But for running back Ryan Grant, who posted back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons for the Packers coming into this year, there's one thing to pour a little more salt into that wound that was opened four months ago with the team's decision to place him on injured reserve.
"I could play on Sunday," Grant said. "Unfortunately."
Grant told me Thursday that, in fact, he could've played a month ago. So as the bottom-seeded Packers plowed through the Eagles, Falcons and Bears, the 28-year-old watched from the sideline on each play, knowing he could've made that cut that James Starks did, lowered his shoulder like John Kuhn did or caught that swing pass like Brandon Jackson did.
Tough to watch? It sure has been.
But Grant also isn't looking to revise history or ask "what if?" In September, the Packers decided to place Grant on IR. He needed ankle surgery, and there was a 10-to-12-week timetable on rehab, putting his potential return in mid-December. Point is, the option was there for Green Bay to hold his roster spot.
That said, Grant understands why the club didn't. The Packers had just one true tailback on the roster at the time, in Jackson, which made it tough to hang on to the hope that Grant would make it back. So they put Grant on IR, moved Kuhn to tailback and signed Dmitri Nance off Atlanta's practice squad. And just like that, Grant's goal of helping win a championship as a member of the Packers' young core might not have been dashed, but was diminished.
"I know that I'm a part of it from a leadership standpoint, mentally and emotionally, but to not be a part of it physically, it's hard, no question," Grant said. "With everything we put in, into (getting to) this game, from a physical standpoint, to not be able to get out there and sweat with my guys and work with them is really hard. But I've had four months to prepare myself.
"I'm taking it in stride. I'll probably be a little emotional on Sunday, but I'm going to ride with them."
Now, here's where it gets real interesting: Remember Aaron Rodgers' grousing last week about players on IR not spending time in Green Bay? Well, Grant wasn't one of them.
He had his surgery, and he commuted some back to New Jersey, but has made a point of being there for his teammates and the journey he worked pretty hard to prepare for.
"I've been up there in Green Bay for the most part, rehabbing," said Grant. "Once I was not on crutches, once I was able to walk, I was on the sideline with the guys. They see my face and they know that I'm riding with them, no matter what. I'm supporting the guys. I'm in it with them.
"They know how much it's killing me not to be able to work out there and sweat with them. But the fact that they're able to see my face, being one of the leaders on the team, I think it's important."
And not just from a moral-support standpoint, either.
Grant says he's trying to continue to take mental reps during games on the sideline, watching plays unfold, identifying the placement of the safeties, reading the defense's run fits, and looking for daylight. Put it this way: He's trying to approach it now as if he's a subbed-out player, waiting to go back in the game.
Then, he imparts what he sees to guys like Starks (who came off the PUP list in midseason) and Jackson, so they can use that knowledge like he would.
"The standard is set," Grant said. "I do feel like being the leader of that running back group, I set the standard. We have a standard as a core, in general, and the backs have just kept to that. Next man up. Really, we say that whatever situation you're in, you take advantage of that, whatever your role might be. No surprise, really.
"The level of detail our coach has, and how he puts guys in position and expects the same amount out of all the guys, and is going to make them work to get to that point, I'm not surprised with how James has played."
But that's not to say it hasn't gotten progressively harder to watch, as he's gotten healthier and the games have gotten bigger. This week, especially.
"I don't go to the practices, I'm not a part of the meetings, but I want them to know that I'm in it for them. I'm here," he said. "And I've been around. And I think it's important. Everybody has a different situation. Some guys decide to train somewhere else. I was in a position where I felt comfortable rehabbing in Green Bay, and guys wanted to see me around.
"And I felt like, for the running back core, for the situation, guys needed to be around."
This would be the second time Grant has narrowly missed out on a ring. He was also traded just before the Giants' 2007 championship season, though this one, he says, hurts more. "I'm a Packer," he explains, while adding that he expects to be back with the team in 2011, and indications he's gotten are that he will be, even though he does carry a salary of $3.5 million.
For now, though, he's excited for the Super Bowl, knowing he's a part of it, even if he's not as big a part of it as he might have envisioned when chasing that goal with his teammates. And he knows it won't be easy, because he got a taste of that at the NFC title game.
"It was very difficult," Grant said. "I'm hoping this time they don't pan the camera to me during the national anthem. I might be a little choked up."
The Rams went 7-9 and missed the playoffs, but there's still plenty of momentum for St. Louis to build on as it heads into the offseason, with a franchise quarterback and a young roster in tow.
And Sam Bradford thinks it would be a shame to see all that go to waste. That's why he's planning on bringing the offensive skill players together for workouts, quite possibly on his alma mater's campus in Norman, Okla., in the case that there is a work stoppage starting on March 4.
