for a poor performance regardless of the opponent, but the bad game was magnified by a high-octane, playoff-tested offense.

"Trust me, we'll take a long look at Arizona from a defensive standpoint, and Pittsburgh," McCarthy said. "You're talking about over 1,000 yards of offensive production in two days. We will take a long look at that."


This week, McCarthy plans to continue his season-ending evaluations with the coaching staff, and later this month the group will begin its extensive scheme evaluation, reviewing every snap of the past season to see what worked and didn't work, when and why.

{sportsad300}From there, it's on to free agency and the draft process, which McCarthy said the personnel department will conduct as it usually does to see how and where the Packers can improve their roster. The current lack of a new collective bargaining agreement with the players' union, which changes the salary cap structure and free agency rules, leaves more uncertainty for all involved as the 2010 season approaches.

But as far as working toward 2010, the approach and schedule will remain pretty much the same as in the past. The offseason strength and conditioning program will begin sometime in mid to late March, and players will focus on individual growth and improvement prior to organized team activities, mini-camp and training camp.

"You've got to build it," McCarthy said. "You've got to stack those successes. We have some successes and some experience from this past year that we'll be able to carry over that we did not have last year, so I'm confident that will help us."

Which may not help anyone get over the tough loss in the Wild Card round this past weekend, but the idea is for all of that to help the team progress beyond that point the next time.

"Every year is different, every football team is different," McCarthy said. "You need to rebuild, reload, restructure. We have a good foundation. We have a program, a blueprint that works, but we need to improve it because we did not get past the first round."

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