A franchise quarterback, a core of young playmakers and a Super Bowl win in hand.
There’s too much to like about the Green Bay Packers.
Last weekend four high-ranking NFL personnel executives, on the promise of anonymity, agreed to predict the conference champs and Super Bowl winner for the 2011 season, and all chose the Packers at least to return to the Super Bowl.
Two picked them to win the title, a third chose New England and the fourth San Diego.
“I think it’s the Green Bay Packers,” said one of the executives. “They have a young football team, they have everybody back. You have a franchise quarterback. The Green Bay Packers draft well and I saw a little bit in the preseason, looks like they have another big draft coming in. A lot of guys coming back.”
The executives see it a little differently than Las Vegas oddsmakers. Bodog.com, for instance, listed New England as the favorite to win the Super Bowl at 11-to-2, ahead of the Packers (7-to-1), Philadelphia (15-to-2), San Diego (11-to-1), New Orleans and the New York Jets (12-to-1 each), Pittsburgh (13-to-1), and Atlanta and Baltimore (16-to-1).
The oddsmakers and betting public probably are taking into account the difficulty of repeating a championship. All four executives said it’s a real phenomenon.
“They’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” one said. “That can take a toll on you emotionally as well as physically. Those things wear on you by the end of the year.”
But one insisted the NFL lockout was to the Packers’ advantage.
In the run up to the Super Bowl, the Packers had five weeks more of quality practice than the teams that failed to make the playoffs, and two to four weeks more than everyone else except Pittsburgh. In a normal offseason, teams have individual workout programs and offseason practices to catch up. This year, they didn’t.
So the Packers’ players avoided the mental and physical demands of a structured offseason that would have started less than two months after the Super Bowl. They could heal and decompress without the league getting a head start on 2011.
“You need rest,” said an executive who’s been a part of multiple Super Bowl participants. “One thing that hurts a team in repeating is going to the Super Bowl, not having the offseason rest and coming back and having injuries. Here’s a (Packers) team that’s young, a healed team.”
Following is the executives’ thumbnail take on the top Super Bowl contenders:
Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady still command the highest regard among NFL front offices even though they haven’t won a playoff game since the ’07 season. Two of the executives picked the Patriots to win the AFC and one predicted they’d win the Super Bowl.
In summing up why he picked the Patriots in the AFC, one executive said: “He’s Tom Brady. The best in the business right now.”
Belichick has turned over the Patriots’ defensive personnel the last two years, but NFL teams assume he’ll still have one of the league’s top defenses. There’s a sense that he’s simply due.
“I have a huge amount of respect (for Belichick),” said one executive. “So I’ll go with him to win the whole deal.”
The betting public likes the Chargers as the No. 2 team in the AFC (11-to-2), behind only New England (5-to-2). The Chargers have impressive offensive talent, starting with quarterback Philip Rivers and tight end Antonio Gates. But San Diego fizzled in a divisional-round loss to the Jets after going 13-3 in 2009, then failed to make the playoffs at 9-7 last year.
“It’s time for Philip Rivers to take his place and get a Super Bowl (win),” said the executive who picked the Chargers.
Said an executive who picked the Chargers third in the AFC: “I like San Diego, but maybe it’s (coach) Norv Turner, I don’t know. I just don’t know how good their defense really is. They were No. 1 in (yards allowed) last year, but they don’t have great players on defense.”
The Steelers have been to the Super Bowl three of the last six years, including last season. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in his prime at 29, but according to research by ESPN, the Steelers have the league’s oldest average age, and their two best defensive playmakers are on the wrong side of 30 — safety Troy Polamalu (30), and outside linebacker James Harrison (33).
One executive picked them to win the AFC, two picked them third, and one didn’t mention them among the top four challengers.
“As long as that quarterback is in Pittsburgh and the defense is playing well, they’re going to be a contender,” one executive said. “You have to knock the champ out of the seats, so I’d say the Steelers (will win the AFC).”
None of the four scouts picked the Jets to reach the Super Bowl even though they’ve played in the AFC championship game the past two years, but all named them a serious challenger. The greatest misgiving was whether quarterback Mark Sanchez will be good enough to win the title.
“What the Jets have to do is find a way to win and get some home games in the playoffs,” one said. “It’s a tough (AFC East) division, so they haven’t been able to do that.”
Another said: “If (receiver) Plaxico Burress can do the things he did for the Giants, they’ll be right there.”
The Eagles are a favorite of the betting public after their aggressive post-lockout offseason. Bodog.com has them even with the Packers to win the NFC at 7-to-1 after high-profile personnel moves that included signing an elite cornerback (Nnamdi Asomugha) and two good pass rushers (Jason Babin and former Packers defensive end Cullen Jenkins) in free agency, and trading for another cornerback (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie).
But none of the executives picked them to win the NFC and only one picked them second. They identified Philadelphia’s offensive line as a serious liability — the Eagles have only one starter in the same position he played last year. That means quarterback Mike Vick can expect the same barrage of blitzes that bothered him late last season when the Eagles lost their final two games.
Also, coach Andy Reid made an out-of-the-box move in the offseason by shifting Juan Castillo from offensive line coach to defensive coordinator, though speculation around the league is that Reid or Jim Washburn, the highly respected new defensive line coach, is running the defense.
“Being in prison developed patience for (Vick), but his patience wore, he struggled down the stretch (last year),” one executive said. “Is it all his fault? No, he was running for his life, he took a pounding. The offensive line is not very good, and they made major changes. I don’t think it’s going to hold up.”
Two of the executives said the Falcons have the second-best chance to win the NFC.
The Falcons’ fortunes are pointing up because they should become a premier offense this season. They have an ascending quarterback (Matt Ryan), a Pro Bowl receiver (Roddy White), a red-zone tight end (Tony Gonzalez) and a potential star rookie receiver (Julio Jones, the No. 6 pick overall).
“Julio Jones looks like the next Larry Fitzgerald to me, just off the cuff looking at him,” one executive said.
The 2009 Super Bowl champs are 7-to-1 favorites to win the NFC, behind only the Packers and Eagles (7-to-2 each), but only two of the executives picked them even that high.
The Saints are scary because of their offensive talent that includes a top quarterback (Drew Brees), a four-deep receiving corps and a rookie halfback in Mark Ingram who might give them the most diverse offense in the game.
“(After the Packers), I’d go Atlanta, then New Orleans right now,” one executive said. “I just think there’s probably better talent on Atlanta’s defensive line.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.