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Packers combine experience and youth
Success in the NFL often is measured in terms of age, and that means finding the optimum balance of youthful speed and swagger to complement the wisdom and experience. Throughout the Green Bay Packers roster the pendulum doesn’t swing very far in either direction, which is about how a conference championship team should look heading into the Super Bowl.
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Across the starting lineup, the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV team has seven players who are 28 years or older, led by 12th-year wide receiver Donald Driver, 35, and seven-time Pro Bowl defensive back Charles Woodson, 34.
The starting group also is dotted with players who hover around the age and experience level of quarterback Aaron Rodgers, 27, arguably the hottest player in the 2010 postseason with his 790 passing yards, six touchdowns, two interceptions and 109.2 passer rating.
Wide receiver Greg Jennings, safety Nick Collins and the Packers’ takeaway artist, cornerback Tramon Williams, all are 27. Nose tackle B.J. Raji, who made the momentum-changing fourth-quarter interception of Bears’ third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie in last Sunday’s Green Bay’s 21-14 NFC Championship Game victory, is all of 24 years old.
So is outside linebacker Clay Matthews, who had 13.5 sacks and a defensive touchdown in the regular season. Two key younger players currently on injured reserve are tight end Jermichael Finley and rookie defensive end Mike Neal, both are 23.
The blend is well-designed, and a product of general manager Ted Thompson’s philosophy to draft and develop talent – the kind of franchise-building philosophy that also has proved successful with the Packers’ Super Bowl XLV opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Ted built this house," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "He is responsible for everything that goes on."
And Green Bay’s Super Bowl season has been largely home-grown. Woodson — the NFL’s reigning defensive player of the year — is one of the rare Green Bay superstars acquired as an unrestricted free agent.
Williams, with his career-high six interceptions in 2010, was plucked out of a pile of undrafted free agents in 2006 and signed to the Packers’ practice squad. Playmaking rookie cornerback Sam Shields, 23, joined the team as an undrafted free agent as well.
When running back Ryan Grant sustained a season-ending ankle injury in September, Brandon Jackson moved up on the depth chart and finished with a team-high 703 rushing yards (three touchdowns) and ranked second to Jennings in yards from scrimmage this season with 1,042 yards.
"It starts up top with Ted and players and the personnel department," veteran defensive lineman Ryan Pickett, 31, said. “They do a good job of bringing in players. Somebody gets hurt, and they bring in a guy where there's almost no drop-off.
“We have a lot of talent on this team. I don't know if I've ever seen this much, as long as I have been playing. There are players all over this team that were overlooked by other teams."
The younger players on offense and defense look specifically to Woodson and Driver for guidance, and those veterans embrace the responsibility.
“Being that I’m 34 and I’ve played 13 seasons now, at this point in time I think it’s cool that guys look at me that way,” Woodson told FOXSports.com. “More guys want to hear what I’ve been through, what I think about things. Playing this long, playing in Oakland, playing here – guys want to hear that.
“I’m the old vet now, which seems kind of funny to me. I used to be much more quiet. I tried to lead by example. But here, I feel a sense of duty to these younger guys, to speak up and help them when they come to me.”
Green Bay’s judicious roster construction also means this could be one of the rare playoff teams that may survive an offseason largely intact – if Thompson and the Packers are willing to spend to keep some looming free agents from taking flight.
Among the starters, right defensive end Cullen Jenkins and left guard Darren Colledge are in the final years of their contracts. Woodson, Driver as well as linebackers A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett will still be under contract but may have cost-prohibitive deals that beg to be overhauled.
One thing these Packers have shown, through a season that saw six starters from the season-opening depth chart go down to injury, is that they are a resilient bunch, laden with depth and integrity.
All of it carefully crafted.
“The way our season went — the trials and tribulations that we encountered — to me, that was how we were shaped,” McCarthy said last Sunday as his sixth-seeded team began celebrating its NFC title victory. “I think it’s made us a better football team. It’s challenged our character, and I think we’ve really grown through it.”
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