There’s quarterback Aaron Rodgers plus receiver Jordy Nelson and right tackle Bryan Bulaga on offense. There’s safety Morgan Burnett and linebacker Clay Matthews on defense, plus kicker Mason Crosby.
Look around the Green Bay Packers’ locker room, and those are the only six players who remain from the franchise’s last Super Bowl team.
All of them no doubt yearn for a second Super Bowl, but two of them have to know their time is running shorter than the others. It isn’t Crosby or Rodgers, even though they’re the oldest among those players, at age 33. Kickers and quarterbacks can play until 40 — or beyond.
It isn’t Bulaga or Burnett; they’re both only 28.
It’s Matthews, 31, and Nelson, 32.
Both have contracts that expire after next season, and both play positions predicated on speed and athleticism, two things that can decline quickly. Both no doubt took it hard when Rodgers went on injured reserve last month because of his broken collarbone, knowing deep down that another year might pass without a return trip to the big game, even if the competitors in them won’t admit it.
“Is it going to be tough sledding this year?” Matthews said in an interview this past week. “Absolutely, but hopefully we can weather the storm until Aaron gets back. I don’t know. You just hope you get hot at the right time, and we’ve done that before.”
“I don’t know if it’s dwindling,” Matthews said of his chance to get another Super Bowl title. “But if you have the nucleus we have — championship teams usually have a great defense and a star quarterback. We’ve got the star quarterback, and we’ve shown flashes on defense. We’re a couple of plays away. … We ran into Atlanta last year in the NFC title game, and that was a buzz saw. I don’t know if we’re losing opportunities. Those opportunities are there. It’s just a matter of capitalizing. Unfortunately, we haven’t.”
Here’s a look at how Nelson and Matthews view their chances to get back to the Super Bowl:
Matthews was 24 years old and in his second NFL season when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV. A year earlier, he was a first-round pick and became the first Packers player since 1978 to make the Pro Bowl as a rookie. In the Super Bowl season of 2010, he was the runner-up to Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu for the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
The son of Clay Matthews Jr. and the nephew of Bruce Matthews, each of whom played 19 seasons in the NFL, Matthews surely figured that was just the beginning.
“Well, I think you’re a little naïve in thinking that, but especially following up the next year going 15-1, you’re like, ‘We’ve got something cooking here,’” said Matthews, who made one of the defining plays of Super Bowl XLV when he forced a fumble of Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall in the fourth quarter.
“We win that whole thing, and you’re going, ‘That’s pretty cool.’ Then ’11 comes along, and you’re 15-1, and you’re thinking, ‘We’re going to do this again,’ but you lose [in the playoffs] and you’re like, ‘OK, let’s refocus,’” Matthews said.
“In 2012, we got a second shot at San Francisco after playing them in Week 1, but we ran into a little bit of a buzz saw with Colin Kaepernick. Then, in 2013, Aaron gets hurt with the first [broken] collarbone, but we still get in [the playoffs] and lost at home, but I had just re-broken my thumb [and did not play]. In 2014, you’re right there again in Seattle [losing the NFC title game in overtime], those type of losses, and so on and so on.”
Matthews is in the fourth season of a five-year, $66 million contract extension. The Packers’ career sack leader — a mark he set earlier this year — hasn’t had a double-digit sack season since 2014. He has battled injuries but said before this season that if he can stay healthy for 16 games, he knows he can be as productive as ever. He has played 82 percent of the defensive snaps so far this season but has only 2.5 sacks.
“I’ll say this — and Clay may get mad that I say this about him — but Clay Matthews appreciates and participates with so much more energy in the practice environment,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in an interview this past week. “I see that over and over in this league that older players practice so much more and harder and are more giving of themselves to young players. The way Clay goes about his business today is night and day different than it was six years ago.”
Next season, Matthews would make $11.4 million if he’s on the roster. He is looking beyond that.
“Check the genealogy,” he said, offering a reminder of how long his dad and uncle played. “I don’t know how long I’m going to play. But I feel like I’m very real with myself from where I felt like I was going to be drafted to what I feel like I can accomplish, and I still feel really good. I feel like I can contribute a lot. I don’t think I’ve fallen off or lost a step. I’d love to be here for many more years. You accomplish what you can, and we’ll see where we’re at after next year.”
Nelson was 25 and in his third NFL season when the Packers won the Super Bowl. It wasn’t until the next season that he became a 1,000-yard receiver and Rodgers’ No. 1 target.
Now, Nelson has three more reasons to get back to a Super Bowl: his kids. His son Royal was a year old the first time. Since then, Nelson and his wife, Emily, have adopted another son, Brooks, 2, and an infant daughter, Adda.
“Once you taste it, you want it again,” Nelson said in an interview this past week. “You want to experience it. Things have changed in my life that I want my kids to experience. My oldest turned a year the week of the Super Bowl. There’s pictures and stuff, but he doesn’t know what was going on. Now he’d be able to enjoy it.”
Nelson recalled the moments immediately after the 31-25 victory being a blur.
“I remember being on the field, and I was getting ushered off to go do the media, but I was like, ‘I need to stay here for a second,’” he said. “So I stopped and stood there with my wife and my son and took it all in. I have absolutely no idea what went on in the locker room after the game because I had to go to the media room. An hour later, I finally got in the locker room, and everyone was gone.
“I think you’d appreciate it more [the second time].”
Nelson has one more season left on his contract — he’s due to make $10.25 million — but the Packers are going to have to pay top money to another receiver, Davante Adams, who is scheduled to be a free agent after this season. Either way, Nelson wants to keep playing.
“I plan on playing two to four more years, so I think I’ve got two to four more chances,” he said. “I mean, that’s how we feel. Even if you look back to a few years ago, when Aaron broke his collarbone, once he came back and got into the playoffs, we felt like we had a chance. It’s the same thing now. You’ve just got to get in. You never know what could happen.”
From McCarthy’s vantage point, Nelson is doing more than ever to try to make it happen.
“Jordy speaks up in meetings all the time now,” McCarthy said. “Jordy speaks up on the sideline during the games — I’ve got to keep him off the officials sometimes — but he would’ve never done that eight years ago.”
That’s why Nelson uses the word “when,” rather than “if,” when he talks about the Packers getting back to the Super Bowl.
“I don’t want to say it will be sweeter because I think it downplays the one you got,” Nelson said. “But knowing where you’re at in your career, there’s certain things you would do to enjoy it. If it’s the week of the Super Bowl, with the family would be more enjoyable for me because all the kids would be there postgame and enjoying that.
“And honestly, all the perks that come with winning the Super Bowl, if it’s the TV shows or different things — we had kind of an awkward one because we had the lockout, and we didn’t really see each other until August. It will all be different.”