As the Packers' third defensive coordinator in as many years, veteran coach Jim Bates looks to reverse a dubious trend. The Packers ranked 12th in the NFL in total defense in both 2001 and 2002 before dropping to 17th in 2003 and 25th last season. In Bates' five years in Miami, the Dolphins' defense never ranked lower than 10th.
After setting a franchise record with 2,558 rushing yards in 2003, the Packers notched a new club high through the air with 4,449 net passing yards in 2004. The Pack also set a team record with 6,357 total net yards.
With Miami notching its first losing season since 1988, Green Bay now owns the NFL's current streak for consecutive non-losing seasons at 13.
The Packer organization has made quite an impression on the rest of the league. In a poll of 354 players conducted by Sports Illustrated, the Packers were tabbed as the NFL's "classiest" organization.
The Packers have made the most playoff appearances (10) of any NFL team during the salary cap era (since 1993). Green Bay has appeared in the playoffs four consecutive years and in 2004 became just the ninth team in NFL history to reach the postseason following a 1–4 start.
The Prophecy: "If linebacker is no longer much of a concern, the secondary certainly is."
The Lie: "This isn't a stable of receivers built for those more concerned with fantasy stats than NFC North reality."
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When the Packers lost veteran offensive linemen Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle to free agency over the offseason, new general manager Ted Thompson justified the losses by saying he was looking out for the fortunes of the team a few years down the road, not just this season. That same philosophy led to the first-round selection of quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But with only one or two years left to savor the play of Brett Favre, and a horrendous defense returning largely intact, will Packer fans be content to share the same long-term perspective?
Now in the final year of his contract, head coach Mike Sherman can’t afford to look too far down the road, either. Though the offense remains as dangerous as any in the league, this could be a tumultuous year on the tundra.
Say what you will about the Packer defense or the losses on the offensive line: As long as Brett Favre is around at quarterback, this will be a fun team to watch and a threat to score enough points to win. Entering his 15th NFL season and with a series of family deaths and illnesses fresh in his mind, Favre says he’s living for the moment and enjoying every second he’s still gunning the football around Lambeau Field.
At age 35, his skills don’t seem to be diminishing. He threw for 4,088 yards last year, fifth in the NFL, tossed 30 touchdown passes for the eighth time to pad his NFL record, and extended his consecutive starts streak to 205 games. With just 266 passing yards, he’ll become only the third quarterback ever to total more than 50,000 in a career, joining Hall of Famers John Elway and Dan Marino.
While nobody other than Favre has started at quarterback for the Pack since 1992, Green Bay hopes it has found Favre’s heir in Rodgers. The former Cal quarterback squirmed when he dropped all the way to No. 24 in the draft, but he’s accustomed to proving doubters wrong. An accurate passer with oft-criticized mechanics, he received no Division I scholarship offers out of high school and wound up at Cal after a stint at Butte College.
A year or two ago, it was fashionable to say that this was no longer Brett Favre’s team, it was Ahman Green’s. While that notion is open to debate (thanks largely to Green’s continuing trouble with fumbles), there’s no doubting the importance of Green Bay’s running game to the team’s success. Green recorded his fifth straight 1,000-yard season and earned his fourth consecutive Pro Bowl berth, while Najeh Davenport battled injuries but continued his emergence as one of the league’s best backups with 359 yards on 5.1 yards per carry. Fullback William Henderson returns for his 11th season in Titletown, looking to build on his NFL record (which he shares with Lorenzo Neal) of having blocked for a 1,000-yard rusher in seven seasons.
Three years ago, Sherman made one of his boldest moves as general manager when he decided to completely revamp the team’s receiving corps. It turned out to be a wise decision, as Green Bay’s receivers now rank among the league’s most potent units. Javon Walker had a breakout year in 2004, earning his first Pro Bowl berth after ranking third in the league in receiving yards with 1,382. Walker and seventh-year veteran Donald Driver are among the league’s most productive tandems, ranking third in combined catches (173) and second in combined yards (2,590) a year ago. Other prime targets for Favre are a tandem of the Aggie variety: fifth-year speedster Robert Ferguson and rookie Terrence Murphy, both from Texas A&M.
