Only The Beginning: Packers Built To Last
GREEN BAY ? When the question was posed on Tuesday, amid the chaos of Super Bowl XLV Media Day, Ted Thompson couldn?t squelch it fast enough.
The Green Bay Packers general manager wasn?t about to use the D-word ? dynasty ? when his team had yet to face the formidable Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. As an old Houston Oiler whose teams had run smack-dab into the Steel Curtain ? a true dynasty in the 1970 ? Thompson had no interest in discussing how his team could win multiple Super Bowls before it had even won one.
?This is a very difficult business. The Steelers are remarkable ? in their recent history as well as their long-term history,? Thompson replied. ?We would like to be competitive every year; we would like to have a chance to win every game. Right this second, we?re focused on trying to win this Sunday. And if I looked past that, I?d be an idiot.?
Five days later, Thompson?s Packers beat the Steelers, 31-25, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the roster architect is definitely not an idiot. In fact, he has so brilliantly put together the Packers? roster that we can legitimately talk about the team winning multiple Super Bowls on quarterback Aaron Rodgers? watch.
Whether they do or not, of course, remains to be seen. The NFL has not been kind to the dynasty in recent years. No team has even reached back-to-back Super Bowls since the 2003-?04 New England Patriots, and the 1996-?97 Packers are the last organization to do it in the NFC. In addition, the Packers berth in Super Bowl XLV made them the 10th different team to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl in the past 10 years. Rodgers himself mentioned that stat during Monday?s day-after-the-game MVP press conference.
Standing amid the locker room celebration Sunday night, Thompson chose his words carefully, as he always does.
?I don?t know. I think we have a good team. But if we?ve learned anything from this year, the best laid plans ? This isn?t fantasy football,? Thompson said. ?You can?t say, ?We?ve got this guy at tight end, we?ve got this guy at left tackle.? You can?t plan that way. You just try to get as many good players as you can. I hope and I think we?ll be a competitive team in the future, but we?ll still be the kind of team that has to play well and if we play well we?ll have a chance to win.?
Thompson?s cautious optimism aside, there are plenty of reasons to think that the Packers will either be in Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, 2012, or at least be in the conversation. Ditto for New Orleans after the 2012 season and New York/New Jersey after the 2013 season.
?We?re looking to be back again next year. I really believe that,? said veteran Packers cornerback Charles Woodson, who was forced to watch the second half of Sunday?s game with his left arm in a sling after breaking his collarbone late in the first half. ?We have the nucleus, and we most definitely have the quarterback.?
With his 304-yard, three-touchdown performance against the Steelers to cap a fantastic postseason, Rodgers earned his hall pass as one of the league?s elite quarterbacks. At age 27 and just having won the Super Bowl in his third season as a starter and sixth NFL season overall, if Rodgers can stay healthy ? he suffered two concussions this season, forcing him to miss a start for the first time in his career ? he should play, and play well, for another decade.
?It?s going to be exciting,? coach Mike McCarthy said of 2011 and beyond. ?On paper, it?s a lot like this year. Coming out of training camp, it was the best football team that I?d stood in front of. I knew we had an excellent opportunity to win the Super Bowl, and definitely, you look at our returning roster next year, it?s going to be the same type of situation. I?ll be very excited to coach these guys. It?s a great core group. Our locker room is better than it?s ever been. Winning definitely helps it, no doubt about it. Definitely I?ll be very excited just like the rest of the coaching staff to get started when it comes around.?
In addition to Rodgers, the quarterback is surrounded by all kinds of skill position talent. Wide receivers Greg Jennings (having earned first of presumably many Pro Bowl selections and caught two touchdowns Sunday), Jordy Nelson (career-highs with nine receptions and 140 yards) and James Jones (if he is re-signed, given his presumed impending free agency) all have starting ability, while ageless wonder Donald Driver (signed through 2012) still has gas left in the tank to be a significant contributor.