"We're going to have to," Bradford told me on Tuesday night. "We haven't worked that out yet; we haven't figured out exactly what we're going to do. But if the lockout happens, then I think it would be very beneficial for us to get together on our own and just start talking about our offense and what we're going do next year."
Despite being a bit shorthanded at the receiver position, Bradford did plenty as a rookie, throwing for 3,512 yards and 18 touchdowns and 15 interceptions on 60 percent passing. The TD-INT ratio could improve, as should his yards-per-attempt average (6.0), but those numbers, for a neophyte quarterback, are nothing to sneeze at.
But Bradford also knows the challenge that lies ahead, in that he'll have to learn a new offense, quite possibly without the benefit of a full offseason. That's what makes the next few weeks important. Bradford will return to St. Louis to meet with new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who replaces now-Browns head coach Pat Shurmur, in the coming days, and Bradford hopes to learn enough of the offense to be able to run it in March, when coach-player communication could be severed.
"I've spoken on the phone with him several times, but we haven't met face-to-face yet," Bradford said of McDaniels. "It's something we'll be able to do next week, after the Super Bowl. Other than watching his offenses from a distance, I don't know a whole lot about him. So I'm really looking forward to getting to St. Louis and working with him.
"It looks fun. As a quarterback, you want to play in offenses like that, where they spread it out, they push the ball down the field, they do a lot of things to get the quarterback going with completions underneath. I'm looking forward to it. I think it's gonna be a blast."
One thing that has helped is the assist he got from a player whose development might still stand as the crowning achievement of McDaniels' coaching career.
After Tom Brady was injured in 2008, Matt Cassel, who hadn't started a game since high school, stepped in and guided New England to an 11-5 mark. That earned Cassel his place as a full-time NFL starter with the Chiefs, and now Cassel is appreciative enough to translate his old coach's ways on another quarterback.
"Cassel actually texted me the day after, couple days after we hired (McDaniels), told me that if I ever had any questions about the offense not to hesitate to call him, and he'd be happy to answer any questions," Bradford said. "To hear that from a guy like that, that's really cool, knowing I have a resource like that if I ever need anything."
With so much uncertainty ahead, it has to be comforting for the Rams to know they have a resource like Bradford, who's taking the game seriously enough to know that even March and April should be treated like they normally are.
I know this truth ...
Bradford isn't the only young player in the league who gets it. There are more in Tampa Bay.
He started training in San Diego earlier this month to prepare for 2011 and has already shed 15 pounds, getting down to 296, to get sleeker and quicker. His plan is to spend a few months out in California.
"People were like, 'Why are going out this early?'" McCoy said. "First of all, I love to play this sport. I love to play it. But this is also my job, my career, and I'm not going to do a mediocre job at what I do. I want to do the best I can. And if I'm not training now, I don't feel like I'm doing that."
McCoy, the third pick in last year's draft, had a fine rookie season by most standards. He started the first 13 games of the year (missing the final three games with a biceps injury) and posted three sacks, four passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
The trouble for him is he was drafted right after Ndamukong Suh, the best interior defensive lineman to enter the league in a while, and a 10-sack player in Year 1. A little like being a receiver during Randy Moss' rookie year? Maybe, but McCoy sees it as motivation.
"I'm going to be tied-to-the-hip to this guy for the rest of my career, or at least for a while," McCoy said. "You see what he does. But I tried my best to not focus on what he did, because I had to worry about what I was doing and what I could do for my team. But you see these lists each week, rookie of the week or defensive player of the week, and you get to see what guys are doing across the league.
"So I saw that he was doing pretty well. I said, 'I kinda gotta get on my horse a little bit.' He had a great season."
There's talent there in Tampa, but it's that kind of attitude in the young guys that makes it hard not to like the team that Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris are putting together.
I don't know a thing ...
About who it will be, but some young kid is going to get a bad label in this draft, and is going to fall because of it. And someone will take a risk -- whether it's real or perceived -- and strike gold.
"Probably learning the plays," he said. "I go out there and produce on the field, and my numbers show it. It doesn't matter how I study. I'm going to stay the way I need to study. I had no problems at the University of Texas. I still went out there and had a great season over there. Just get the ball in my hands, that's all I ask."
Charles swore he didn't know where the idea came from, but he does feel like it played a role in his being the eighth back taken in a banner draft for running backs.
And lots of other teams probably regret thinking that way. His 1,467 rushing yards -- along with a 6.4-yard average on just 14.4 carries per game -- was enough to win him FedEx Ground Player of the Year honors and earned him a fat, five-year, $32.5 million contract extension.
