Work in Sports
Packers need to heal quickly -- or get a larger infirmary
By Don Banks, Sports Illustrated
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Here are three Burning Questions that are still very much in the process of being answered at the Green Bay Packers' injury-laden training camp in Titletown, U.S.A. (where running backs go to die, or at least be disabled). Sports Illustrated's Don Banks check in with them on his tour of NFL training camps, with the following reminder that the burning question of quarterback Brett Favre's injury status has been dealt with in another forum.
Answer: With the Packers down to two healthy running backs -- even second-year man Basil Mitchell missed workouts Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning with a turf-toe injury -- look for Green Bay to trot out the old double-tight end, one-back set early and often in their final two preseason games. Fullback William Henderson lined up in the one-back set for much of Wednesday morning's practice and coach Mike Sherman said the look would get plenty of work Monday at Miami.
That gives the Packers a chance to find even more work for starting tight end Tyrone Davis and his heir apparent, Bubba Franks, the team's first-round pick. Davis and Franks are going to be on the field at the same time a lot in the next two weeks, and the Packers offense is designed to feed the tight end.
When Green Bay is forced into a more traditional two-back set, look for the wonderfully-named Mitchell to get the starting tailback duties. Mitchell made the roster as an undrafted free agent last season and started twice in December when Levens was sidelined with a rib injury. He is backed up, for the moment, by the equally wonderfully named Herbert "Whisper" Goodman, a rookie collegiate free agent from Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa.
Green Bay is still holding out hope that either Levens or Green will return in time for the Sept. 3 season opener against the visiting Jets. But with Levens' arthroscopic left knee surgery Tuesday and Green's sprained right knee suffered Sunday in Denver, there is a very real possibility that Mitchell will be the top back for the New York game. Gulp.
2. Question: Can we make anything of weakside linebacker Nate Wayne's acquisition from Denver Tuesday in exchange for a 2001 fifth-round draft pick?
Answer: Yes we can. The deal for Wayne is some indication that the Packers feel they need an upgrade on the weak side until they get starter Brian Williams back from patellar tendon surgery some time well into the season. Wayne, who also brings something to the Green Bay special-teams picture, could be stiff competition for June Waddy, a third-year veteran who has started this preseason in Williams' absence.
Waddy has made too many mental errors of late, and Sunday in Denver he allowed receiver Ed McCaffrey to get past him on a 5-yard slant pattern, turning it into a 61-yard gain on the Broncos' opening play. If Wayne shows he can handle the starting role, Waddy could find himself in a battle to make the roster, because rookie Eugene McCaslin looks like a good bet to stick.
Wayne started on the weakside for the Broncos against the Packers on Sunday and contributed four tackles. A daredevil on special teams, he should be an immediate fit with Green Bay because the system used by defensive coordinator Ed Donatell -- a former Broncos assistant -- is very similar to what Wayne knew in Denver.
3. Question: Preseason statistics are like cotton candy in terms of substance, but are the Packers getting a tad nervous that their defense hasn't looked all that stout in surrendering 24 points to the Jets and 26 more to the Broncos?
Answer: You can't see beads of sweat yet forming on the foreheads of coach Mike Sherman and general manager Ron Wolf, but there is concern. For now both are sticking with the same company line: The players need time to learn Donatell's new system and shouldn't be subject to too much instant analysis.
The Broncos scored 13 points in each half Sunday, but a whopping 31 of the Packers' 50 points allowed have come in the second quarter, when there are still some starters on the field. The run stuffing has been pretty decent (4.1 yards-per-carry allowed), but Green Bay's pass defense has surrendered a hefty 627 yards in two games.
Second-year cornerback Tod McBride has been a bright spot, and rookie Na'il Diggs ascended last week to the strongside linebacker starting role, ahead of veteran Anthony Harris. But the Packers don't have a sack yet and are nowhere near good enough in the secondary to get away with that trend for long.