Playoffs or Bust

Off the field, the Packers have displayed an ability to contend with any front office in the National Football League. Since advancing to two straight Super Bowls after the 1996 and '97 seasons, the Packers have gotten pushed around, taken a few hits through free agency and adjusted to two new head coaches.

Still, the Packers have managed to stay above the .500 mark by retaining their star quarterback and a handful of other core players.

Last year the Packers were at a crossroads in late November. Sitting at 5-7 under first-year head coach, Green Bay had one of two directions to travel: mail it in and blame the season on an unusual number of injuries, or suck it up and finish as strong as possible.

By winning four straight games in December, the Packers not only finished as one of the hottest teams in the league but gained momentum heading into the ever-crucial off-season. Such veterans as Darren Sharper, Frank Winters, Dorsey Levens, and LeRoy Butler might have moved on to play with other teams for more money, or possibly retired. But the Packers were able to re-sign their key free agents, beginning with Sharper and kicker Ryan Longwell, and renegotiate deals with a Winters, Butler, and Levens, all of whom took pay cuts to remain with the Packers. Brett Favre signed a new $100 million deal, ensuring that he will retire as a Packer.

Thus, the table is set for the Packers. Sherman and his staff are counting on Favre and a handful of veterans with Super Bowl experience to mesh with promising younger players that are more comfortable with the team's offensive and defensive schemes.

"As I said to the shareholders (in July), we're not where we were in '96 and '97 when we had the Reggie Whites and that contingent of people, but I don't know that the competition does, either," Sherman said. "I look across the NFC and I don't know who's all that much more talented than the other person. There are some other teams that have more talent, but it's more than that in my mind."

The goal is simple for the Packers this year: make the playoffs. Green Bay hasn't advanced past the regular season since 1998, Mike Holmgren's final season. Though the Packers are not favored by anyone to win the NFC's Central Division, the Packers feel they can take another step up in the Sherman era and at least gain a wild card berth.

"Our goal this year, next year and the years to come will always be to be a playoff team," Sherman said. "I would never want our fans or coaches to expect anything less than that."

The Packers, however, have trouble areas: • The defensive line, which had trouble getting to the quarterback last year, has not been able to put it's top unit on the field at any one time in training camp.

• The tight end position, a key in the West Coast offense, is as green as the turf at Lambeau Field in September.

• The secondary has been rattled with injuries throughout the preseason, especially to the starting cornerbacks.

• It is still uncertain if Antonio Freeman will return to the Pro Bowl form that he had in 1998, especially after the vicious hit Denver's Eric Brown layed on him in an Aug. 20 exhibition game.

The Packers used the draft to bolster those trouble spots – defensive line (Jamal Reynolds), wide receiver (Robert Ferguson), cornerback (Bhawoh Jue), tight end (David Martin) – but none of those players have played well enough in training camp to start, or even receive significant playing time. All, however, have potential but the coaches need to develop it ASAP.

Despite the question marks, the Packers can reach their goal because of Favre. He has enjoyed one of his better camps in recent years, throwing with great accuracy and without the pain in his elbow that kept him sidelined for most of the preseason last year. "That seems to be the talk around here," said Favre, entering his 10th season with the Packers. "To me, it's just another camp."

Time will tell, but Favre has a solid offensive line in front of him and one of the better backfields in the NFC behind him. Though Ahman Green (groin) and Levens (broken hand) have missed stretches of practice time and preseason games, they will be in the starting lineup for the opener.

The offensive line features second-year tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. Sixth-year pro Marco Rivera, now the elder statesman of the line, is back at right guard. Mike Wahle has regained the confidence he lost last year playing left tackle and has shined in camp as the starting left guard while Mike Flanagan will start at center ahead of Winters.

The line should pave the way for one of the most talented backfields that the Packers have had in years. Green, who signed a five-year extension prior to the start of training camp, is coming off a season in which he finished with 1,175 yards rushing on 11 starts and led the team in receiving with 73 catches. Fullback William Henderson, who just missed going to the Pro Bowl last year, is back for his seventh season and sixth as a starter.

All signs indicate that Freeman is rebounding out of a slide that saw him slip to third on the team with 62 catches for 912 yards. He led the team in receiving for four straight seasons prior to last year, but off-field problems, including a suspension for the last game, combined with a few nagging injuries have caused many observers to doubt whether he will ever return to top form. But Freeman's teammates and coaches are optimistic.

"He came into camp with his mind straight, his mental preparation was straight, and he came in in good shape," said Sharper, Green Bay's lone Pro Bowl representative last year. "We're expecting him to have a great year this year. We know he has to have a great year this year. A lot of people are expecting that of him. He kind of has got the word, he can hear the whispers and everything, that he has to come and play this year. "

The team's linebackers are poised to produce more turnovers. It helps that all three starters, weak side linebacker Nate Wayne, middle linebacker Bernardo Harris and strong side linebacker Na'il Diggs are back for their second straight season together. Diggs (groin) and Wayne (knee) have missed extended periods of time during training camp, but both are expected to be ready by the opener.

"We've got high goals this year," said Harris. "We want to be one of the best in the league. Statistically-wise last year we did some good things. It's a matter of us taking the ball away. We got to be better at forcing fumbles, knock-out hits, and just playing with a lot of enthusiasm and having fun."

Green Bay's linebackers have not exactly racked up the big plays in recent seasons. In 2000, they didn't have any interceptions and just five sacks. They forced three fumbles and recovered three. In '99, the Packers linebackers had three sacks, two interceptions, one forced fumble and no fumble recoveries.

Sharper leads the secondary and will be backed by Butler, the veteran vocal leader of the defense. Sharper is coming off a season in which he had a career-high nine interceptions and was third on the team with 101 tackles. It helped him land a $30 million contract.

But all eyes will be on the defensive line as the season gets under way. Green Bay was ranked 19th in the league last year in quarterback sacks. The Packers drafted Reynolds with the 10th overall pick in an effort to inject speed to the front line. They also signed free agent veteran tackles Gilbert Brown and Jim Flanigan to help make up for the absence of Santana Dotson and Steve Warren, who both are coming off thigh surgeries last December.

Defensive ends John Thierry (shoulders, knee) and Vonnie Holliday (elbow) are coming off offseason surgeries. Brown (knee) and tackle Russell Maryland (back) have missed extended periods of time in training camp because of injuries.

Dotson is expected to be ready to play when the Packers kick off the season Sept. 9 against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field. But he will probably come off the bench early in the season. Warren's injury was more severe, and he will miss the first half of the season.

The Packers also will be without starting tackle Cletidus Hunt for the first four games of the season because Hunt violated the league's substance abuse policy in July.

"We're all banking on the fact that we have enough football knowledge, that when we get back in there it's going to be an automatic gel," said Dotson.

It hasn't helped, either, that starting cornerback Tyrone Williams (groin) has missed a majority of training camp. Cornerback Mike McKenzie (leg) also missed a number of practices early on in camp, and Jue also missed two weeks because of a knee injury.

Green Bay's special teams again should be strong. Longwell just missed being named to the Pro Bowl last year as well as kick return specialist Allen Rossum. Longwell qualified as the most accurate kicker in NFL history last year and has made 84.73% (111 of 131 field goal attempts) despite playing in the volatile Green Bay climate.

Rossum also has returned to spark the punt and kickoff return units. Last year he ranked in the top 10 in punt and kickoff returns in the NFC.

Josh Bidwell won the punting job over free agent Kevin Stemke, a Green Bay native who played at the University of Wisconsin. Bidwell had a strong camp, thanks to an improved "get-off" time with his punts.

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