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Dougherty: Packers' stars likely won't be aligned for long

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News
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GREEN BAY - You’re forgiven if after the Green Bay Packers won Super Bowl XLV you figured they’d make it to two or three more Super Bowls in the next five years.

Of their 10 best playmakers on both sides of the ball in February 2011, nine were age 27 or younger.

Aaron Rodgers (27), Greg Jennings (27), Jermichael Finley (24) and Jordy Nelson (25) were all in or entering their primes, as were defensive standouts Clay Matthews (25), Nick Collins (27), B.J. Raji (25), Tramon Williams (27) and Sam Shields (23).

The exception was the great Charles Woodson, who was 34.

Well, we know the rest of that story. A decade later the Packers have been a perennial playoff team and occasional Super Bowl contender, but they’ve never made it back to the big game.

They’re a striking example of why NFL teams have to make it happen when they get a chance like the Packers have now hosting Sunday’s NFC championship game against Tampa Bay. When the stars align they often don’t stay aligned for long. Those 2010 Packers took advantage, and the 2020 Packers are in a similar spot as that team was then: Playing great football when everything is on the line.

“They look like the best team in the NFL to me,” said a longtime scout in the league on Thursday. “There’s no other way to put it. … You have to (take advantage).”

So what sidetracks a team that looks poised for a great run for two, three or even four years? Plenty.

Players’ performances often take big swings. They might have a great season but never reach that level again no matter their age. Others get hurt and decline fast. And free agency and late drafting chip away at the roster quickly. Things can slip just as suddenly as they rose.

Going back to the Packers of a decade ago, they followed their Super Bowl with a 15-1 season. But that ’11 team faded a little down the season’s home stretch and was bumped from the playoffs by the New York Giants in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Packers have made it back to the NFC title game three times since but lost all three.

What happened?

Among other things, Raji, in only his second season, was a big difference-maker down the stretch of the ’10 season and through the playoffs. He never played at that level again.

Collins, a three-time Pro Bowler, sustained a neck injury in Week 2 the next year and never played again. Same for Finley two years later.

Woodson at age 34 had his last great season in ’10. He was still very good for several years thereafter but not the dominant force he’d been in ’09 and ’10.

And role players such as Desmond Bishop, A.J. Hawk and Howard Green had their best seasons in the Packers’ Super Bowl year.

We don’t know what the future is for some Packers players who are having big seasons this year.

Robert Tonyan has been as good a receiver as any tight end in the league other than Kansas City’s Travis Kelce and Oakland’s Darren Waller. Tonyan is 26. Will he keep improving, or even maintain the level he’s played this season?

Last year’s two first-round picks, Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage, have made nice jumps this year. Will that continue?

Preston Smith has slipped from his 12-sack season last year. Could that happen to one or two others in 2021? Will defensive lineman Kenny Clark maintain the dominant form he’s displayed down the stretch this season?

There’s something about the NFL where players often enough peak for a year, maybe even two, but can’t maintain it even if they’re young. Raji is a great example. Beloved Gilbert Brown of the 1990s Packers is the same – he was dominant in 1995 and ’96 but never approached that level again even though he was only 25 when the Packers won Super Bowl XXXI. Antonio Freeman was a top receiver from 1996-98 but then at age 27 started to decline.

Sometimes it’s physical, but often the league figures players out after a peak year.

“You can attribute that to the film study,” said Ron Wolf, the Pro Football Hall of Fame general manager. “Once the season is over with and people start evaluating how to, say, beat the Packers, what can we do to take away Gilbert Brown? What bothers him? They go back and watch all the tape and they figure out ways to eliminate him, make him a non-factor. I think that’s the big thing you have going today, all the work and being able to find the weaknesses.”

There’s also roster uncertainty.

David Bakhtiari is likely to miss most of 2021 recovering from ACL-reconstruction surgery.

Aaron Jones, who’s as important to the Packers’ offense as anyone, will be a free agent in March unless the Packers sign him to a late contract or put the franchise tag on him.

Center Corey Linsley, a first-team All-Pro this year, is a good bet to hit the free-agent market too.

Kevin King, an injury-prone but solid cornerback, probably will be on the open market too.

Then there are injuries. The San Francisco 49ers went to the Super Bowl last year and figured to be a main contender again but saw their season ruined by a landslide of injuries, most notably to pass rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford, and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. For financial reasons they’d also traded one of their best players, defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.

Also, Bakhtiari notwithstanding, the Packers have been healthier than their opponents week in and week out most of the season and should have their full roster available for Sunday against Tampa Bay. That’s two years in a row of better-than-average health. How long will that continue?

“Whatever the roster is we know it’s not going to be the same 53 guys next year,” said a longtime NFL assistant for another NFC team. “That’s so true. Certain guys are going to go into free agency, guys are going to get cut and replaced, so you never know what type of chemistry you’ll have.”

At least a couple times in the offseason general manager Brian Gutekunst was asked what he needed to do to catch to the 49ers. A natural question after that team blew out the Packers twice last season, including in the NFC title game.

Gutekunst answered that he doesn’t look at building his roster that way, because every season is different. The 49ers might not be the team everyone has to beat this year in the NFC.

He was right. His Packers are.

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