GREEN BAY – Andrew Quarless sat, in full uniform, in his locker, silently watching local and national media invade Green Bay Packers locker room and spread out among oval to defensive linemen, defensive backs and offensive linemen.
Cameramen and reporters gave a nod and carefully stepped around him, filling Brandon Bostick’s vacated space in an effort to get position to talk to Eddie Lacy. A few lockers down, Randall Cobb remained in uniform, as well, his hands folded, head down.
It may have been the last time Quarless, one of 17 unrestricted free agents, wore the green and gold. Perhaps not. But regardless of contract situation, or how they played – or if they played at all – few Packers players on Sunday night were quick to leave.
T.J. Lang entertained the media, then sat down again, rubbing his head. Josh Sitton slowly laced his heavy UGG boots. Even DuJuan Harris, the projected starter at running back who was injured during the preseason, didn’t look to be in a hurry to separate.
"This is one of the funnest teams I’ve been on," Sitton said. "We’ve been really close and we all genuinely like each other. It’s been a fun year. Obviously we had some ups and downs but this is the closest team I’ve been a part of. We felt like that, and our ability to overcome adversity, was going to carry us through the playoffs. But … we didn’t."
Throughout a year, players like to say they’re close, or that they get along. But, at the end of that season – if it doesn’t end in a championship – that veil is lifted as soon as the clock hits zero.
That didn’t happen Sunday night Green Bay. It didn’t feel like a mask.
To a player, their sadness could not only be linked to the fact the season is over, but because they truly believed they were a special group destined for special things.
"To get to this game, to get to the playoffs, we felt like it was our time," Sitton said. "We got Aaron (Rodgers) back and we’ve been confident, so it’s frustrating. We thought we could make a run here."
"Anytime you don’t meet your ultimate goal (you’ll be disappointed)," veteran defensive back Jarrett Bush said. "You’re going to have ups and downs, you’re going to have adversity, you’re going to have players injured and the next man up mentality. It’s all about pulling together with those guys and having that bondship, having that brotherhood and coming together for one common goal. That’s what we work for. That’s our job. That’s the business we’re in, and that’s winning."
In the end, that is what it’s all about.
Television reporters tried time and again to have a player admit that just making the playoffs at 8-7-1 was a success in and of itself, that winning the division was the ceiling for a team that was beyond decimated by injury.
No one bit.
"No. No. I mean – you don’t play just to make the playoffs and lose," wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. "Were we glad to be in the playoffs? Yeah, you could see that in Chicago when we won the game and everyone’s going crazy, but it’s another opportunity to go make a run and we didn’t capitalize."
"We come out here to win games and win championships and we came up short," fellow receiver James Jones said. "It’s going to sting all offseason."
What little consolation there was to be had came from head coach Mike McCarthy in his final address to the team.
"Coach just said he was proud of us, man, just told us how great of a group of guys we were to be around and for him to coach us," Jones said. "He was honored to coach us and is proud of us for all the things we overcame, showed a lot of heart, a lot of guts, and basically he was just proud of us. Sorry it had to come to an end."
Whether a team makes the playoffs or not, the head coach is always proud, right? To say that may seem cliché. But there was a sense that was something different about this group – Team 93 as McCarthy dubbed them in the preseason – because they all felt something was.
"It’s a unique group to coach," McCarthy said. "I don’t know if we’ve had a team work as hard. We were young. We had some inexperience. Guys had to play before they were ready, and they stepped in there and went for it. I thought the veteran leadership was very good this year.
"When I think of this team, I just think of the constant adversity that was thrown in front of them, and really appreciate the way they handled it."
They handled it well enough to reach the playoffs, but were kept short of the ultimate goal. For the veterans, who saw another year go by without a championship – and really believing they were going to capture it – the end hurt all the more.
"These opportunities are pretty special, and you’ve got to make the most of them," Rodgers said. "It’s been nine years for me now. (I’ve been) blessed to play that long, and would love to play another nine if possible, but this is an opportunity we let slip through our fingers."
Nelson rubbed his hands as he, too, thought about another extended offseason.
"It’s extremely hard to win," he said. "Unfortunately the more times we lose in the playoffs the more appreciation that I get for the Super Bowl that we do have, what we had to do, the battle of not only playing good football for a year and plus four playoff games but being lucky and staying healthy."
As time wore into the evening on Sunday, the media gradually dissipated. Lacy sat undisturbed in his locker. He checked his phone, then picked his head up looked around, still wearing the scars and mud of the game played well over an hour before. He was in no hurry.
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.