ARLINGTON, Texas -- Now that the Pack is all the way back, the reality is they're not going away again for quite some time. If you had to identify a team that's well positioned to weather what could be the most unusual offseason in NFL history, and come out standing strong on the other side, the Green Bay Packers might just win by unanimous vote.
The newly christened champions of Super Bowl XLV are young, talented and extremely well run, from the very top of their organization on down. Plenty of teams talk about having a Super Bowl window of opportunity, but the view from where the Packers stand today looks clearer and brighter than it has for any NFL champion in recent memory.
Consider the following:
• Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers is just 27 and entering his prime as one of the game's elite quarterbacks. His 4-0 playoff run and Super Bowl victory over the Steelers finally chased away the last lingering ghost of Brett Favre in Green Bay and established Rodgers as one of the game's preeminent playmakers and team leaders. Only Rodgers' penchant for concussions in 2010, when he suffered two, registers as a potential concern that bears monitoring.
• Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy are an effective and disciplined management tandem, and Packers team president Mark Murphy indicated that both are in line for contract extensions this offseason following their Super Bowl triumph. Thompson and McCarthy have two years remaining on the five-year deals they signed after Green Bay's trip to the 2007 NFC title game, but now they're in line for even longer deals and significant pay raises as they continue working like hand in glove in terms of their now-proven personnel and coaching philosophies.
• If there is free agency this offseason in the NFL, which is no sure thing given the state of the league's labor stand off, the Packers are in relatively great shape. Defensive lineman Cullen Jenkins, receiver James Jones, running back Brandon Jackson and kicker Mason Crosby would be unrestricted under any format that makes unsigned veterans of four years or more free. But Green Bay has a whopping 69 players under contract and wisely moved this season to lock up talents like emerging cornerback Tramon Williams, inside linebacker Desmond Bishop, defensive lineman Ryan Pickett and safety Nick Collins.
• The Packers averaged just 27.4 years per starter in Sunday night's Super Bowl, and perhaps have just started to scratch the surface in regards to young stars such as outside linebacker Clay Matthews, 24, tight end Jermichael Finley, 23, offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, 21, cornerback Tramon Williams, 27, cornerback Sam Shields, 23, guard Josh Sitton, 24, nose tackle B.J. Raji, 24, and, of course, Rodgers.
Running back James Starks, 24, emerged as a weapon late in the year, giving Green Bay reason to believe he and two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant, 28, will more than capably handle the backfield duties for the foreseeable future. At receiver, even if the Packers lose Jones in free agency, Greg Jennings, 27, and Jordy Nelson, 25, still make the position a strength, and valuable veteran Donald Driver could well return for a 13th NFL season.
• Though it will be choosing in the No. 32 slot of the first round, Green Bay has eight picks plus a likely compensatory selection (for losing free agent Aaron Kampman) coming in the 2011 draft. That should allow the rich to get richer, with the Packers likely in need of another youthful option at offensive tackle or outside linebacker, with maybe the luxury of taking a game-breaking rushing threat if one falls to them.
The theme of continuity should also largely extend all the way down through McCarthy's ultra-capable and respected assistant coaching staff. Coordinators Joe Philbin (offense) and Dom Capers (defense) will both return. In two years, Capers has already transformed Green Bay into one of the most effective 3-4 teams in the league, with the Packers finishing second in points allowed behind Pittsburgh this season. Capers winning his long-awaited Super Bowl ring after 25 years in the league ranks as one of the best stories of this championship season in Green Bay.
The Packers could lose either assistant head coach/inside linebackers coach Winston Moss or safeties coach Darren Perry, both of whom are on the radar in Oakland and Arizona as defensive coordinator candidates. Moss is probably the most likely to leave, with Raiders head coach Hue Jackson targeting him, but the Packers defensive staff would still be formidable. Cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt is regarded as an up-and-coming talent, outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene has done strong work for Green Bay, and the proven Mike Trgovac remains as defensive line coach.
As for their place in the NFC North, the Packers are clearly the class of the division. Sure, they had to take the wild-card route to the playoffs for the second year in a row, and wound up facing and beating the champion Bears in the NFC title game in Chicago. But Green Bay is the only division club to make back-to-back postseason trips the past two years, and who among the Bears, Vikings and Lions wouldn't trade rosters with the Packers in a split second?
Broadening the horizon even further, the NFC has advanced 10 different teams to the Super Bowl in the past 10 years, but Green Bay has to be considered a legitimate threat to end that improbable streak. Scan the NFC standings and ask yourself who will be the conference's likely Super Bowl favorite heading into the 2011 season?
New Orleans, Atlanta and Tampa Bay should still be strong, and the Eagles, Cowboys, Giants and Rams could be playoff contenders. But I can't find anyone I like as much as Green Bay when it comes to divining the NFC representative for Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis next February. This is a Packers team that could be knocking on that particular door for a long time by today's ephemeral NFL standards.
In short, heading into a unique offseason that features so much uncertainty, with issues like the continuation of the salary cap, free agency, a rookie wage scale and the length of future regular seasons still unsettled, the Packers have as many questions already answered as anyone in the league. Thompson has built a deep and resilient roster, and whenever NFL football resumes later in 2011, the Packers know they have a young and still-ascending nucleus of players who have just begun to make their mark. Green Bay (14-6) has every right to believe it'll be even better next season, especially once good health returns to the league-high 15 players it placed on injured reserve this season.
It's almost comical to talk about dynasties in a league that has featured just one repeat champion since Denver won two Super Bowls in a row in 1997-98, but these Packers have obvious reason to dream big. Often derided for perennially assembling one of the youngest rosters in the league, and eschewing the free-agent quick fix, Thompson can now rightfully claim that his methods have been vindicated and his penchant for patience rewarded.
The NFL still needs to do the hard work of hammering out a new CBA, and the process of determining a new economic model could be long and arduous. But amid all that, the Pack is indeed back. And it looks like they're going to be staying a while.