There is, inevitably, what might have been...
It could hardly be otherwise for the 2003 Green Bay Packers, considering how close they came to making the "Big Dance."
And, potentially, capturing a Super Bowl ring.
Little wonder, then, that GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman described himself as "still struggling" with the reality of the overtime divisional playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles as he conducted his season-ending press conference, held at mid-week following that much-analyzed misadventure.
Throughout the 53-minute session, he made no attempt to minimize the dimensions of the disappointment he was confronting, explaining, "I'm not taking anything away from Philly, but I felt we had the opportunities to win the game."
In company and contrast with the pain of elimination, Sherman exhibited parallel emotions of pride and excitement as he both reviewed the season - punctuated by a second straight NFC North Division championship and a third consecutive trip to the playoffs - and looked to the future during the course of his "conversation" with the media.
"I feel very confident about the talent and the people we have coming back and I'm excited about it," Sherman asserted, adding, "I think we're much farther ahead than we've been here. I think we've made tremendous strides in many areas.
"We have more strides to go. We have to get over a hump here and I believe that we will. But I believe when we start the (2004) season, there will be less question marks. There were a lot of issues last year that I'm not particularly faced with (this year)."
There also has been on-field progress, Sherman likewise noted when asked "how close" he feels his team is to going all the way.
"We ended up this year being one of eight teams in the league to make it to the final eight...one of four teams in the NFC," he pointed out. "I think we're pretty close. I like our chances for next season. I think we have some guys coming back that were young players that got hurt that could really help us...I'm anxious to see those young rookies come on."
Sherman made no mention of it, but during his four-year stewardship, the Packers have been consistently successful. In the overall process, he has led the Green and Gold to four consecutive winning seasons and three consecutive playoff berths, becoming in the overall process the first head coach in the Packers' 84-year history to win 40 games in his first four seasons (43-21).
The 49-year-old New Englander is convinced a solid foundation has been laid to continue the upcurve, a view he expressed in response to a suggestion that the playoff loss in Philadelphia, though unwelcome, might prove to be "a building block," Vince Lombardi having lost a playoff game to the Eagles in Philly in 1960 and gone on from there to win five NFL championships in a seven-year span.
"As far as this game (being) a building block for future success, I definitely see a possibility," Sherman affirmed. "I really feel that as a reality - because of what we built over the last four years and what we are building and the feeling of the guys we have here.
"I remember my first year, compared to right now, it's light years ahead of where we were. I feel very confident that the men, even though they were disappointed when they left to go their separate ways, are excited about the future. Maybe not at this present point because they are still dealing with this loss, but they know what we are capable of doing. I don't know if at any point they really believed that capability until this season.
"Lessons have been learned by the team this year on what you can do if you hang together, you don't point fingers, you're accountable and you work and don't panic. I think they learned some lessons.
"As I said to them before the game, 'You're not a perfect team, but you have a perfect understanding of what it takes to win football games.' I believe that's true. I would say that's a lesson they learned this year. Or that lesson is you have to show up and play every single week. Anybody can beat anybody. We can beat anybody, but they can beat us. I think they fully understand that, so maybe we would avoid some pitfalls in the future based on what we experienced this year."
Dealing with the season-ending, 20-17 defeat, which had come by way of a David Akers field goal at 4:48 of sudden death and deprived the Packers of advancement to the NFC Championship Game, Sherman volunteered, "My entire life, missed opportunities - I have a hard time with those. When you have an opportunity, you take advantage of it and you go on. You move on. I don't know how long that will take for me...I just feel like we missed an opportunity.
"I take nothing away from the Philadelphia Eagles" he reiterated. "The bottom line is they won the football game. But I feel like we missed an opportunity at fourth-and-26 and fourth-and-1, (or) whatever, during that football game. How long it will take to recover, I don't know."
Addressing the former, Sherman readily acknowledged, "I've analyzed it many times, as you could imagine. Just as I thought coming off the field, our underneath coverage...Nick (Barnett) hugged up to the tight end and made a void there in the middle. The receiver beat it across the middle. Our deep coverage might have been a little too deep. The backside safety could have driven. Bhawoh Jue was in great position, almost made the play from the backside over the top...I mean underneath, actually.
"So there were multiple people in position. They only released three receivers so we had plenty of bodies to take care of it. I guess the fact that the linebacker didn't get any depth contributed to the fact that the ball was thrown in about 2.8 seconds and (Donovan) McNabb was able to drill it in there."
With respect to the decision to punt with fourth-and-1 at the Eagles' 40-yard line late in the fourth quarter, Sherman noted, "Well, as you know, we did go for it earlier (with fourth-and-goal at the Philly 1-yard line), which receives equal criticism for going for it there, and we didn't get that one.
