Stuck in Neutral
The Packers stumbled out of the preseason still trying to get into gear
As the last of 52 preseason penalties was walked off against the Packers in a desolate Pro Player Stadium late last Friday night, Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren motioned referee Phil Luckett within earshot. Fed up with his team's shoddy play this summer, Holmgren said with a snarl, "Can we just go home? Can we please just get this over with?"
Mercifully for the Packers the preseason is over. In the 21-7 loss to the Dolphins, Green Bay's third defeat in five exhibitions, Holmgren didn't like the way his offense was playing. Eliminate a steamrollering of the hapless Saints, and the Brett Favre-led first unit was outscored by a combined 49-17 in preseason games against the Chiefs, Raiders, Broncos and Dolphins. "We can't live off the last two years," says running back Raymont Harris, a free-agent acquisition who filled in for holdout Dorsey Levens. "Am I concerned? Ask me next week."
Holmgren, in fact, was so concerned about the offense last week that he donned the headset linked to the quarterback and called the plays himself for the first time since early 1994, his third season in Green Bay. Customarily, offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis sits in the coaches' booth giving suggestions to Holmgren, who then picks the play and relays it to quarterbacks coach Andy Reid, who relays the call to the quarterback. By eliminating the middleman, Holmgren hoped to speed things up, but the offense wasn't any smoother in Miami. The coach wasn't crazy about the results of the experiment, either. "The problem is, I'm concentrating on doing that, and I can't concentrate on the other things—game strategy, special teams, the clock," he says. "I don't know if I'll continue it."
Holmgren also felt compelled last week to summon Favre for a fireside chat—they've had many such discussions during their six-plus years together—about the quarterback's approach to the season. "Brett would be the first to tell you he doesn't study in the preseason," Holmgren says. "He's a wealthy young man. He's accomplished a lot. I guess I wanted to ask him if he's still hungry. I got the answer I wanted. I know him well enough to know when he's ready to go, and he is."
The return of Levens, who rushed for 1,435 yards last season, and wideout Robert Brooks, who caught 60 passes in 1997 and is coming off back surgery, gives Green Bay 10 of the 11 offensive starters from last year's NFC championship team. ( Marco Rivera replaces left guard Aaron Taylor, a free agent who signed with the Chargers.)
Things aren't as settled on a defense that the Broncos' Terrell Davis shredded for 157 yards in the Super Bowl last January. Fourth against the run and first against the pass in its 1996 championship season, Green Bay fell to 20th and eighth, respectively, last year. "Not really a fair stat," defensive coordinator Fritz Shurmur says, "because in '96 we had no injuries and last year we were patching it together every week, and we still finished fifth in the league in scoring defense."
Nevertheless, in the off-season the Packers lost three valued starters—defensive end Gabe Wilkins, cornerback Doug Evans and free safety Eugene Robinson—to free agency. Their replacements: Vonnie Holliday, the club's first-round draft pick who was impressive but not impactful in the preseason; cornerback Craig Newsome, who missed almost all of last season after undergoing major knee surgery; and second-year man Darren Sharper, who will move to cornerback in most nickel packages. The nickelback is 34-year-old Mike Prior, who was waived in the off-season and later re-signed.
"We'll bite the bullet and pray no one gets hurt," says Shurmur of the secondary. Yet after final roster cuts were made on Sunday, executive vice president and general manager Ron Wolf was bullish about his cornerbacks: starters New-some and third-year man Tyrone Williams, with fourth-round pick Roosevelt Blackmon in reserve. "We'll function as well as any team in the league at that position," Wolf said.
Still, with Levens, Brooks and defensive tackle Gilbert Brown (strained groin) rusty, Green Bay has a lot to do to get ready for this Sunday's opener against the Lions. As Shurmur says, "In six weeks of camp you're supposed to become what you're going to be. But how would we know what that is right now? With free agency, holdouts and injuries, we'll have to spend the first few weeks of the season trying to find ourselves."