At tight end, Green Bay returns Bubba Franks and David Martin; if Sherman could only combine Franks’ nose for the end zone with Martin’s speed, he’d have one heck of a tight end.
Continuity on the offensive line is commonly cited as a key to success in the NFL, and for the last five years, nobody enjoyed a more cohesive front five than the Green Bay Packers. But with Rivera now in Dallas and Wahle in Carolina, line coach Larry Beightol faces his toughest challenge yet as he asks a retooled unit to protect an aging Favre and pave the way for Green and Davenport. Fortunately, three standouts return in center Mike Flanagan (returning to action after missing 13 games last season) and tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher.
At the guard spots, at least the Packers won’t be relying on rookies, as veteran free agent signees Matt O’Dwyer and Adrian Klemm are expected to take over the starting roles, though both have a history of injury trouble. Grey Ruegamer, who started 11 games at center when Flanagan went down, and 335-pound Kevin Barry, who has gained notoriety as a run blocking specialist, will also contend for starting jobs.
Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila might get most of the attention and Cletidus Hunt gets a lot of the money, but the keys to the Packer defensive line might just be Aaron Kampman and Grady Jackson. Holding on to Kampman, who led Packer linemen with 77 tackles in 2004, was an offseason priority for Thompson, who matched an offer given to the fourth-year end by the Vikings. Jackson’s run stuffing ability has been vitally important to the Packers ever since he was claimed off waivers late in the 2003 season: Green Bay is 15–4 with Jackson in the lineup, 1–4 without him (all in 2004). Gbaja-Biamila ranked third in the NFL with 13.5 sacks last year and has posted 49.0 sacks since 2001, the fourth-best total in the NFL. Kenny Peterson and R-Kal Truluck add depth, and Sherman is high on Corey Williams.
Much-maligned. For the Packer linebacking corps, the term fits, but at least it’s better than the secondary, which can only be termed “much more maligned.”
What to make of middle linebacker Nick Barnett? Though he still has a lot to prove, he managed to earn an alternate’s berth to the Pro Bowl and totaled more tackles (162) than any Packer since 1983. On the outside, Na’il Diggs and Hannibal Navies return, a duo that combined for 1.5 sacks, zero interceptions, and no forced or recovered fumbles. Playmakers! Providing some depth at a thin position is veteran free agent outside linebacker Raynoch Thompson, hampered in Arizona with injuries and off-the-field troubles.
The Packers ranked 25th in the league in pass defense a year ago, so it’s little surprise Green Bay is basically starting over in the defensive backfield. Gone are Darren Sharper, Bhawoh Jue and Michael Hawthorne. Only Sharper will be missed, but opposing quarterbacks might still salivate at the sight of the Packer secondary. Slow-footed, light-tackling Al Harris is the class of the bunch. Mistake-prone Ahmad Carroll is the up-and-comer. And those are the proven commodities at cornerback. At safety, Mark Roman is the lone holdover, but he’ll compete with newly acquired veterans Arturo Freeman and Earl Little, as well as hard-hitting rookie Nick Collins, for the starting jobs. Freeman may have an edge, having played under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates in Miami the last five seasons.
Ryan Longwell is back for his ninth season in Green Bay and remains one of the league’s most consistent kickers. He booted four game-winning kicks last season and ranks fourth among active kickers with 153 consecutive PATs. After drafting B.J. Sander in the third round last year, the Packers were forced to carry two punters all year when Sander’s ineffectiveness allowed veteran Bryan Barker to earn the starting job. Barker is gone, but now Sander will have to contend with Brooks Barnard.
Rookie burner Murphy, who led the Big 12 with a 27.2 kickoff return average as a junior, will have every chance to win the punt and kickoff return duties.
In an era of parity, the Packers have defied the odds longer than anybody, with 13 consecutive non-losing seasons and a league-high 10 playoff berths since 1993. This team did go 9–2 over its last 11 regular season games in 2004, and the defense couldn’t get worse (could it?), so there is room for some optimism this year. Still, the Packers have enjoyed little postseason success since back-to-back Super Bowl appearances in 1996 and ’97, and Favre’s window of opportunity is shrinking. As the rest of the division made moves over the offseason that made each team better (on paper, at least) even the most diehard cheesehead would have a hard time claiming the Packers will be improved in 2005.