Bears-Packers: Two teams, two roads to NFC Championship
By sean jensen firstname.lastname@example.org January 22, 2011 12:56AM
Quarterback Jay Cutler (from left), running back Matt Forte and tight end Greg Olsen are big pieces of the Bears’ youthful offense. All are 27 years old or younger. | Nam Y. Huh~AP
How the teams were built
Player Pos. Age Acquired
Aaron Rodgers QB 27 D1-05
Greg Jennings WR 27 D2-06
Donald Driver WR 35 D7-99
Brandon Jackson RB 25 D2-07
Korey Hall FB 27 D6-07
Andrew Quarless TE 22 D5-10
Chad Clifton LT 34 D2-00
Daryn Colledge LG 28 D2-06
Scott Wells C 30 D7-04
Josh Sitton RG 24 D4-08
Bryan Bulaga RT 21 D1-10
Ryan Pickett DE 31 UFA-06 (STL)
B.J. Raji NT 24 D1-09
Cullen Jenkins DE 30 FA-04
Clay Matthews OLB 24 D1-09
A.J. Hawk ILB 27 D1-06
Desmond Bishop ILB 26 D6-07
Erik Walden OLB 25 WFA-10 (MIA)
Charles Woodson CB 34 UFA-06 (OAK)
Tramon Williams CB 27 FA-06
Charlie Peprah SS 27 FA-10
Nick Collins FS 27 D2-05
Player Pos. Age Acquired
Jay Cutler QB 27 T-09 (DEN)
Devin Hester WR 28 D2-06
Johnny Knox WR 24 D5-09
Matt Forte RB 25 D2-08
B. Manumaleuna FB 31 UFA-10 (SD)
Greg Olsen TE 25 D1-07
Frank Omiyale LT 28 UFA-09 (CAR)
Chris Williams LG 25 D1-08
Olin Kreutz C 33 D3-98
Roberto Garza RG 31 UFA-05 (ATL)
J’Marcus Webb RT 22 D7-10
Julius Peppers DE 31 UFA-10 (CAR)
Tommie Harris DT 27 D1-04
Anthony Adams DT 30 UFA-07 (SF)
Israel Idonije DE 30 WFA-03 (CLE)
Lance Briggs WLB 30 D3-03
Brian Urlacher MLB 32 D1-00
Pisa Tinoisamoa SLB 29 WFA-09 (STL)
Tim Jennings CB 27 UFA-10 (IND)
Charles Tillman CB 29 D2-03
Danieal Manning SS 28 D2-06
Chris Harris FS 28 T-10 (CAR)
Updated: April 23, 2011 4:45AM
The headquarters of the Bears and Green Bay Packers are separated by only three hours of highway, but the storied franchises traveled vastly different paths to the NFC Championship Game.
The Bears put a league-low two players on injured reserve and fielded a veteran lineup that remained remarkably healthy. The Packers, meanwhile, put 15 players on IR — tied for fifth-most in the NFL — and had 11 opening-day starters miss a combined 96 games.
‘‘I think it’s really a great credit to [Packers general manager] Ted Thompson and his staff that they’ve been able to weather that storm,’’ said former Packers GM Ron Wolf, who led the team to back-to-back Super Bowls during the 1990s, including one victory. ‘‘To me, that’s a mind-set.’’
One Thompson credited, naturally, to Wolf.
‘‘That’s where we all learned our business,’’ Thompson said.
Regardless, the Packers brilliantly have scouted the blue-chip players and found the diamonds in the rough. First-round picks such as quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and defensive tackle B.J. Raji are cornerstones. But the Packers also have done well with players such as receiver Greg Jennings (second round), tight end Jermichael Finley (third), linebacker Desmond Bishop (sixth) and safety Nick Collins (second) and with unheralded players such as running back John Kuhn, linebacker Eric Walden and cornerback Tramon Williams.
Williams, in fact, initially signed with the Houston Texans out of Louisiana Tech in May 2006. But the Texans didn’t even think enough of him to carry him on their practice squad.
The Packers worked him out in September 2006 but passed, then Williams got workouts with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons and Carolina Panthers. The Packers eventually signed him to their practice squad in November 2006.
Williams was rewarded with a handsome contract extension in November, tormented the Falcons — a team that, ironically, was short-handed in the secondary — last weekend and was named to the Pro Bowl.
‘‘I’m proud of our team, with what we’ve been able to do,’’ Thompson said. ‘‘Hopefully, we’re not done yet. I’m proud of our coaching staff because it’s not an easy thing . . . to keep bringing new guys in and getting them ready. But our coaches and new players have handled this extraordinary well.’’
Last week, veteran linebackers Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher were asked if they thought the window was closing on the Bears because they had so many 30-or-older players, particularly on defense.
‘‘No, I’m 30; I’m not dead,’’ Briggs quipped.
The Bears have 15 players older than 30, and their average age on defense is 29. The offense, though, is considerably younger, with an average age of 27.
The Bears haven’t denied that they’ve been blessed with good health, but they’ve bristled at suggestions that they’re too old. There were questions about their depth heading into the season, but young players such as cornerback D.J. Moore, defensive lineman Henry Melton, linebacker Nick Roach and defensive tackle Matt Toeaina have made meaningful contributions, while rookies such as safety Major Wright, defensive end Corey Wootton and offensive tackle J’Marcus Webb also have provided encouragement.
In fact, one NFC North personnel director said Webb, a seventh-round pick, might emerge as the Bears’ best offensive lineman by next season.
‘‘He still makes a lot of mental mistakes,’’ the director said. ‘‘But it’s [been] trial under fire, and he’s played better.’’
That isn’t saying a whole lot because there’s not leaguewide respect for the talent on the Bears’ offensive line. But Frank Omiyale, 28, steadily has improved his play, and the Bears are encouraged by the potential of some of the young linemen on the bench.
Most encouraging, though, is their offensive core. Quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte, tight end Greg Olsen and receivers Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Johnny Knox are all 28 or younger.
There’s no denying, however, that the Packers’ roster is in better overall shape. With 15 players on IR, the Packers have a lot of quality players under contract, and they’ll have the good fortune of being able to dump some. That’s always a good problem.
The Packers have only eight players on their roster older than 30, and 27 — more than half — are 25 or younger. The Packers might start two rookies today in right tackle Brian Bulaga and tight end Andrew Quarless.
Just don’t expect the Packers to get comfortable.
‘‘Just when you think you know everything, the game comes back and bites you in the fanny and lets you know that you don’t know everything,’’ Wolf said. ‘‘That’s a magnificent part of the game. There are all these supposed geniuses, and when you think you’re one, something lets you know that you’re not.
‘‘The best quarterback in the NFL [New England Patriots star Tom Brady] is the second player picked by a team in the sixth round.’’