Another large concern is at outside linebacker, where Bryce Paup, a sixth-round draft pick from Northern Iowa in 1990, has had a Pro Bowl season. He'll be a free agent this spring, and salary-cap limitations may keep the Pack from matching the offers he's likely to attract.
On offense, quarterback Brett Favre started slowly, but as the season went on, he started to handle the blitz better and learned to take the time to find his second and third receivers. By being patient and not forcing the ball, Favre drastically cut down on interceptions, which were his downfall last season. A year ago he had 24, to only 19 touchdowns; this year, through Sunday, he had 13 pickoffs and 30 touchdowns. But he needs a running game to complement his improved passing. Reggie Cobb, a $2.2 million acquisition from Tampa Bay, was a bust, and fullback Edgar Bennett, who broke the team's receiving record for running backs on Sunday, is still not a dominating rusher.
Look for Green Bay to try to get faster in the draft. The team was built by general manager Ron Wolf to be effective in cold weather and on grass. But Green Bay's 0-5 record on artificial turf this year is a sign that slow and sure is not always the way to win the race.
Tampa Bay Bucs
"We've arrived," declared coach Sam Wyche after his Bucs defeated the Rams 24-14 on Dec. 11 for their third straight victory, the team's longest winning streak since 1982. "We're not that far away anymore. We're finding out that we're able to play like winners."
Wyche's euphoria is understandable, but let's not get carried away. The Bucs could still lose 10 games this year, giving them 12 straight seasons of double-digit losses.
Giving credit where it's due, however, the team finally appears to have some of the ingredients needed to be competitive in the Central Division. Rookie running back Errict Rhett, the alltime career rushing leader at Florida who was the Bucs' second-round draft pick this year, was the highlight on offense. Despite not winning a starting role until the ninth game, Rhett has rushed for a Buc rookie record of 957 yards with one game to go. He should be only the fourth player in franchise history to rush for 1,000 yards.
Another bright spot was the play of the defensive line, which made a dramatic turnaround this season. Right end Eric Curry seems to be maturing into the dominant pass rusher the team had hoped for when it selected him in the first round of the '93 draft.
In order to keep moving in the right direction, however, the Bucs need to re-sign free-agent quarterback Craig Erickson. He not only held off rookie Trent Differ, the sixth pick in the '94 draft, but he is also among the top-10-rated quarterbacks in the NFL. Although the Bucs would like to have him back next season—and Erickson says he wants to stay—at least five teams, including the Chiefs and the Cardinals, are high on him.
Events could easily conspire to keep the Bucs from leaping into contention. The franchise is up for sale, and it could even be moved from Tampa. New ownership would undoubtedly want to hire its own coaching staff. Wyche, in the third year of a five-year contract, readily admits that he probably won't be around to reap the fruits of his labors.