The Day After: Close Not Good Enough


As the Green Bay Packers cleaned out their lockers on Monday and reflected a bit on the 6-10 season that ended the day before, it was rather easy for them to explain the biggest difference between this year and last, the one that ended an overtime away from a trip to the Super Bowl.

It was the team's performance in close games.

The Packers lost seven games in 2008 by four points or less, including four in a row following Thanksgiving that knocked them out of the NFC playoff chase.

"Ten-and-six made the playoffs this year," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "I could definitely pick out four games where we were in the game, late in the game, and had a chance to win."

Anyone certainly could. Rodgers felt the two toughest losses were the last-second road defeats to NFC North rivals Minnesota and Chicago. The Packers lost 28-27 at the Metrodome on a missed 52-yard field goal try in the final minute on Nov. 9, and they lost 20-17 in overtime at Soldier Field last Monday after controlling the game for 3 1/2 quarters.

But there were plenty of other close defeats, too, to Atlanta, Tennessee, Carolina, Houston and Jacksonville. The fact that four of the close losses came to teams whose seasons are continuing in the playoffs only adds to the feeling that the opportunities for a better season were there for the taking.

"We're so close, we're so close," Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins said. "We just have to find a way to dig deeper."

Talking about being close, and doing something to make sure the team isn't in the same position having the same conversation next year, are two different things, however.

"There's a lot of teams that might say they're that close, but we have to get it done," running back Ryan Grant said. "Being close doesn't count. We're not in a sport or a game where you get any type of level of support for being close. You either win or you lose.

"We can build off the fact that we were close. We just need to finish. We're competing in every game, we're playing hard right down to the wire, and some things didn't bounce our way. But we have to be able to put ourselves in a position to win those games."

That's what the Packers did in 2007, going 5-1 in the regular season in games decided by a touchdown or less. All five of the wins came in the first half of the season, and the team built momentum from there.

So much so that it was a shock the team was beaten by the Giants in that NFC Championship, because the players had performed so well in clutch situations up to that point.

"We were winning the games, we were finishing games, we were finishing strong the way we're supposed to finish in the fourth quarter," Grant said. "Momentum-wise, when we took the momentum it was something that stayed with us. We didn't give it back.

"We were finishing games. Whether that means overtime, whatever that means, you gotta get it done."

Injuries played a part, with far more key players going down than a year ago. Losing defensive end Cullen Jenkins, middle linebacker Nick Barnett and safety Atari Bigby at different times to season-ending injuries took its toll, as did various injuries on the offensive line, the most serious being the season-ender to tackle Mark Tauscher in early December.

But the players aren't interested in offering up excuses. Many of those injured players weren't a part of the close games the team had a chance to win late in the season, and the healthy players expected more out of themselves.

"We look past that," Collins said. "We had the guys in this room to continue to make strides and be in the playoffs, but we just fell short. (Saying it was because) we're a young team or having injuries, that was not the case. Every guy in here prepared himself and understood what we were trying to do out there on the field. We just didn't come up with the big plays at the end."

Whether the lesson has truly been learned won't be known until next September at the earliest, but as 2007 proved, turning some close games early into victories can go a long way.

"We were in a lot of close games last year and found a way to win," receiver Greg Jennings said. "This year we were in more close games, but we didn't get it done.

"Pretty much what we need to do is make this a learning experience and not make it a recurring deal for next season. We didn't get it done this year. There's always next year, and we will get it done."

Surviving all 16

Rodgers noted after Sunday's final game that perhaps his most important achievement in his first season as the starter was being under center for all 16 games, particularly after missing time as a backup due to foot and hamstring injuries in 2006 and 2007.

Duplicating Brett Favre's ironman streak will be nearly impossible, but playing through a badly separated shoulder sustained in Week 4, which forced him to be limited at best in practice for a month, said something about Rodgers' will and dedication to his profession.

"It's important," Rodgers said. "You want to start every 16 of your season, but it's just 16. I guess I know there's always going to be critiques of different things, but hopefully I put that one to bed for a little bit."

As for whether Rodgers' right shoulder will need surgery in the offseason, it will be examined as part of every player's end-of-season medical review, but Rodgers didn't seem to think he'd need an operation.

"Unless there's a serious reason, if it's not broken, don't fix it," he said. "My shoulder is feeling great. I haven't worn a harness for a number of weeks on it, so I don't see any reason to do a surgery."

On the mend

One player who did have surgery, way back in early October, was Jenkins. He tore a pectoral muscle while reaching to try to sack Tampa Bay quarterback Brian Griese in Week 4 and was lost for the season. He had gotten off to the best start of his career, posting 18 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks in the first four games.

{sportsad300}Jenkins said he was initially told his recovery would be six or seven months, so he's almost halfway there. He said his weight workouts do not yet include the bench press, and the incline work remains light. He said he might be able to start doing push-ups in a couple of weeks.

"I still have a few months left, so I have to be smart and take it slow," he said.

"I believe that I'm on track for training camp participation. I would like to participate in the offseason stuff if possible. Obviously it's not my call to make, but hopefully if everything keeps going the way it's going, I'll be able to do that. But I just have to keep doing the rehab and get evaluated when that time comes to see where I stand."

The offseason strength and conditioning program begins in mid-March, so it may be pushing it to expect Jenkins to be fully recovered by then. But organized team activities (OTAs), which begin in May, would be a full seven months following his surgery, so they're not out of the question.

"My biggest thing is to get my confidence back in my arm and not be afraid to use it when I get out there," Jenkins said. "Hopefully that's what I can do in the offseason

"They said there won't be any long-term problems once it heals right, so it's just a matter of being patient and letting it heal correct before I get out there and start doing stuff. I just have to get the confidence back in it and make sure it heals right so when I get out there I'm not thinking about it or favoring it."

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