Keeping Mike Pettine could be key for Packers' D to make big jump

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Kenny Clark had three defensive coordinators in three years of college football. He’d rather not go through the same thing in the NFL.

If the next head coach in Green Bay doesn’t keep Mike Pettine on as defensive coordinator, that’s exactly what Clark and the rest of the veterans will be forced to deal with on that side of the ball.

"It’s difficult, but I’ve been through it before at UCLA," Clark said the day after the Packers' season ended at 6-9-1. "It’s difficult. It’d be just how we dealt with it earlier this year. You’ve got to learn the new system, you’ve got to come in and be ready to write everything down and just lock in mentally."

Pettine, who just completed his first season in charge of the defense, is like the rest of the members of former coach Mike McCarthy’s staff. He’s in limbo waiting to see who team president Mark Murphy hires and who that coach wants to keep, if anyone. Murphy met with the assistant coaches on Monday, the day after Joe Philbin’s four-game run as interim head coach ended, and told those who are under contract for next season that their status won’t be decided until a hire is made.

Pettine’s hire last January was viewed as a monumental move for the Packers, who finally had moved on from Dom Capers’ nine-year run as defensive coordinator. And while Pettine didn’t immediately turn the Packers back into a top-10 defense -- they finished 18th in yards, an improvement of four spots on last season -- there were signs of progress, especially considering all the injuries he dealt with.

On the defensive line alone, it was a complete washout. All three opening day starters -- Clark, Mike Daniels and Muhammad Wilkerson -- ended the season on injured reserve. By the time Week 17 rolled around, Pettine had only three preferred starters available -- Blake Martinez, Clay Matthews and Tramon Williams -- and one of them (Williams) was playing out of position at safety instead of cornerback. What’s more, the Packers' top two draft picks the past two years -- cornerbacks Kevin King and Jaire Alexander -- played just four games together. Alexander missed two games in which King played, and King played only six games total because of injuries.

"It’s one of those things to where you hear it all the time, guys jump from Year 1 to Year 2; that’s what you want to see," Williams said. "I think that’s the next step [for the defense, too]. We’ve done some good things this year, but at the same time we know we have a lot of room for improvement. I think that’s the next step."

Except they’d be back at Year 1 if Pettine doesn’t return.

"It’s tough, man, but there’s a lot of decisions that those guys upstairs have to make," Williams said. "I know it’s not easy. I know it’s not easy for them and it’s not easy for us as players, either."

To be sure, there were areas that lacked under Pettine. The Packers’ takeaway total decreased from 21 to 15, and their interceptions dropped from 11 to 7. Only one team (San Francisco) picked off fewer passes than Green Bay this season.

Pettine said late in the season that this was one of the most personally rewarding seasons of his career. He was out of football for two seasons after the Browns fired him as head coach following a two-year stint, an experience that he said wore him down physically and mentally. All season long, he was hesitant to say he’d be interested in becoming a head coach again, but he left no doubt that he would like to finish what he started with the Packers.

"I've said all along, and I know some people might scratch their heads given what our record's been, but just from a personal standpoint, just the year this has been, getting back in, and the enjoyment being around the players, being around the coaching staff, building a plan, going out and practicing it, teaching it, implementing it," Pettine said. "But it's what I love to do, and I don't know if I necessarily see that changing anytime soon."