GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Despite a bitter end to the season, the Packers appear to be headed in the right direction as a franchise.
Now they have some big decisions to make in order to take the next step and contend for the Super Bowl next season.
In the wake of Sunday's overtime playoff loss at Arizona, Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn't rule out the possibility of changes to his coaching staff and acknowledged the uncertainty the team faces with high-profile players who are approaching free agency.
"Every year is different, every football team is different," McCarthy said Wednesday. "You need to rebuild, reload, restructure. We have a good foundation. We have a program, a blueprint that works, but we need to improve it because we did not get past the first round."
Coming off a miserable 2008, the Packers' defense took significant steps forward under new coordinator Dom Capers, though it wasn't a success right away.
"We definitely had a transition as a defense early in the season," McCarthy said. "I didn't like some of the selfishness that went on on our defense early on in the season. We grew through that, we got past that."
McCarthy wouldn't go into detail about the "selfishness," but he might have been referring to players who publicly second-guessed Capers' game plans early in the season.
The Packers evolved to become one of the NFL's top defenses, only to run into trouble against high-powered passing offenses in a late-season loss at Pittsburgh and Sunday's 51-45 overtime loss at Arizona.
"Trust me, we'll take a long look at Arizona from a defensive standpoint, and Pittsburgh," McCarthy said. "You're talking about over 1,000 yards of offensive production in two days."
The offense was productive but didn't truly hit its stride until the Packers solved their pass-protection problems. Mark Tauscher returned to play right tackle, McCarthy recommitted to calling short passes and Aaron Rodgers began getting rid of the ball more quickly.
Rodgers never publicly complained about his lack of pass protection, continuing his evolution as the team's leader following Brett Favre's rocky departure in 2008. McCarthy conducted exit interviews with players Monday and Tuesday and said several teammates noted Rodgers' leadership.
"I think he's clearly taken over the identity of this being his team," McCarthy said. "That was very evident the last two days."
But with the offseason beginning, even McCarthy doesn't know if the Packers will be able to bring back all their key players.
The status of a new collective bargaining agreement between NFL owners and the players' union will affect the free-agency status of several players, including safety Atari Bigby, cornerback Will Blackmon, guard Daryn Colledge, safety Nick Collins, defensive end Johnny Jolly, fullback John Kuhn, safety Derrick Martin and center Jason Spitz.
With no new agreement in place, there will be no salary cap in 2010, and those players will become restricted free agents instead of unrestricted free agents.
"The landscape for this offseason has changed," McCarthy said. "There is uncertainty there, and that makes personnel decisions even harder."
No matter what happens in labor negotiations, the Packers will have to make potentially difficult decisions on unrestricted free agents such as Tauscher, left tackle Chad Clifton, nose tackle Ryan Pickett and outside linebacker Aaron Kampman.
McCarthy spoke highly of his team's veteran free agents but didn't provide specifics on the Packers' interest in keeping them. McCarthy also didn't commit to keeping his coaching staff intact.
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"I like the way the season's gone from a staff standpoint, but we'll look at everything," McCarthy said. "We're going to evaluate every individual, myself included, because this is an opportunity to improve, and we need to improve our program."
McCarthy wouldn't comment on reports that the Packers turned down the Chicago Bears' request to interview quarterbacks coach Tom Clements for their open offensive coordinator job or the Oakland Raiders' potential interest in assistant head coach Winston Moss.
Although McCarthy is pleased with the direction the Packers are headed, he said any team that didn't win the Super Bowl can't claim their season was a success.
"We have some successes and some experience from this past year that we'll be able to carry over that we did not have last year, so I'm confident that will help us," McCarthy said. "But the goal will never change here."
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press