The Green Bay Packers blew a chance to win a second straight Super Bowl last season by refusing to shed their security blankets.
First, they wouldnít commit to James Starks as their featured running back and split his snaps with Ryan Grant; and then when Starks got hurt, they replaced him with Grant. Having lost his wheels before the age of 29, Grant was a one-hole runner at the end who couldnít even land a job when the Packers finally cut the cord.
Donald Driver, then 36, played more than 250 more snaps at receiver than Randall Cobb, then 21.
When the Packers lost safety Nick Collins, who was truly a valuable player and not just another overhyped one, they replaced him with sixth-year journeyman Charlie Peprah. When the playoffs came, the Packers handed back the left tackle job to an over-the-hill Chad Clifton and started Jarrett Bush at cornerback, a position he had proven time and again he couldnít play.
More than 25 years ago, George Young, one of pro footballís true sages and architect of the New York Giants teams that won Super Bowls under Bill Parcells, gave this brief discourse on the key to building a pro football team.
"We're a 20-year-old business and not a 30-year-old business. Twenty-year-olds make better soldiers than 30-year-olds. It's the same thing that the Marine Corps learned a long time ago. The best soldier is between 18 and 26 -- except for quarterback where maturity is important. This is a physical game and a Spartan-like game, and it also has to do with economics. People who are hungrier make better soldiers than people who aren't."
This year, on defense at least, the Packers have learned their lesson and are reaping the benefits of youth. Once again Sunday against Detroit, their young defenders allowed them to pull out a tough-fought victory despite another sluggish performance by the offense.
Granted, Calvin Johnson caught five passes for a 28.6-yard average and would have done more damage if not for Matthew Staffordís mystifying tendency this season to miss the strike zone. And, sure, itís more comforting for coaches to play rookies after being handed a boat-full of high draft picks.
But, then again, the Packers challenged Johnson enough that he wasnít able to win the game by himself, and not all of those youngsters on defense started their NFL careers on second base. Dezman Moses and M.D. Jennings made two of the biggest plays of the game and entered the league as undrafted free agents.
Great players are rare. Good young players are there to be found if teams are willing to leave their comfort zones. Young players, while they might make more mental mistakes, can rejuvenate an entire unit and allow it to improve over the course of a season.
The story of the game was the secondary. The Packers rank second in the NFL with 33 sacks thanks largely to Clay Matthews finishing plays this year that he didnít finish last year. But the Packers had five sacks on Sunday without him.
So whatís the difference considering the Packers havenít added any stud rushers either inside or outside? To a great extent itís pass coverage. The secondary is the most improved area on the team. Quarterbacks are being forced to hold the ball for an extra count and thatís allowing the rush to get there. Last year, receivers were running free and just about any quarterback could find an open man.
Having a healthy Tramon Williams has helped tremendously, but itís more than that. Davon House gives the Packers a physical presence on the corner that they havenít had since Al Harris. Casey Hayward makes plays on the ball and catches the ball. The knock on him coming out of college was that he didnít have great speed, but sometimes good football players are just good football players.
Charles Woodsonís biggest asset during a great career might have been that he finished plays. He probably would have gotten the sack that Hayward didnít get when he went unblocked on a blitz early in the second quarter. But the Packers donít miss Woodson in coverage. In fact, they might even be better off without him.
Brad Jones is still just 26 and seems to be providing more range against the pass than the Packers have had at inside backer. Whatís more, Jones might not be as physical as Desmond Bishop, but he attacks the hole and makes plays in the running game that A.J. Hawk doesnít make.
The difference might be that Jones is 6-foot-3 Ė two inches taller than Hawk Ė and picks up the ball quicker against both run and pass.
The offensive line
Against some -- maybe even most Ė teams, the Packers might be able to manage without Bryan Bulaga. But they sure seemed to miss him against the Lions, which have one of the better defensive fronts and maybe the best tackle tandem in the game.
The reason T.J. Lang is a better guard than tackle is because heís an aggressive pass blocker. At guard, he can snap and be quick in his pass set. At tackle, he has to be patient, and when he had problems on Sunday, it was when he overextended and got his weight out over his toes. Whether itís pure strength, leverage, hand use or whatever, Evan Dietrich-Smith isnít as physical a guard as Lang, especially in the running game. There were times he got thrown around like a rag doll.
That said, Josh Sitton also had his problems against those two tackles. Ditto for Jeff Saturday.
Having Jordy Nelson back helped. Heís a physical force who breaks tackles and gets extra yards. But itís becoming more obvious that the Packers miss Greg Jennings. Without Jennings, they donít have anyone to run that skinny slant. That pass requires great timing, and Aaron Rodgers and Jennings had it down pat. Plus, Jennings knew body position when he ran that route.
So the blueprint for opposing defenses seems to be: Stay in a two-deep zone, take away the vertical threat on the outside and dare Rodgers to throw over the middle.
Maybe his numbers didnít look great on the stat sheet, but he gained tough yards. He ran the ball 12 times on first down and averaged 3.8 yards per carry. Thatís what the Packers werenít getting from Alex Green.
Starks keeps his feet moving on contact, falls forward and turns 1-yard gains into 3-yard gains. He doesnít have top-line speed and maybe heís not as instinctive as Cedric Benson on cutbacks, but Starks doesnít leave many yards on the field between the tackles.
Former Press-Gazette sports editor Cliff Christl and former football coach and player Eric Baranczyk offer their analysis of Green Bay Packers games each week.