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Did the Packers Championship Window Just Close?

In the wake of the Packers loss to the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game, I’ve struggled to fight the feeling that the Aaron Rodgers championship window just slammed shut.

I like to think about teams that have rebounded from similarly devastating losses – The 2014 San Antonio Spurs, the 2013 Baltimore Ravens, the 2007 Patriots – but it doesn’t get me there.

Instead, I am stomach-punched by the quote from Josh Sitton, the Packers all-pro guard who said “I don’t know if we can be this good again.” Yes, he said this in the aftermath of an agonizing defeat, but there is truth in his words.

The Packers were uncharacteristically healthy this season, with possibly the best offensive line performance of any Packers squad since the Lombardi era. They got otherworldly performances from Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb – who, as Grantland’s Bill Barnwell pointed out, had one of the best age-24 seasons of any wide receiver in history. They turned around a defense in large part thanks to one (maybe last) solid year from 35 year-old Julius Peppers, who made several game-changing plays throughout the season (and yes, I’ll happily eat crow on the Peppers signing. I thought it was horrible after watching him slog through his season with the Bears last year.)

Cobb, however, is a free agent who will command a star’s payday. It remains to be seen if General Manager Ted Thompson will keep Peppers around another season. A crucial member of that offensive line, Bryan Bulaga, is an unrestricted free agent sure to attract the type of salary Thompson is loath to match.

Plus, the Packers got a relatively healthy year from bruising running back Eddie Lacy. How many of those can they expect?

But personnel losses aren’t all that give me pause.

Aging Quarterbacks Don’t Win Super Bowls

Aaron Rodgers will turn 32 in December. He’s at the top of his game, maybe the top of anybody’s game, but the numbers aren’t good for aging quarterbacks in the Super Bowl, even the best of them.

The last quarterback over the age of 31 to win a Super Bowl was Brad Johnson of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2002. Johnson can hardly take credit for that win, as Tampa Bay had a defense for the ages that returned three interceptions for touchdowns in a trouncing of Oakland.

Prior to that, John Elway is the only quarterback beyond the age of 31 to win a Super Bowl. Elway won back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998, riding the strength of record-setting running back Terrell Davis and a great defense.

Age of Super Bowl Winning QBs at time of last victory:

Troy Aikman:  29, 1995
Tom Brady:  26, 2004
Peyton Manning:  30, 2006
Drew Brees:  31, 2010
Eli Manning:  31, 2012
Brett Favre:  27, 1996
Kurt Warner:  28, 1999
Ben Rothlisberger:  26, 2009

On the positive side for Packers fans, a lot of aging great quarterbacks do at least make it to the Super Bowl. In fact, it happens almost every year, including Tom Brady this year.

But they don’t win.

Maybe that’s coincidence, or maybe there’s just a little zip or fire that slips as QBs age. Perhaps aging quarterbacks simply fade as the grind of a long NFL season catches up with their late-30s arms after 600+ pass attempts and several freezing late-season games. Maybe it’s just bad luck and the new passing era is about to usher in a run of quarterbacks approaching 40 win the big game.

One clear way for an aging quarterback to win it all? A great running back, an all-time caliber defense, and a great coach (hall of fame caliber preferred). Johnson (Jon Gruden), Joe Montana (Bill Walsh), Steve Young (George Seifert), Elway (Mike Shanahan), and Roger Staubach (Tom Landry) all rode that combination to late-career championships.

Maybe Eddie Lacy is Rodgers’ bell-cow, but envisioning the Packers developing a top-3 defense takes a lot of imagination. Mike McCarthy – that’s a topic for another day.

In addition to the Packers internal questions, the path to the NFC North title looks more challenging than it has been in years.

The Lions are stocked with talent, the Vikings loaded up on youth and draft picks and at the very least have a solid quarterback in Teddy Bridgewater. The Bears, loaded with talent, upgraded the coaching position with a man with a Super Bowl pedigree.

The road through the central is no longer paved with easy pelts.

After the game Sunday, a devastated friend of mine put it bluntly. “It feels like we’re wasting a Hall of Fame career,” referring of course to Rodgers.

One Super Bowl appearance out of a quarterback as great as Rodgers is a devastating thought. Aside from the Super Bowl year, McCarthy has coaxed just two playoff wins from Rodgers’s golden arm, and one of them was a home win over a Joe Webb QB’d Vikings team that eked into the playoffs.

(Want to get more depressed? The Packers under Mike Holmgren won nine playoff games in six years from 1993 – 1998, their only losses coming to Hall of Fame QBs Troy Aikman, Steve Young, and John Elway. Since officials missed an obvious Jerry Rice fumble – at the 3:44 mark – and allowed Terrell Owens to catch a miraculous game-winner in the 1998 Wild Card playoffs, the Packers have won just nine playoff games in 16 years.)

Between Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, the Packers have started a Hall of Fame quarterback for almost all of the last 23 seasons. They have two titles and three total Super Bowl appearances to show for it.

As great as the Packers organization is, no team in history has done so little with such prolonged greatness at the game’s most important position.

•••

An additional note on why older quarterbacks don’t win Super Bowls, which came to mind after a back and forth with a fellow Packers fan. 

Teams like Seattle, with young quarterbacks, have a tremendous advantage over those with older quarterbacks as they have very little tied up in the quarterback position. This allows them to fill out the roster with quality players at a variety of other positions. Once a quarterback wins a Super Bowl, he’s inevitably rewarded with a massive contract of $20 million per year or more, eating up about 15 percent of the team’s salary cap.

That eliminates up to three star position players, or five or more pro bowl-caliber players, weakening offensive and defensive lines, secondaries, or core skill positions. As a result, aging quarterbacks have awful defenses, or shaky offensive lines, or pedestrian skill position filler that gets exposed by the best teams as you get deeper into the playoffs. 

The Seahawks exposed Manning’s defense in 2013. The Giants destroyed the Patriots weak offensive lines in 2007 and 2011. 

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