At running back, Ryan Grant, who had back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons before his season-ending ankle injury in the opener Sept. 12, should be back in full healthy and hungrier than ever and could form a formidable 1-2 punch with James Starks, who showed immense potential as a rookie. In a league where having two starting-caliber running backs has become standard operating procedure, marrying a potentially devastating running game with Rodgers? passing ability would give coach Mike McCarthy all kinds of play-calling options.
And let?s not forget tight end Jermichael Finley ? Rodgers certainly hasn?t ? who would have been the focal point of the offense had he not suffered a season-ending knee injury at Washington Oct. 10.
?It?s a challenge, but I feel like we are kind of reloading,? Rodgers said. ?We are going to have the best tight end in the NFL back into the mix here. I think we are getting, I think 15 guys back from IR. I?m sure a number of those guys will be back. It will be a different team. Every team has a different face to it, every year, different players, guys come and go, but I think the core, the nucleus of this team is intact to make runs like this for the next four or five years.?
No fewer than nine starters or key role players who played in Super Bowl XLV have contracts that expired after that game, led by defensive end Cullen Jenkins, left guard Daryn Colledge, Jones, safety Charlie Peprah and kicker Mason Crosby. Fullbacks John Kuhn and Korey Hall, running back Brandon Jackson and safety Atari Bigby would also be unrestricted free agents, assuming the new collective bargaining agreement between owners and the NFL Players Association is similar to the current one.
Two starting linebackers, A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett, also face uncertain futures. Hawk?s deal calls for him to be paid a guaranteed $10 million base salary in 2011 if he?s on the roster on the first day of the new league year, meaning he?ll have to be released or signed to an extension. Barnett has two years left on his deal but is scheduled to make $6 million in salary and bonuses in 2011, and with his replacement, Desmond Bishop, having received a four-year, $19 million extension last month, Barnett could be on his way out.
Just as the offense will get some key pieces back, the defense should be better next year as well, having finished No. 2 in the league in scoring defense despite even more injuries than the offense endured. Jenkins, who should be an offseason priority despite no contract talks all season long, played through a myriad of injuries but is a dominant inside rusher. Linebackers Brandon Chillar, Brady Poppinga and Brad Jones will return from IR, as will promising defensive end Mike Neal, who should be a force in his second year after a season-ending shoulder injury.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers has another year left on his deal and should be extended, now that it?s clear he won?t be getting a head-coaching gig this offseason. Even if safeties coach Darren Perry ends up as Arizona?s defensive coordinator, the staff should remain largely intact and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, another up-and-coming young coach, could take over the full secondary.
?We?ve got a lot of young, good players,? Capers said after the Super Bowl. ?We?ve got an awfully good quarterback. Teams change a lot from one year to the next, but I like the foundation we have, and hopefully it?ll give us a chance to be a good team.?
And then, there?s the head coach. As was pointed out to McCarthy in the post-Super Bowl press conference on Monday morning, the last time the Packers won a Super Bowl, the head coach ? Mike Holmgren ? started looking for a dual-role head coach/GM gig, which he finally got in Seattle after the topic became a Super Bowl XXXII distraction and he coached through an awkward 1998 season.
?Mike Holmgren surprised me when he wanted to leave. I don?t see that happening with Mike McCarthy,? former team president/CEO Bob Harlan said. ?They (Thompson and McCarthy) work very well together. The key is to have a great working relationship. We lost that when Mike Sherman was here that one year under Ted. But, Ted got his own man and sticks with the way he?s going to build his ballclub.?
And that?s one of the reasons McCarthy would seem unlikely to leave. Well-grounded, he also seems unlikely to allow his ego to become so massive that he and Thompson won?t be able to continue their successful partnership.
?I would hope this is my last job. I?m a builder and we have built something special,? McCarthy said. ?This program was built the right way, has quality people in Aaron Rodgers and all the way through that are going to lead this football team for a long time. So I would definitely hope this is my last job.
?Success is the hardest part of this business. Handling success, it comes at different levels. Obviously we?re at the highest level here today. We?re the Super Bowl champions, and that?s something we?re going to have to manage as a football team.?
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