Pete Dougherty column: In NFL, a team can only go as far as its stars

Dec. 28, 2012
Aaron Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers
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Clay Matthews


NFL coaches will tell you theirs is the ultimate team game.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

Yes, football requires the synchronization of 11 players, and a breakdown anywhere can blow a play on either side of the ball. Coaching and roster development and depth matter, of course.

But a friend of mine argues that even the NBA is more of a team game than the NFL, and he’s probably right. Look no further than the Green Bay Packers and this year’s Pro Bowl for Exhibit No. 1.

The Packers had three players voted to the Pro Bowl, and one of them, center Jeff Saturday, made it on the reputation of an excellent 14-year career, not because of his play this year at age 37. He lost his starting job last week.

Sure, the Packers had a few other players who had decent cases for making it. Cornerback Tramon Williams has had a strong season, and rookie cornerback Casey Hayward has been an impact player as a slot cornerback even though he plays only in the nickel and dime defensive packages. Josh Sitton isn’t any worse than the NFC’s backup guard, Chris Snee. And is Tampa Bay’s Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 defensive tackle, any better than B.J. Raji? Probably not.

But in the end, the Packers can’t rightly say any of their players was jobbed out of a spot in the Pro Bowl.

Yet, despite having only two unquestioned Pro Bowl players, the Packers are one of a handful of teams with realistic hopes of winning the Super Bowl. Their chances are about as good as anyone’s as evidenced by this week’s betting lines. Though they don’t have the best record in the NFC, they have the best odds (6-to-1) in the conference to win the Super Bowl, and the only teams with better odds are the AFC’s Denver Broncos (4-to-1) and New England Patriots (5-to-1).

The San Francisco 49ers have nine Pro Bowlers, all more or less deserving. Yet the Packers’ title chances are just as good because the NFL is weighted toward premier players at key positions, and the Packers’ two Pro Bowlers, Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews, are among the best of the best at the game’s two most important positions: quarterback and pass rusher.

Though Peyton Manning seems to have the strongest MVP vibe going, Rodgers at least is in the conversation to win the award in back-to-back years with his league-leading 106.2 passer rating going into the final week of the season. Regardless of how that vote comes out, at age 29 Rodgers is as good as there is in the game.

One stat jumps out as illustration. In the last three years, the Packers have had a different player reach double digits in touchdown catches: Greg Jennings with 12 in 2010, Jordy Nelson with 15 last season, and James Jones with 13 and counting this year. Good players all. But would each have hit that total with a Matt Schaub or Joe Flacco behind center, let alone a Jake Locker or Christian Ponder? No. It’s the same reason Robert Brooks caught 102 passes in 1995 and Antonio Freeman went to the Pro Bowl in 1998. They had Brett Favre throwing to them. A premier quarterback makes his receivers better.

And if quarterback is by far the most important player, then the second-most important is the guy who can sack the quarterback. In Matthews’ four years in the NFL, his 411/2 sacks rank No. 5 in the NFL. He’s not the game’s best pass rusher — that probably comes from the group of San Francisco’s Aldon Smith, Houston’s J.J. Watt and Denver’s Von Miller — but he’s not far behind. Matthews changes games, not only because of the plays he makes but because his teammates are better because of the attention he draws.

Now compare the Packers with the Kansas City Chiefs, who had five Pro Bowlers. It’s hard to argue with any of their selections — safety Eric Berry, outside linebacker Tamba Hali, running back Jamaal Charles, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and punter Dustin Colquitt. Yet the Chiefs are 2-13 because their quarterback play is among the worst in the NFL — the collective passer rating of Matt Cassell and Brady Quinn is 64.2, which ranks No. 31 in the league.

And consider the 49ers. They have nine Pro Bowlers, and all were viable choices. They arguably could have had another in center Jonathan Goodwin (instead of Saturday). But the 49ers aren’t a prohibitive Super Bowl favorite despite leading the league in Pro Bowlers. Their quarterback play is uneven, and they’ve suddenly looked vulnerable on defense the last 11/4games without one of their best two or three players, defensive lineman Justin Smith, who sustained a torn triceps in the third quarter two weeks ago against New England.

Using the same line of thinking, you might think a quarterback such as Manning should be this year’s MVP, and his case is strong. He joined a team that went 8-8 last season and has it at 12-3 and the favorite to win the Super Bowl. That’s a big jump, all because of one guy.

But if I had an MVP vote, I’d probably give it to Minnesota halfback Adrian Peterson. In this case, Peterson has had as big an impact as any player in the game despite not playing quarterback, which makes his case stronger. Putting aside his remarkably fast recovery from knee-reconstruction surgery, he’s the reason the Vikings are in playoff contention going into the regular-season finale against the Packers on Sunday.

It’s not just Peterson’s rushing numbers, as impressive as they are — 1,898 yards, which leads the No. 2 rusher, Marshawn Lynch, by 408 yards. It’s that his team is in the playoff chase despite poor quarterback play and an average defense (No. 11 in points allowed, No. 16 in yards allowed). He’s carrying the team.

Take Peterson off the Vikings, and they’re one of the worst teams in the league instead of a 9-6 playoff contender. It usually takes a quarterback — witness rookies Robert Griffin III in Washington and Andrew Luck in Indianapolis — to make that kind of difference. and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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