Twitter's already been around for a couple of Super Bowls, but there's no question this is the first time it's taken center stage for one.
And in the days leading up to the game, injured PackersJermichael Finley and Nick Barnett fired Twitter salvos back at Aaron Rodgers, after Rodgers took teammates to task for rehabbing elsewhere while arguing over whether or not they should be in the team picture. LaMarr Woodley then called the whole team out for the argument through, yup, his Twitter account, saying the Steelers would never engage in such foolishness.
Meanwhile, Ryan Clark sat on the sidelines. He disabled his Twitter account recently for a multitude of reasons, whether it was the women hanging out there like it was a night club or the fans who became a little too attached to his online persona.
"I just got tired of it, really," Clark said." I think people get a little too personal with their comments, or maybe not too personal, but start to think they know you a little too well. As a married man, with some of the things these women might say, I just thought it was in my best interest just to get off it."
... and 10
1. Mudd should help Vick
The idea for the Eagles this winter is to protect their two-year investment in Michael Vick, and to do that -- because they're choked by the uncapped year rules and literally can't re-sign their QB until the new CBA gets done -- they'll slap the franchise tag on him at some point before Feb. 24. But they aren't waiting until next week when the franchising period begins to start the effort. Bringing in Howard Mudd as offensive line coach is a big step in the right direction for an offensive line that suffered from injuries and some extenuating circumstances since transitioning away from the decades-long tackle tandem of Tra Thomas and Jon Runyan two years ago. Mudd's experience piecing together a patchwork line (Indianapolis has had its own problems up front) and working in a pass-first offense should serve him well under Andy Reid and Marty Morhinweg and maybe save Vick some of the beating he took in 2010.
2. Better to not make playoffs?
Is it possible the Seahawks could pay a heavy price for sneaking in the playoffs at 7-9? It certainly is. With Charlie Whitehurst difficult to count on as a "quarterback of the future," and Matt Hasselbeck's contract up, Seattle has planned for months to seriously consider pulling the trigger on a new signal-caller in the first round. And here's where the issue is -- Pete Carroll and Co. are now picking 25th. Had they lost in Week 17 to the Rams in the de facto NFC West title game, Seattle would've been picking eighth. That difference of 17 spots? Enormous. There are likely three quarterbacks going in the top half of the first round: Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Auburn's Cam Newton and Washington's Jake Locker. Now, to get any of those three would require a serious move up and a heavy cost to Seattle, and that means there would have to be serious conviction on the part of the staff. Maybe Carroll has that with the hometown kid Locker, who the coach will be able to get all the insight he needs on, with his former OC Steve Sarkisian being the coach at UW. But otherwise, all this might mean the team would be left with the option of Ryan Mallett at the bottom of the first round, and the Seahawks already are well aware of the kind of risk he presents from a character perspective.
3. Kolb a hot commodity
One way for the Seahawks to address their quarterbacking question could be to make another run at Kevin Kolb. And trust this: If Kolb is out there, there will be plenty of suitors for his services, and the Eagles will be able to extract a pretty hefty haul. Remember, the Browns and Seahawks made inquiries last offseason about Kolb but were rebuffed as it became clear the Eagles preference was to deal Donovan McNabb. Cleveland, of course, has insight because of GM Tom Heckert's Philadelphia roots, while Seattle was another West Coast offense team that figured Kolb's transition could be a smooth one. The Browns' interest might be gone because of the emergence of Colt McCoy, but other pursuers that weren't around, like the Cardinals, 49ers and Vikings, could be in the running this time. Makes sense, right, that a 26-year-old quarterback with an Andy Reid pedigree would be in demand? Of course it does. So expect the price to be pretty steep.
4. America's Team? Only the Cowboys
The silly "America's Team" argument has reared its head this week, so I think it's worth making a few points on why it is, and always will be, the Dallas Cowboys. Start with this: It's that team's individual legacy and, more specifically, a large part of the lore around Tex Schramm. He moved training camp to California and cultivated a national fan base that grew as much as a part of branding as it did because of winning. And then, there's the fact it's not like that moniker is one that's awarded in every sport. It's unique to the NFL, because it was created to capture the following Schramm and Co. developed. So it's not like it's some title that's passed around. All this, by the way, isn't to rag on what the Steelers and Packers have. Both have impressively broad and devoted fan bases. But from covering the Cowboys on a day-to-day basis, as I did, I can tell you there are just different dynamics at work with that franchise. And that has very little to do with who wins the Super Bowl in 2011, or how the Cowboys have struggled to rise back to their accustomed level over the last decade and a half.
