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Green Bay Packers take risk by keeping aging veterans in key roles

Sep. 28, 2011
 

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Wide receiver Donald Driver is one of three Green Bay Packers players who are 34 and older. There’s reason to wonder what kind of impact they’ll have this season. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette

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With the Green Bay Packers off to an impressive 3-0 start, it suggests that all the talk this summer about whether they’d be able to replace the players they lost from their Super Bowl team was as misplaced as last year’s prattle over injuries. Most of the departed players are the same ones they managed to win without a year ago.

Worrying about losing Cullen Jenkins or backups in the offensive line and at linebacker is trivial stuff.

That doesn’t mean it’ll be clear sailing to another Super Bowl triumph. The loss of Nick Collins was an injury that could have consequences. If Bryan Bulaga is out for any length of time, it would be another big loss. Collins is a special player and Bulaga is becoming one.

In a league where the fine line, which separates the champion from 31 also-rans, is usually as thin as floss, there’s also something else that could derail the 2011 Packers: Age.

The history of the NFL tells us it’s more important to monitor the veterans a championship team brings back than the ones it pushes out the door. In other words, holding on to players too long is more likely to spoil a reigning champ’s season than discarding them too early.

Free agency has changed the game some over the past two decades and, in turn, there have been championship teams hurt by losses they incurred trying to slash their salary caps. The 2000 Baltimore Ravens come to mind.

But the basic principles of pro football never change, and one of those is that it’s a young man’s game. Even in recent times, when the NFL more closely resembles Arena Football than the game associated with the Lombardi Packers, the bane of most champions has been an aging roster.

The 1996 Packers were a good example. They won the Super Bowl with three defensive starters who were 33 or older: Reggie White, Sean Jones and Eugene Robinson. White and Robinson weren’t the same players in 1997 while Jones retired and wasn’t adequately replaced.

As a result, the Packers lost Super Bowl XXXII when Denver’s Terrell Davis gashed them for 157 yards rushing. The Packers’ defenders were so obviously out of gas and whiffing on so many tackles that when they allowed the Broncos to score a late touchdown without resistance, it was hard to tell. Things didn’t look much different from when they were trying.

A football season is a marathon, and White and Robinson, among others, had hit the wall.

Tampa Bay won Super Bowl XXXVII thanks primarily to four special defenders: Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and John Lynch. All were between the ages of 28 and 31, and except for Rice, the youngest, they all slipped in performance the next year and the Bucs fell into decline.

Perhaps the best examples of teams that didn’t keep pace turning over their rosters and eventually suffered the consequences were the powerhouses of the 1960s and 1970s, when there was less player movement.

In the four offseasons after Lombardi won his first NFL title in 1961, he replaced 10 starters. Once he started his run of winning three straight, he basically turned over only three from 1965 to 1967. The end result: The Packers won their record third title, which made it all worth it, but they were as burned out as their coach and a 24-year famine followed.

Pittsburgh was the league’s next dynasty, winning four Super Bowls in the 1970s under Chuck Noll. But he became so attached to some of his mainstays that by the time he won his last title in 1979, he had eight starters over the age of 30. He brought seven of them back in 1980 and won two playoff games in his final 12 seasons.

Hank Stram was another coach who sentimentally hung on to aging greats, and the Kansas City Chiefs paid for it. They went 14 years without making the playoffs between 1971 and 1986.

This year’s Packers have three players 34 and older: Donald Driver, Chad Clifton and Charles Woodson. There’s reason to wonder what kind of impact they’ll have as this season runs its course.

Driver, 36, is eating up plays that could go to Randall Cobb or other more explosive receivers. The point has been made that Driver can still play. So what? Brett Favre could still play when the Packers dumped him.

It has always been and always will be a mistake to stick with a declining veteran over a talented, young player ready to make a splash.

Considering he was facing Julius Peppers, 35-year-old Chad Clifton is coming off a solid game. But there are times where it looks like he’s clinging to the edge of life as an NFL left tackle. It’s hard to second-guess the decision to stick with him for another season because protecting Aaron Rodgers is of paramount importance. But there’s risk in the status quo, too, if Clifton doesn’t hold up for the entire season.

Sometimes it’s better to insert a younger player early and endure the growing pains so he’s battle-tested by January.

It was interesting that Peppers took a couple cracks at second-year man Marshall Newhouse on Sunday and went back to lining up against Clifton.

Woodson, 34, still ranks as one of the Packers’ key defenders. But will he be the same playmaker down the stretch that he was last year? There’s reason to wonder and that’s the kind of personnel development that can tilt a season.

Cliff Christl is a former Packers beat writer and sports editor for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

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