How the NFL's Final Four teams were constructed
SEATTLE (AP) Game plans vary from week to week, opponent to opponent. Any NFL coach will scoff at the notion there's a formula that works the same against everyone.
The exact opposite is true when constructing a contender. The basics must be adhered to:
-Stability in coaching, the front office and, perhaps most importantly, ownership.
-Strong drafting and personnel decisions.
-Oh, and standout quarterbacks.
Pete Carroll, who won national championships at Southern California and now has a Super Bowl ring with the Seahawks, never thought he could top USC. His mind has changed.
''I thought I had seen the top of it. We won for so long,'' Carroll says of his Trojans years. ''We won a lot of games there, a lot of games in a row, and did a lot of stuff. How could you hope to hit it again? I've been around coaching a long time. It's hard to do that and it's rare when it happens. So it just feels like we were very fortunate that we've been able to find a way to put it together in this fashion.''
Let's see how this Final Four stacks up.
On the verge of becoming the first defending Super Bowl champion in a decade to reach the game again, the Seahawks easily check off all those categories.
Hired in 2010 and given full power by owner Paul Allen - perhaps the NFL's richest man, but one who doesn't interfere in how the team is run - Carroll added John Schneider as general manager, and off the Seahawks went. They made the playoffs that first season, albeit as the first division winner with a losing record (7-9), and upset New Orleans in a wild-card game.
The building had just begun, though, and it didn't all come together until 2013.
Seattle has done its best work in the draft. Such stars as QB Russell Wilson, DBs Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, LB Bobby Wagner, and mainstays C Max Unger, LBs K.J. Wright and Malcolm Smith (last February's Super Bowl MVP), and TE Luke Willson were drafted after the first round. Key wideouts Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse were undrafted.
The Seahawks have hit the mark with veteran free agents DLs Michael Bennett, Tony McDaniel and Cliff Avril, too.
As for forward-thinking minds, simply look at their belief that 2012 third-rounder Wilson should start as a rookie. He merely has a record-setting 36 regular-season wins already.
GREEN BAY (13-4)
The only publicly owned NFL team, the Packers haven't allowed democracy to slow them in the Mike McCarthy era. While Packers President Mark Murphy is a steadying presence in Titletown, McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson have built a winner around All-Pro QB Aaron Rodgers.
Their philosophy is to build from within - rarely does Green Bay delve into free agency, although the addition of DE-LB Julius Pepper was masterful this season. Of course, when you've gone from a Hall of Fame type quarterback in Brett Favre to another one in Rodgers, it makes personnel moves easier.
''This is the ninth year of our program,'' says McCarthy, who led the Packers to the 2010 NFL championship. ''We've gone through this. Having 20-25 percent of your roster turning over and the majority of it being first- and second-year players, it's a process that you go through from Game 1 until today, and you put your best foot forward Sunday.''
McCarthy and his staff aren't afraid to gamble, be it trusting that a jack-of-all-trades collegian such as Randall Cobb could become a star receiver, or that moving standout outside LB Clay Matthews inside would make the defense more formidable.
NEW ENGLAND (13-4)
Robert Kraft is one of the most powerful NFL owners, with input on all key issues. He might be more involved in league matters than those of his team, because he has Bill Belichick in charge.
And Belichick has Tom Brady behind center. Enough said.
New England's hierarchy reports to Kraft on business matters, to Belichick on anything football-wise. With all personnel matters in his hands, Belichick is willing to take chances (see Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, LeGarrette Blount, et al) on veterans with troubled histories. He also reads the draft better than most - except perhaps the Seattle group - finding gems everywhere, from DT Vince Wilfork in the first round (2004) to Brady at No. 199 way back in 2000 to quarterback turned star receiver Julian Edelman (232nd in 2009).
No one pushes the limits in all aspects like Belichick. Some of it (Spygate) gets him in hot water, and others - last week's use of eligible players at ineligible positions - is totally legal, if devious.
When Peyton Manning was at quarterback, this was a model franchise under coach Tony Dungy and owner Jimmy Irsay. Much changed when Manning missed all of 2011 following neck surgeries; Dungy had retired in 2009. Irsay has been the constant, and he's had his own personal issues, including a six-game league suspension after he was arrested on preliminary charges of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated and four felony counts of possession of a controlled substance.
But Irsay is a first-rate owner and his choice of Chuck Pagano as coach has been a terrific one. The Colts have gone 11-5 all three of Pagano's seasons, and have progressed one step further in the playoffs each year.
A major reason: they lucked into Andrew Luck. Manning departed in 2012 just when Luck was coming out of Stanford, and the Colts ''earned'' the top draft pick.
Pagano is a defensive mastermind, yet the Colts have been more impressive with the ball in his tenure. They've scored beyond Luck in the last three drafts with the likes of WR T.Y. Hilton, TEs Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen, DEs Bjoern Werner and Jonathan Newsome, and OL Jack Mewhort.
Yes, they belong in this Final Four.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL