Analysis: Offense has 3 areas of concern

The dog days of two-a-days are here. If the Packers have designs on adding a fourth Vince Lombardi trophy to 1265 Lombardi Ave., several issues must be worked out during training camp. And that's just on the offensive side of the ball.<p>

The health of the tackles

Without left tackle Chad Clifton and right tackle Mark Tauscher being at 100 percent health when the regular season kicks off, nothing else matters. While the Packers may be able to overcome the short-term loss of one, they won't survive a prolonged absence of both of the offensive line's bookends.

The prognosis looked good as of the final minicamp, but running straight ahead when in shorts is a far cry from trying to keep Simeon Rice from Brett Favre on third-and-long, or turning aside Chris Hovan on third-and-inches.

Tauscher injured his left knee early last season. His rehabilitation work is going better than expected, and he hasn't even experienced swelling. Clifton, of course, injured his pelvis and hip after a vicious hit from Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp. All signs point to him being ready for the regular season, as well, but he's coming back from an unprecedented injury.

A year ago at this time, Clifton and Tauscher formed perhaps the league's best young tackle tandem. Even if healthy, will they be able to return to that high level?

Catching on at receiver

As training camp opened last season, the big question was whether a change of scenery would reinvigorate Terry Glenn, and who would start opposite the troubled wide receiver.

Fast-forward to the upcoming training camp, and the questions are similar. Can Donald Driver match or surpass last season's 70-catch, 1,084-yard season? And can Robert Ferguson or Javon Walker provide theomplementary receiver to make opponents pay for double-teaming Driver? The answer to the first question appears to be yes. No matter which Packers cornerback matched up against Driver during the June minicamp, Driver got open and made the play. Unlike Antonio Freeman, who suddenly got slow once he signed a big contract, Driver appears, well, driven.

"I think he's playing with confidence, and he practices at the same level every day," offensive coordinator Tom Rossley said. "We have good cover guys who give him a hard time, believe me. That's what happens when you practice as hard as he does. It means a lot to him, and he's gaining confidence."

Confident or not, what will elevate Driver from a good season to a superlative season will be the play of whoever lines up opposite him. Will it be Ferguson, the third-year pro who only occasionally made an impact last season? Or will it be Walker, the second-year player who made some plays as a rookie but had inconsistent hands?

When asked about the Ferguson-Walker battle, coach Mike Sherman said: "I don't even think twice about it."

Don't believe him. Not since Freeman was paired with Robert Brooks has Favre had two big-time targets, and not since then has the Packers' offense been truly lethal. For the offense to produce at maximum efficiency, Favre needs Walker or Ferguson to have a Driver-style breakout season. Tight end Bubba Franks may be a two-time Pro Bowler, but as it stands now defenses only fear Driver and running back Ahman Green. A third threat would create three times the headaches.

Heading into camp, Ferguson appears to have the upper hand. He got open more often against the Packers' top cornerbacks, and when the ball was thrown his way, he showed more consistent hands. His powerful body, meanwhile, provides a perfect complement to the big-play capabilities of Driver.

Quarterback quandary

It's been written every year for who knows how many years, but the odds continue to increase that the indestructible Favre will suffer a large enough dent to force him from the field for two quarters, two games or two months.

The quarterback derby got a lot more interesting with the June 13 signing of former Cincinnati top pick Akili Smith. Who will back up Favre? The dependable, aging Doug Pederson, who not only held on to the lead against Washington last season, but turned a tight game into a comfortable victory? Will it be Craig Nall, who dominated NFL Europe and was that league's top passer? Or will it be Smith, the third pick in the 1999 draft who flopped with the lowly Bengals? (Sorry, but former Heisman winner Eric Crouch has no future as an NFL quarterback.)

"In the workout, you could see he still had a lot of athleticism and a strong arm," said Mark Hatley, the Packers' vice president of football operations. Hatley added: "There's a lot Akili brings to the table to be excited about."

Smith is intriguing because he has a stronger arm and he's a better athlete than Nall. His senior season at Oregon was one for the ages. He averaged better than 310 yards passing per game, and threw 32 touchdown passes compared to just eight interceptions. With Cincinnati, though, he had five scoring tosses but a dozen interceptions in 22 games.

For his part, Smith has his sights set on more than just making the team.

"I would have been stupid to pass it up," said Smith on the Bengals' team Web site. "After Favre, they don't have one guy they can look to yet, so my hope is to take over the team once Brett steps down."

There's more to being a quality quarterback than possessing a rocket arm and piston legs. While critics are quick to point out Nall's monster season came against NFL Europe-caliber talent, you can reverse that argument by saying Nall's monster season came while working with NFL Europe-caliber talent.

Let the competitions begin.


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