5. Slow trade market
One interesting, and underplayed, aspect of the April draft -- which will happen CBA or no CBA -- is the limiting of trades to draft picks, something that could bog down the market a bit. If there's not an agreement at the time of the draft, clubs won't be able to deal veterans as part of trades. That will have its effect in April, to be sure, with teams having to consider whether or not they want to draft a player in advance of whacking another one to clear the spot for him. And it'll also have its affect going forward. Should an agreement come in May or June or July, teams will have to weigh the "opportunity cost." Say you trade a Pro Bowl linebacker in June, after a CBA is struck, and get a first-round pick back. Well, in that case, the first-round pick would have to be in 2012, rather than 2011. That means the trading team then has to go a full year without either player, which represents the opportunity cost. An example: Would the Jets have dealt Leon Washington if they knew they'd have to wait a year to draft Joe McKnight? I know McKnight didn't develop as quickly as the Jets would've liked, but the larger point there remains. And the result could be a trade market that moves awfully slow.
6. Ryan a good fit in Dallas
Job No. 1 for new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan in Dallas will be addressing the team's situation at cornerback, where the Cowboys have invested high and got shaky production in 2010. Veteran Terence Newman might not be a sure thing to return, and Mike Jenkins' free-falling performance in his third NFL season, coming off a really strong 2009, needs to be assessed and fixed. Because Ryan's creativity and aggression are his strengths, it's important he has corners on the back end who can handle being in man-to-man situations and have the versatility to tackle and play zone as well. It's why, even with a pretty good corner in place in Eric Wright, the Browns focused on the position in last year's draft and came away with a bona fide stud in Joe Haden. It's why they took another DB, in T.J. Ward, next to further fortify the secondary. And it's why the Cowboys could be a dark-horse to make a run at Nnamdi Asomugha (but only if the price is right), who played for Ryan in Oakland. A lot of folks are, and should be, salivating at the prospect of Ryan having pressure players like DeMarcus Ware, Anthony Spencer (who, like Jenkins, needs to rebound) and Jay Ratliff. But a lot of the way Ryan plays defense is predicated on how well the guys on the back end hold up.
7. Remaking their images
Interesting that two names to arise in the Titans coaching search happen to be Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Falcons offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey. Both are former Buffalo Bills head coaches. Both have acquitted themselves pretty well in their new positions, with Williams pumping life into the New Orleans defense and Mularkey developing a young quarterback (Matt Ryan) while instilling a physical, tough demeanor in his unit. And each might now, finally, be getting a reprieve and acknowledgement that the problems in Buffalo were deeper than who happened to be the head coach at the time. It'll be interesting to see if something similar happens with Marty Morhinweg and Rod Marinelli, who served in Detroit under Matt Millen. In all these cases, of course, it's worth noting that Bill Belichick and Mike Shanahan were sunk in their first head-coaching stops in part because of circumstances surrounding the team.
8. This Gruden OK, too
Maybe I'm just going against the grain here, but good for the Bengals for rolling the dice on Jay Gruden as offensive coordinator. His hire represents outside-the-box thinking that often isn't seen in the NFL, where usually coaches just move up the ladder conventionally. No, Gruden hasn't been much more than a quality-control guy, having helped his brother Jon out in Tampa Bay during his Arena League offseason. But he does have experience leading teams, having done so in the AFL and the UFL, managing roster turnover, and running offenses on other platforms of football. Kurt Warner has said plenty that playing in the Arena League and Europe gave him a different perspective and helped him in the NFL. Maybe Gruden's own diversity of experience does the same for him. And if it does, it could work to open the minds of some NFL folks in the future.
9. Low turnout at Senior Bowl
Word from the Senior Bowl is that fewer head coaches and fewer staffs in general made the trip to Mobile, Ala. One reason is that more head coaches have soured on making the trip, since it's become something of a job fair for unemployed coaches, which can make it a difficult place to get work done. One coach I know of, in fact, makes a point of staying in his hotel room at all times -- outside of going to practice and interviewing players -- in Mobile because the crush of folks looking to network is too much. But that, of course, doesn't explain the waning number of assistants attending. And that could well be financial, in relation to the economy and with teams gearing up for the prospect of a work stoppage ahead.
10. Experience matters in big game
As for the fact we still have a game left in the 2010 season ... give me the Steelers, 30-24. I believe this will be a high-scoring, fast-paced classic, and Pittsburgh's ability to excel in clutch situations will serve the team well. Remember, the Packers struggled to put away the Eagles and Bears (with a third-string quarterback), and needed a little help from the opposition to close the deal. In this case, the Steelers won't give them that help. Ben Roethlisberger will survive a bit of a beating behind his tattered line to win a third ring. And we can start the debate on how this Steelers dynasty is beginning to stack up with the one from the 1970s.