GREEN BAY, Wis. — Any team that makes it to the Super Bowl is obviously doing several things right. Whether it’s schemes, roster decisions or general philosophies and play style, it’s working. And, every offseason, teams around the NFL somewhat try to duplicate what’s working.
The Green Bay Packers were the model two years ago. After winning Super Bowl XLV, the offensive system of play-calling head coach Mike McCarthy was used as a reference point throughout the league, as was defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme.
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Every team has its own style, of course, but it’s natural — and smart — for the 30 teams not in the Super Bowl to learn from the success of the final two teams remaining in the postseason.
The San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens didn’t emerge out of the bottom of their respective conferences this season. Both of this year’s Super Bowl representatives lost in their conference championship games last season and took the next step forward this season.
Clearly, the 49ers and Ravens are doing something right.
It’s not that the Packers need to re-work their entire plan. After all, Green Bay’s last three postseasons have ended with a Super Bowl championship and two divisional-round exits. All things considered, that’s very good and far better than the vast majority of NFL teams. But, in the past two years, it’s not been good enough to make it back to the Super Bowl.
With Sunday’s game the last stop before a long offseason, five things that the Packers could learn from the success of the 49ers and Ravens:
1. A physical team is a good team.
The Packers are not physical; they’re very scheme-based and methodical. McCarthy’s offense isn’t going to line up and win a game by running straight ahead and letting the opposing defense try to outmuscle Green Bay’s offensive line. Likewise, Capers’ defense isn’t the type of group that performs well when an opposing team plays an aggressive, run-first offense. The 49ers, as well as the Ravens to a lesser extent, are much more prepared to win a physical matchup. As the playoffs arrive and players’ bodies are worn down, the ability to line up and win one-on-one battles up front can be the difference between a trip to the Super Bowl and another second-round defeat. The Packers haven’t built their roster to be as big and physical as San Francisco’s, but tweaks could be made to be able to better compete in a postseason game if that’s what is required to win.
2. Don’t be afraid to take big risks.
Where would the 49ers be right now if coach Jim Harbaugh had not benched quarterback Alex Smith midway through the season in favor of unproven Colin Kaepernick? Most likely, San Francisco would not be in the Super Bowl and listed as the favorites to win it had Harbaugh not made that bold move. Teams rarely let a player lose his starting job due to injury, but that’s what happened to Smith. Harbaugh took a huge gamble and it paid off. Smith was never great for the 49ers, but he was consistent and didn’t make a lot of mistakes. Kaepernick, as he’s displayed in recent weeks, is a game-changer, not a game manager like Smith. In an equally gutsy move, the Ravens fired their offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, in mid-December. Baltimore, at the time of the firing, was 9-4. The Packers are typically more conservative in this way. McCarthy stuck with kicker Mason Crosby no matter how many field goals were missed. Surprisingly, McCarthy did bench veteran center Jeff Saturday very late in the regular season. That was a good move but one that should have happened sooner as Saturday struggled all year. Shakeups like those, while difficult for a coach to make, can define a season. For the 49ers, Harbaugh’s risky decision at quarterback was a season-changer for his team.
3. A top-ranked offense isn’t the most important ingredient.
The Packers are known for their high-powered, pass-first offense. In 2011, Green Bay led the NFL in scoring. This season, even with a fairly big drop-off in offensive production, the Packers still scored the fifth-most points. Having a great offense is obviously a benefit for any team, but this season, it wasn’t the most important aspect of getting to the Super Bowl for Baltimore and San Francisco. This year’s Super Bowl features the league’s 11th-ranked offense (49ers) and 16th-ranked offense (Ravens). San Francisco was 11th in points and 23rd in passing yards, while Baltimore was 10th in points and 15th in passing yards. Green Bay’s offense has plenty of room to improve upon its 2012 performance, but that may not be the facet of the game that gets the team over the top and back to the Super Bowl. A high-scoring offense is great, but it hasn’t been enough for the Packers the past two seasons. The Ravens and 49ers, however, are in the Super Bowl despite not ranking in the top 10 in any of those major offensive categories.
4. Younger isn’t always better.
NFL teams are always getting younger. Young players have cheaper contracts, don’t have a lot of wear and tear on their bodies and are more likely to progress than regress if given the proper playing time. But the 49ers and Ravens have several key players who are in the late stages of their careers. San Francisco has defensive end Justin Smith (33), center Jonathan Goodwin (34) and cornerback Carlos Rogers (31). Baltimore has linebacker Ray Lewis (37), center Matt Birk (36), safety Ed Reed (33) and wide receiver Anquan Boldin (32). By next season, the Packers could be down to just a couple current players on their roster who are older than 30. Veterans Donald Driver and Saturday won’t be back, and the futures of Charles Woodson and Cedric Benson are in question. That could leave just 33-year-old defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and 30-year-old fullback John Kuhn as the oldest players on the team. It’s good to have a young roster, but there needs to be a few solid veterans in place, as well.
5. A top-10 running back is needed.
The 49ers and Ravens have two of NFL’s 10 best running backs. This season, Baltimore’s Ray Rice had 1,143 yards, a 4.4-yard-per-carry average and nine rushing touchdowns. San Francisco’s Frank Gore had 1,214 yards, a 4.7-yard-per-carry average and eight rushing touchdowns. Even Rice’s backup, Bernard Pierce, had 532 rushing yards and finished the season as the league’s 33rd-ranked rusher despite only 108 carries. The Packers, on the other hand, were led in rushing by Alex Green with 464 yards, a 3.4-yard-per-carry average and no touchdowns. That ranked him 38th in the league, five spots behind Pierce. Green Bay planned on James Starks being its starting running back this season. After Starks’ injury, Benson was going to be the starter all year. After Benson’s injury, Green got a chance and stayed relatively healthy but failed to keep his starting job. Eventually, DuJuan Harris stepped in very late in the season and was the best running back the Packers had all season. Based on the success of the Ravens and 49ers, though, Green Bay needs to find a running back who can carry the ball 250-plus times, average at least 4.4 yards and find the end zone.