"So I felt like, as I was contemplating going for it, and I did contemplate it, to be honest with you, they in turn called timeout, so now they're down to one timeout. They put their goal line people on the field and there was a fair amount of numbers inside the box. And I really think, you guys know me well enough that I have analyzed this and criticized this more times than any of you even have, and if you get a team to fourth-and-26, I think you've made the right call. We were able to do that, we just didn't make the play...But there's both sides to the coin, I understand that."
In further analysis of these critical decisions, Sherman volunteered, "If you said to me right now, Mike, do you want to take fourth-and-26 or risk going for it on fourth-and-1, I probably would take the fourth-and-26. I looked at it a thousand times. I came in here at 1:30 this morning and had to see the tape again.
"I couldn't sleep and just analyzed it over and over again. The feeling from that game leaving the field was that you got kicked in the gut and it hasn't gone away."
On another subject, the interception by the Eagles' Brian Dawkins in overtime that set up the winning field goal, Sherman observed, "In regard to Brett and that last pass, we had hit a touchdown earlier in the game on the exact same pass, but from a different formation.
"It was a play-pass - this was one-back, the other one was two-back...And we ran it out of two tight ends this time as opposed to I-backs. And they brought the buck linebacker and the strong safety off the edge. The tight end got beat inside, they had pressure from the nose guard and he (Favre) had immediate pressure in his face, and he tried to get rid of the football and not take the sack. And that resulted in the interception. They had two guys over the top of that and they picked it off and that was it."
Asked how Favre was dealing with the situation, the Packers coach said, "I talked to him after the game for about 20, 25 minutes, and I talked to him on Monday for about 45 minutes, and he's doing fine. Brett is as resilient a person as there is. Certainly, disappointed...felt that we were going to the Super Bowl, as did our team. It was a very confident group of men and that's the feeling.
"I guess that feeling generates the magnitude of the disappointment we have, because we knew we had missed an opportunity. And they don't come often enough. Since I've been here as a head coach, even when we went out to the Rams a couple years ago (for a divisional playoff), we didn't quite have this feeling that we had an opportunity here that we needed to take advantage of.
"I thought the players embraced that and really for a team that had not had an opportunity to have a week off, I thought they played like they were fresh and had a want-to in that game. And it's unfortunate, and I'm so disappointed for them because they practiced and they did everything I asked them to do this year. And I'm not disappointed in them in the least. Certainly disappointed in the outcome, but not in them."
In reflecting upon the interception, a reporter asked, should Favre have taken a sack?
"Well, hopefully throw the ball away in that situation," Sherman replied. "The back, actually, is a blitz protector. He has a fake - we ask him to do a lot on this play - but it's a little bit harder to do out of two tight ends and one back because his fake is so different. But the back is supposed to check any pressure, any blitzer.
"And we would address the blitz coming off the edge. The tight end got beat on the snap - we just got beat on that. And the tackle looped around in the face of the quarterback. Those things would have existed even if we did pick up the pressure...Yeah, throw it away.
"I think one of the things that Javon Walker was trying to do was give him (Favre) a throw...a quick throw...because of the blitz. And to his credit, I thought he made a good decision there to give Brett a throw. But Brett could never set his feet to throw that. It would almost have to be a drive throw, and he couldn't set his feet, and that's why there was so much loft on the ball."
Sherman also addressed these topics during the course of his press conference:
-On the team's slow 3-4 start: "Now, did we underachieve or were we trying to find ourselves. I don't know, at that time. I didn't think we were an overly talented team at that point of the season because our talent wasn't coming through for us.
"I would not say that we underachieved, but I do think there's more things we could have accomplished this year. I think we left something on the table."
-On Edgar Bennett and the running backs coaching position, currently open following Sylvester Croom's becoming head football coach at Mississippi State: "I have the names of people that I may interview at some point. Edgar is a candidate for that job. My only concern for Edgar, as I told him, is that he is so valuable at what he does in the locker room.
"He's the very best I could ever have. If I had to say, tell me the number one reason why we have great chemistry on our football team, I would say it's because of Edgar Bennett. His relationship to coaches and relationship to players and how he blends the two of them I think is extraordinary."
-Whether he had been confident, on the late, 4th-and-1 punt that Josh Bidwell could pin the Eagles deep?: "You know, he punted pretty well in the game. Last week (against Seattle) he didn't have a very good game. I thought in this past ball game, he was punting pretty well. And he was very confident. And I thought he had a good day of punting with exception of that punt. I was hopeful that we would pin them down. But I still go back to the fact that we did get them to fourth-and-26 and the criticism exists that we didn't make that play, which we should have made."
-On the progress on offense and/or defense: "Certainly, offensively - we've accomplished quite a bit on paper and in the annals of Packers history as far as establishing itself from points scored for rushing yardage, combination of rushing/passing...All those things which I'm not going to get into.
