Cliff Christl column: Turnover of starters can be key to winning

Feb. 4, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS ó For those of you still trying to digest why the Green Bay Packers arenít playing here today in Super Bowl XLVI, chew on these numbers.

The New England Patriots and New York Giants, the two participants, faced each other just four years ago in Super Bowl XLII. Of the 106 players on the two active rosters that day, only 23 will be dressed today at Lucas Oil Stadium. Of the 44 starters from the game in 2008, only 11 are expected to start today: Six for the Giants, five for the Patriots.

The two key players are still around Ė quarterbacks Tom Brady and Eli Manning Ė and if they werenít, in all likelihood neither team would be here. But the 33 starters who have since been replaced havenít been missed at all.

Four years ago, the Patriotsí big-play weapon was future Hall of Famer Randy Moss, who had led AFC receivers that year with 11 touchdowns. This year, the Patriotsí biggest threat is tight end Rob Gronkowski, and he might be more valuable. The Giants also had a likely Hall of Famer, Michael Strahan, starting at defensive end. Theyíve since replaced him with Jason Pierre-Paul, who appears to be even more gifted.

Since the Packersí season of soaring expectations abruptly ended in shambles against the Giants in Lambeau Field, nearly every sportswriter who covers the team and every ex-player given a soapbox somewhere have placed the blame for that on General Manager Ted Thompson and his decision not to re-sign Cullen Jenkins.

It doesnít matter that Jenkins was a one-dimensional player with a lazy streak who often disappeared in big games; and, moreover, wasnít missed a bit when he sat out the last four regular-season games a year ago and contributed little in three of the Packersí four post-season victories.

Clearly, one of the Packersí shortcomings this year was lack of a pass rush and certainly the easiest way to quantify it is to blame it on the loss of Jenkins. Thatís why so many people were fixated on the Packersí injuries last year. They, too, were easy to quantify, although, as it turned out, none of them mattered.

Brady Poppinga. Brad Jones. Anthony Smith. Spencer Havner. Brandon Chillar. Nick Barnett. Ryan Grant. Mark Tauscher. Justin Harrell. Derrick Martin. Josh Bell.

Those were losses?

One could easily argue that one of the reasons the Packers were still playing a year ago this weekend and arenít today is because of those injuries and the opportunities they created for others. If not for those losses, Desmond Bishop, Bryan Bulaga, James Starks and others might have languished on the bench all season when they were better than the players starting in front of them.

When Donald Driver was hurt in the second quarter of last yearís Super Bowl, the Packers had scored one offensive touchdown and Jordy Nelson had three catches for 47 yards. Given a chance to be an every-down receiver, Nelson seized the moment and finished with 9 receptions for 140 yards. If not for Nelsonís coming out party, thereís a chance the Packersí latest Lombardi Trophy might be the property of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The NFL is all about moving on.

The 1996 Packers, for example, had a good, one-time Pro Bowl center in Frank Winters. He was replaced five years later by a good, one-time Pro Bowl center, Mike Flanagan. He played until 2006 and was replaced by a good, one-time Pro Bowl center, Scott Wells.

LeRoy Butler was a linchpin of the í96 Packersí defense. He was followed by Darren Sharper. And Sharper was followed by Nick Collins. Butler draws votes in balloting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sharper almost certainly will when heís eligible. And Collinsí career was heading in that direction before he was hurt.

Thompson even proved that itís possible to seamlessly replace one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

It was a different era, but a big part of what allowed the Packers to win five NFL titles in nine years under Vince Lombardi was that of the 22 players who started in his first game in 1959, only four were still starting in his last game, Super Bowl II.

Lombardi was a disciple of Jack Adams, who won seven Stanley Cups as a longtime coach and/or GM with the Detroit Red Wings. Adams seemed to take a fiendish delight in dumping reliable standbys to guard against complacency, but he was so successful the NHLís coach of the year award is named after him.

Itís a cruel way to do business, but itís a time-worn philosophy that has worked and has roots in every sport. In baseball, those roots can be traced to legendary GM Branch Rickey.

Itís essentially the same philosophy that Thompson and Mike McCarthy practice today. And itís basically one they share with the Patriots and Giants. Itís all about developing your own players and fitting them to your system.

But it only works if you turn over your lineup, not just your roster, and make room for new blood.

Thereís an old saying in scouting that if youíre a player and teams donít design game plans to stop you, youíre just a guy. Blame Thompson for not having a contingency plan to fill the Packersí pass rush needs when Mike Neal didnít pan out this season. But Jenkins was just a guy and an old one at that.

In fact, if thereís one overriding reason why the Packers arenít playing today, itís because they had other aging players and didnít show more of them the door.

What's your take on the Packers Family Night change?

Retrieving results.
Watching practice is fine.(Your vote)
579 votes
I'd rather watch a scrimmage.(Your vote)
862 votes
I don't want to pay to watch practice.(Your vote)
1025 votes
It doesn't matter to me.(Your vote)
1278 votes

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Football fans

If you've ever answered "Who has the ball?" with "It's halftime," you might recognize The Airhead. Check out the characters in our cartoon gallery of oddball fans.

Special Reports