There’s one major difference between the NFC North Division rivals who will play for the NFC championship Sunday: One was built for this season out of win-now-or-else desperation, the other for the longer haul of the next three to five years.
Both methods worked, and the now matters most in the NFL. But looking to the future, Chicago Bears General Manager Jerry Angelo needs to draft unusually well starting this year to remain a title contender, whereas Packers General Manager Ted Thompson, with his stubborn aversion to free agency but exemplary work on draft day, has built a likely Super Bowl contender for the next several years.
There’s no blaming Angelo for what he had to do last spring. Going into his 10th season running the Bears’ football operations, he’d missed the playoffs three straight years and faced a playoffs-or-else 2010.
So he went on the kind of spending jag that more often than not fails in the NFL and landed the biggest free agent of the 2010 offseason, defensive end Julius Peppers. Peppers’ six-year contract included $42 million in salary and bonuses over the first three seasons, huge money for an exceptionally talented but nevertheless 30-year old with a reputation for occasionally indifferent play. Peppers had 25 sacks combined the previous two seasons — good numbers, no doubt, but $13 million a year the next three years?
Angelo also paid Chester Taylor, who is 31, $7 million in guaranteed money to be a backup halfback, and Brandon Manumaleuna, who also is on the wrong side of 30, $6 million guaranteed to play tight end in the Mike Martz offense he’d known from his first five years in the league.
It worked, though Peppers was the only signing that mattered. He finished with a modest eight sacks, but his ability to make plays against the run and pass has demanded the attention of offensive coordinators and made everyone on the Bears’ defense better. Without him, Chicago couldn’t dream of being where it is now.
Sustaining this success the next couple of years, though, will be difficult.
The best thing the Bears have for their future is quarterback Jay Cutler, whom they acquired in a franchise-changing trade in 2009. The deal cost plenty but at least now is paid for: first-round picks in the last two drafts, a third-round pick in ’09, plus quarterback Kyle Orton.
Cutler at age 27 is just hitting his prime and has as much physical talent as any of the premier quarterbacks in the league. He at least has the ability to carry an offense, though he’ll have to grow under Martz’s coaching, cut down on risky throws and mature as a leader to actually do it.
And perhaps Peppers is one of those sublime talents who, like former Packers defensive end Reggie White, will be a difference maker several years into his 30s. White was 31 when the Packers signed him in 1993, and though by the ’96 and ’97 Super Bowl seasons he wasn’t quite the player of his prime, he no doubt was a difference maker. So maybe Peppers still has a couple more seasons in him of game-changing play.
But the truth is, the Bears are old. Fourteen of their 22 starters are 28 or older, and 10 are at least 29. The former list includes a majority of their key players: Peppers (31), linebacker Brian Urlacher (32), linebacker Lance Briggs (30), return man Devin Hester (28), defensive end Israel Idonije (30) and cornerback Charles Tillman (29).
Because of the Cutler trade, the Bears haven’t had a first-round pick the last two years, so none of their top younger players — Cutler, halfback Matt Forte (25) and tight end Greg Olsen (25) — is a rookie or second-year pro. Defensive tackle Tommie Harris (27) has fallen off this list because multiple knee injuries have diminished him.
Any or several of those older players could decline next season, and it doesn’t take a lot to show up on a team’s record, especially if it’s Peppers, Urlacher, Briggs or Hester. So Angelo needs to add good, young talent fast. His 2011 draft will be critical.
The Packers, on the other hand, have enough young, top talent to be among the elite the next several years. That doesn’t ensure it will happen, because a team can diminish or fall apart in any number of unexpected ways: key injuries, contract feuds, friction or change in management and coaching.
But unlike the Bears, most of the Packers’ best talent is young. Their seven starters 28 years or older is half the Bears’ total and includes only one of their top eight players, cornerback Charles Woodson (34). Other older important contributors are defensive end Cullen Jenkins (30), receiver Donald Driver (35), defensive end Ryan Pickett (31) and left tackle Chad Clifton (34).
But their most important player, Rodgers, is only 27, and six of the their next most-important seven also are young: outside linebacker Clay Matthews (24), injured tight end Jermichael Finley (23), nose tackle B.J. Raji (24), receiver Greg Jennings (27), safety Nick Collins (27) and cornerback Tramon Williams (27). That doesn’t include injured rookie defensive end Mike Neal (23), who could end up a player of, say, Jenkins’ caliber.
By the way, Woodson is the lone player of the top eight acquired as an unrestricted free agent. The Packers signed Williams off the street to their practice squad in 2006, and Thompson drafted the rest.
Thompson will have to keep drafting reasonably well, because his careful money management means his roster will turn over. This spring, Jenkins and receiver James Jones might leave in free agency, along with offensive linemen Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz. Anyone from among Driver, Woodson, Clifton and even Pickett could fall off the table by next year, and one of two inside linebackers, A.J. Hawk and Nick Barnett, won’t be back because of the cost.
No help is coming in free agency, that’s not in Thompson’s DNA. But these Packers are built for the relative long haul. It’s hard to see this team not contending for the next few years.
Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at email@example.com.