"But I think we did function pretty well, considering the fact that halfway through the season our quarterback broke his thumb and we were limited. Didn't let on that we were, but were limited when our quarterback broke his thumb, initially. To his credit, we battled and we worked through it. And we ended up having, if you look back on it, boy, a heck of a season. We overcame a lot of obstacles there.
"But I think we made some progress in some areas. I think, in other areas, we haven't made progress, and those will be addressed in the offseason."
-On failing to take advantage of 'the' opportunity: "We'll get this opportunity again...Obviously, there were obstacles in every season and I don't have a crystal ball on what next season's going to bring for us...But the Packers will get the opportunity again."
-On having 'more stability' heading into 2004 than into 2003: "I feel very good...I know how distraught I was last year at this time and wasn't sure about the team, to be honest with you. I don't know what picture I painted at that time. But I feel very confident about the team we have coming back. I feel very confident about the talent and the people we have coming back, and I'm excited about it. I think we're so much farther ahead than we've been since we've been here."
BASED ON A LOOK AT "THE RECORD," Sherman has good reason to be optimistic about the Packers' prospects for success in '04.
Powered by the most productive running game in their history, the Green and Gold amassed 5,798 yards of offense during the 2003 regular season...the second-most in team annals.
They also rang up 442 points, likewise second-most in team history, behind the 456 they registered in 1996 en route to Super Bowl XXXI, the total including 53 touchdowns, tied for the second-most in team annals, posted by the 1962 Packers.
In that process, the Packers forged a new single-season rushing record - 2,558 yards - surpassing the existing mark of 2,460, established by the 1962 Packers on the way to their eighth National Football League championship, complementing those efforts with 3,240 passing yards.
The latter, in turn, was keyed by the abandoned running of Ahman Green, who churned his way to a team-record 1,883 yards on 355 attempts, also a club record.
Green was operating behind one of the premier blocking lines in team history - center Mike Flanagan, guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera and tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher - a unit that cleared the way for 150 or more rushing yards in 10 different games and more than 240 yards in four of those contests en route to the record.
While so doing, the offense set a new single-season record for average gain per rush, 5.05 yards. The old record, 4.96, was established in 1961.
The offense also added to its laurels by yielding only 19 quarterback sacks, a club record for a 16-game season. The previous mark, 22, was posted in 2001.
The Green and Gold, with quarterback Brett Favre presiding, also set a new team record for completion percentage, 65.54 percent, based on 310 completions in 473 attempts.
Favre likewise had a prominent hand in establishing the previous mark, 64.52, set in 1992, when he completed 302 of 471 attempts in his first year as Green Bay's resident quarterback.
THE DEFENSE, meanwhile, also made measurable progress during a year of change - including a revamped linebacker corps featuring first round draft choice Nick Barnett of Oregon State, free-agent signee Hannibal Navies at the strong side and veteran Na'il Diggs in a new role at the weak side post - and the key in-season additions of mountainous nose tackle Grady Jackson and Larry Smith to the front four, upgrading that unit.
After giving up an average of 23.8 points per game over the first half of the regular season, Green Bay's defenders finished strong, holding opponents to an average of 14.3 points per game over the last half of the season, an average point yield second only to that of the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots over the last half of the '03 season.
-PERSONNEL REPORT: In the course of his wrap-up press conference, Sherman listed five players who are scheduled to undergo offseason surgery, including nose tackle Gilbert Brown (knee and possibly shoulder), fellow nose tackle Grady Jackson (knee), end Chukie Nwokorie (wrist), nose tackle Rod Walker (knee) and offensive lineman Marcus Spriggs (shoulder).
Guard Marco Rivera also is likely to have minor surgery on his left knee, Sherman said, but it will be delayed until after Rivera makes his second consecutive appearance in the Pro Bowl (at Honolulu's Aloha Stadium Feb. 8).
The Packers coach also disclosed that 10 players failed their exit physicals, including end Earl Cochran (shoulder), safety Antuan Edwards (hamstring), safety Bobby Jackson (knee), cornerback Chris Johnson (knee), end Joe Johnson (triceps), wide receivers Devin Lewis (knee) and Scottie Vines (knee), nose tackle Rod Walker (knee), cornerback Bryant Westbrook (Achilles), and linebacker Marcus Wilkins (calf).
Additionally, Sherman revealed that wide receiver Javon Walker, informed that he needs both knee and shoulder surgery, would seek a second opinion before making a decision.
-PERFECT 'ATTENDANCE:' Eleven Packers - seven on offense and four on defense - started all 16 regular-season games. On offense - center Mike Flanagan, guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera and tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, quarterback Brett Favre and running back Ahman Green; on defense - end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, tackle Cletidus Hunt, linebacker Na'il Diggs and cornerback Al Harris.