The Green Bay Packers made it to the Super Bowl despite losing playmaking tight end Jermichael Finley early in the season. His return next year should make the team that much better. / Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
DALLAS — Win or lose Sunday in Super Bowl XLV, the Green Bay Packers appear poised to be a championship contender for years to come.
General Manager Ted Thompson has built this team for the long haul, and the relative youth up and down the roster could put the Packers in position to make multiple Super Bowl appearances.
There are no guarantees in the NFL, and there’s no predicting what key injuries, contract holdouts or other problems could beset the Packers. But barring something unforeseen, don’t be surprised if they enjoy a prosperous future.
“I think we’re positioned for success over the long term,” said team President Mark Murphy.
Thompson has insisted on building his team primarily through the draft, and that approach is paying off.
The Packers will immediately get better in 2011 with the return of offensive playmakers Jermichael Finley and Ryan Grant, who missed most of the season with injuries.
Fifteen of the Packers’ 22 starters lining up Sunday are 27 or younger, and the team is prepared to replace some of their older players when the time comes.
Cornerback Charles Woodson is 34 and won’t be around much longer, but Thompson hit the jackpot by signing undrafted free agents Tramon Williams and Sam Shields, who could have long and prosperous careers in Green Bay.
Donald Driver is 35 and winding down his career, but relative youngsters Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson are capable of filling that void at receiver.
In the event defensive linemen Cullen Jenkins, 30, and Ryan Pickett, 31, don’t last much longer, the Packers have potential reinforcements in Mike Neal and Johnny Jolly, who missed most or all of this season because of injury and suspension, respectively.
Tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are getting long in the tooth and guard Daryn Colledge’s contract is set to expire, but Thompson has been stockpiling younger replacements such as rookie Bryan Bulaga, who is already considered a permanent starter, as well as T.J. Lang or perhaps unknown Nick McDonald.
Most of the Packers’ Pro Bowl-caliber players are brimming with youthful exuberance, including Aaron Rodgers (27 years old), Clay Matthews (24), Greg Jennings (27), B.J. Raji (24), Nick Collins (27) and Williams (27).
Thompson remains cautious and was reluctant to express much enthusiasm about the Packers’ enviable position.
“While you can say it looks great for the depth and quality of our team next year, you just never know how it’s going to work,” he said this week at the team’s Super Bowl hotel.
Murphy pointed out that the NFL can mean “not for long,” a testament to the difficulty in keeping a championship-caliber team together for an extended period of time. The Packers are the 10th NFC team to qualify for the Super Bowl in the past 10 years.
Yet the Packers’ opponent Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers, are making their third Super Bowl appearance in the past six seasons, proof that sustained success is possible.
The Packers’ rash of injuries this season should help down the road because it afforded reserves like Desmond Bishop, Bulaga and James Starks, among others, the chance to gain valuable playing time.
“The experience that all these players have had, being forced to play this year, should bode well for increased depth and things like that going forward,” Thompson said.
The Packers have gained a reputation for bringing along young talent relatively quickly, and that pipeline continues to flow.
“We’ve had a lot of draft choices over the last few years, and within our strength and conditioning program and within our coaching staff, I think we’ve gotten some development out of that,” Thompson said.
The Packers own all seven of their draft choices this year and will likely pick up at least two more, which gives Thompson ammunition to trade up if he wants.
The Packers also are on sound financial footing, which has allowed them to re-sign several key players over the past year and will enable them to lock down even more of their own pending free agents during the offseason.
Like Thompson, Coach Mike McCarthy didn’t want to say much this week about the Packers’ potentially bright future.
“I think, conceptually, on paper it leads up to that,” was about all McCarthy was willing to offer.
“After the Super Bowl we can have those conversations.”
None of the Packers’ brass will admit it, but the rallying cry “Break Up the Packers” might be heard from opponents across the NFL in the coming years.
Mike Vandermause is sports editor of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.