McCarthy ponders what could have been

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Mike McCarthy hates hypotheticals.

So let’s call this more of a reflection from the Green Bay Packers coach.

In a rare moment in which McCarthy publicly pondered what might have been, he revealed during Wednesday’s season wrap-up news conference that he thought at least once during the season that this incarnation of his squad -- Team 93 as he called it (it was the 93rd season of Packers football) -- could have been the best since he took over in 2006.

That thought entered his mind at some point in the hours or days immediately after the Oct. 27 win at Minnesota -- a 44-31 victory in which quarterback Aaron Rodgers played a near flawless game, running back Eddie Lacy's potential as a 1,000-yard rusher became apparent and the defense shut down Adrian Peterson.

“When we came out of the Minnesota game, I thought we really, really hit our stride,” McCarthy said. “We had a couple of bumps there, and we got the no-huddle offense where it needed to be, we changed a lot of the mechanics from the past. I felt very, very good about our offense and our numbers reflected it, too. More importantly the internal numbers of the things we were trying to get done. And defense was playing very well.”

At that point, the offense ranked second in the NFL in yards per game, third in rushing yards and fifth in passing yards.

“I hate doing this, especially because I call the plays, [but] I felt that this was going to be the best offense that we’ve ever had here,” McCarthy said. “I thought we were going to go past 2011.”

Despite some injuries -- most notably to tight end Jermichael Finley (neck), receiver Randall Cobb (leg) and outside linebacker Clay Matthews (thumb) -- his team was 5-2 and atop the NFC North.

The defense had made strides, too. It ranked 11th in yards allowed, fourth in rushing yards allowed and 21st in passing yards allowed (up from 30th after two weeks).

“We played the run fairly good up to that point in time,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said.

Of course, it all changed against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 4, when Rodgers broke his collarbone and missed the next seven games.

What could have been McCarthy’s best team turned into an 8-7-1 squad, which still was good enough to win the NFC North and get them a home playoff game that they lost to the San Francisco 49ers in the wild-card round.

It turned into what McCarthy called his “most challenging season” as injuries mounted.

That’s a strong statement considering the 1-4 start to his debut season in 2006, the difficult transition from Brett Favre to Rodgers in the summer of 2008 and the injury-plagued 2010 season.

“This year, it just seemed like it never stopped,” McCarthy said. “2010 was different. I can remember sitting here with Ted [Thompson] on Mondays and Tuesdays, and a number of times we didn’t even have 42, 43 players that were going to be ready to play with 46 on Sunday. We had a number of those this year, but there’s just so much change. I thought our special teams was extremely challenged this year with all the change there. Yeah, this was clearly the most challenging.”