Packers invent new ways for playoff heartbreak, but another Super Bowl window opens
Another fourth-quarter lead squandered leads to another gut-wrenching playoff loss to the 49ers, but all isn't lost because of what the future can hold for the Packers.
No exclamation point today to avoid the patina of cheeriness for a fan base that suffered through yet another excruciating postseason loss. Sure, the Green Bay Packers weren’t predicted to be in the divisional round of the playoffs and were 10-point underdogs to the San Francisco 49ers, but they could have won.
They should have won. They just … didn’t.
So where do the Packers go from here? That’s what we focus on in today’s edition of The Leap.
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What part of the Packers short-circuited most to allow the 49ers to come back and win?
Peter Bukowski: While most of today’s newsletter is about what comes next, the answer to this question frames that topic in the most succinct way: It was a little bit of everything.
But more to the point, about a dozen different things had to happen for the collapse to be completed. Even calling it a collapse is overselling it because the Packers didn’t lead most of the first half. They exploded in the third quarter and couldn’t get out of their own way in the fourth.
Unlike 2021 though, the special teams didn’t have a full-blown meltdown. Keisean Nixon’s kick return set up the go-ahead touchdown the in fourth quarter and a blocked field goal at the end of the first half assured San Francisco couldn’t double-up getting the ball out of halftime.
Even with Green Bay kicker Anders Carlson’s missed field goal, the game isn’t the special teams’ fault.
Jordan Love played magnificently for three quarters, got robbed on a fourth-down spot, and, while his biggest errors came in the most crucial moments, his ability to create outside the pocket and manufacture throws on third down was the biggest reason they were in the game against the best team in the NFL.
And Aaron Jones ran the absolute hell out of the ball, becoming the first 100-yard rusher against the 49ers in 84 years (not really, 51 games according to the Fox telecast).
Joe Barry’s defense gave up the game-winning drive, but they also got crucial stops, including coming out of halftime. The unit held Kyle Shanahan’s crew to a field goal off the first Love interception which kept the Packers in the lead. Green Bay became just the second team to hold the 49ers below 27 points since Halloween. The other is the Baltimore Ravens.
In all, it wasn’t the Packers’ cleanest game, and yet they were one stop in the fourth quarter or one Love throw on the last driving from winning. It was a game they controlled for 58 minutes.
It wasn’t the defense getting overwhelmed by the ground game like in 2019 or because of a specific positional deficiency like in 2020. There wasn’t a clear talent disparity like in 2016 or the aforementioned unit breakdown of 2021.
San Francisco made the two plays defensively they got the chance to make, catching askew passes from Love. The Packers, with two gift interceptions to Darnell Savage and Nixon, didn’t. That was it. This team didn’t get out-coached, out-schemed, out-hearted. Green Bay just made one or two too few plays on a day they had their C+ stuff. That bodes well for the future of the Brat Pack.
What’s the biggest question facing the Green Bay Packers as they exit the 2023 season into the 2024 offseason?
PB: This is a Barry question even if it isn’t a Barry question. The majority of fans follow the attitude best reflected in the Star Wars prequel meme insisting the Packers have to fire Barry right? Right?
In the immortal words of Lee Corso, “Not so fast my friend.”
Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said he thought the defense played “fantastic” against the 49ers despite the game-losing drive. But in the aggregate, the defensive performance over the course of the season can’t be countenanced by a team that once again has championship aspirations after jump-starting the post-Aaron Rodgers era with such haste.
Green Bay’s history says Barry’s deal likely runs out, so he wouldn’t have to be fired officially to save his dignity. LaFleur’s relationships with Barry and all of his coaches matter a great deal to him. Miami Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel told ESPN’s Kevin Clark (then at The Ringer) LaFleur was “the best person he’s ever met.”
“Elevate” Barry to a senior defensive assistant role, allow him to remain with the team, but hire a new head of the defense. As this team evolves with the youngest roster in the league, they can’t be stuck playing an anachronistic style of defense just because LaFleur likes having Barry around.
The other, perhaps more pressing question, is where does this team have to improve from a personnel standpoint to be more than a nine-win team in 2024?
Their failures in the 49ers game underscore something we already knew about this team coming into the season: They do not have enough playmaking on the back end. The front is monstrous. Lukas Van Ness showed tantalizing flashes. Devonte Wyatt ascended to become a truly impactful interior defender. Kenny Clark notched the best year of his career sacking the quarterback. Preston Smith turned back time in the second half of the season. Rashan Gary led the team in sacks coming off ACL surgery. Karl Brooks’ rookie season was a revelation.
But what about the rest of that defense outside of Jaire Alexander? Who can make impact plays? Rudy Ford led the team in interceptions with … wait for it … two. They’re particularly weak up the middle with De’Vondre Campbell’s odometer clicking toward perilous numbers despite his relatively young age. He looked like a shell of the athlete we saw in 2021 and whether that’s waining juice or injury, it’s two years in a row of subpar play for him.
Quay Walker took a step but didn’t take the step into being an impact player. And we knew the safety group would be a problem. Savage found a home late in the season as a lurk defender and I’d bring him back. Ford and Anthony Johnson Jr. look like keepers on the roster but haven’t shown high-end play. Ditto for Jonathan Owens too. But they feel a body short there.
Aside from that? You’re looking at a backup interior offensive lineman, backup running back, and depth at cornerback. This roster is really good. That’s how they nearly beat the best team in football play … just OK.
How will we ultimately remember the 2023 Packers season?
PB: That depends on what happens next. It’s entirely possible this was the last, best shot this version of the Packers with Love gets. Multiple reports put the Love and Packers already in some significant level of extension talks to make him one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the league. This is now Love’s era.
But look at the Buffalo Bills who keep knocking on the door and getting her hand scorched like Harry in Home Alone. They have an elite quarterback capable of making magic too, but they can’t seem to get over the hump. It doesn’t help that both teams lost the chance to time thanks to their kickers.
If this is it — and I don’t think it will be — then the heartbreak amplifies. And what we know is the window doesn’t last as long as teams, fans, and media think. On the other hand, the Packers are ahead of schedule even for a 9-8 team that barely squeaked into the playoffs
By blowing the doors off the Dallas Cowboys last week and hanging extremely tough with the 49ers, the Packers proved they are structurally sound enough to be an NFC contender with LaFleur and Love at the helm along with general manager Brian Gutekunst filling out an already-loaded young roster with five more top-100 picks this spring.
It’s cliche to say things like, “This is the start of something not the end of something,” but this moment feels entirely different from the defeats in 2019-2021. Those were the last gasps with an MVP trying to go out in a blaze of glory. This is the youngest team in the league getting on the back of its first-year starting quarterback and trying to ride to the Super Bowl.
They almost did it.
This is the year LaFleur shrugged off the burden of having to prove he’s not just riding Rodgers’ coattails. It’s the year Gutekunst showed he’s a smart person (IYKYK). And it’s the year Love proved he was a franchise quarterback. Jones gushed about this team after the game, saying it’s the greatest team he’s been on. The vibes could not possibly be more different this year compared to last year.
In a lot of ways, this isn’t the start of something but rather the continuation of something: a premier NFL infrastructure with coach and GM. Those two combined brought them a quarterback capable of playing as well as anyone. With those three, there’s no telling what they can accomplish in 2024 and beyond.
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