LANDOVER, Md. — With general manager Ted Thompson in charge of the roster, the Green Bay Packers will always be young — so young that coach Mike McCarthy stopped looking at the annual age breakdown the NFL puts together after the opening weekend of games every year.
Sure enough, McCarthy’s team, with an average age of 25.55 years old when the league released the data for this season, skewed toward youth once again. The Packers fielded the fifth-youngest roster in the league.
“I think if you look at the 11 rosters, the 53-man rosters that we’ve had here, we’ve always been young,” McCarthy said just days after the 2016 opening-day roster was finalized for his 11th season as head coach. “We were a 25-year-old football team, I think it’s almost every year. So after the first three years, I don’t even look at the rankings anymore. We’re the youngest team in the league the first three years; I don’t know if it’s changed much.
“We want to train our guys, we want to develop our own players, and ultimately those are the guys getting paid. I mean, that’s the way we prefer to do business. But obviously it has to work out that way. For the most part it has.”
The Packers remain young, but not among their most talented skill-position players, and it’s one factor in why they’re a team in decline and on a three-game losing streak heading into Sunday night’s game at Washington.
Other than Davante Adams, the 23-year-old third-year receiver who has finally showed signs of consistency, the Packers don’t have another standout skill-position player on offense under the age of 27. And there’s only one more of those — Randall Cobb, who despite having turned 26 less than three months ago is already getting old in terms of experience; he’s in his sixth NFL season.
Otherwise, it’s 32-year-old quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing to 31-year-old wide receiver Jordy Nelson and perhaps 29-year-old tight end Jared Cook (if he returns from his Week 3 ankle injury, as expected). To be sure, Rodgers likely has several more good, if not great, seasons in him. But it’s worth wondering whether Nelson will get back to his pre-torn ACL form. He’s not there yet, despite solid numbers this season.
Contrast that with the NFC’s best team, the Dallas Cowboys. Among their top offensive playmakers are a 21-year-old running back (Ezekiel Elliott), a 23-year-old quarterback (Dak Prescott), plus 27- and 28-year-old receivers (Cole Beasley and Dez Bryant, respectively) to go along with a 34-year-old tight end (Jason Witten).
So who can the Packers find to join their veteran playmakers?
Wide receiver Jeff Janis, 25, has just one touchdown after an offseason of hype following his supposed breakout game in last year’s playoff loss at Arizona. The one thing he can do is run, yet his average per catch is just 8.7 yards. But that’s better than rookie Trevor Davis, 23, another speedy receiver who has three catches for 24 yards. Jared Abbrederis, 25 and one of seven receivers to make the opening-day roster, isn’t even on the team anymore, and his replacement, rookie Geronimo Allison, 22, is a raw undrafted rookie who lacks speed and has just three catches for 38 yards.
Next to Adams, Ty Montgomery, 22, has perhaps the most potential, but he’s been on a rep count after an illness related to sickle cell trait. Tight end Richard Rodgers, 24, hasn’t developed into anything other than a plodding possession receiver.
And there are no running backs on the active roster with any sort of long-term potential. Age appears to have caught up with James Starks, 30, who is averaging just 2.4 yards per carry, and Eddie Lacy, 26, is on injured reserve and at a career crossroads. This week, they turned to waiver-wire pickup Christine Michael, 26, who has flamed out in Seattle (twice) and Dallas.
Thompson’s meat-and-potatoes drafts of the past two years, which included just two receivers (Davis, a fifth-rounder this year, and Montgomery, a third-rounder in 2015), one tight end (Kennard Backman, a sixth-rounder in 2015 who’s no longer on the team) and no halfbacks, have caught up to McCarthy and the offensive coaching staff.
“That’s a combination of building a roster and injuries, which no one can control,” ESPN NFL analyst Bill Polian, a Hall of Fame general manager, said this week. “So, no, that’s not Mike McCarthy’s fault. He’s trying to do the best he can with a very, very short deck. I don’t see any change in how this team is prepared or how they play. They don’t have a reliable tight end … and secondly they have no running game. That’s not coaching.”
It’s the same on the defensive side, where the top three available playmakers are Clay Matthews, 30, Mike Daniels, 27, and Nick Perry, 26. And Matthews has missed four games this season because of a hamstring injury but is expected to return against the Redskins.
Although rookies Kenny Clark, 21, and Blake Martinez, 22, have played extensively in the front seven, what big plays have they made? Same thing in the secondary, where Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, 23, Damarious Randall, 24 and injured, and Quinten Rollins, 24, have not been difference-makers.
“I’ve always felt that if you want to be an outstanding defense, you have to have two or three difference-makers,” Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this week, “and a lot of good guys that play their role extremely well and are very efficient.”