In Minnesota, star defensive tackle Chris Hovan thinks about Brett Favre so much that his significant other must be jealous. Coach Mike Tice's house is gold with green shutters to remind him of his chief rival.

"> In Minnesota, star defensive tackle Chris Hovan thinks about Brett Favre so much that his significant other must be jealous. Coach Mike Tice's house is gold with green shutters to remind him of his chief rival.

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Analysis: Sherman has eye on the big prize

In Chicago, new Bears coach Lovie Smith proclaims that "The No. 1 goal we'll have — the No. 1 goal — is to beat Green Bay."<p> In Minnesota, star defensive tackle Chris Hovan thinks about Brett Favre so much that his significant other must be jealous. Coach Mike Tice's house is gold with green shutters to remind him of his chief rival.<p>

In Detroit, the Lions' Thanksgiving Day victory over the Packers was like "winning the Super Bowl."

Everyone in the NFC North is preoccupied with the Green Bay Packers, which probably explains why they've spent the better part of the last decade breathing in green-and-gold-colored exhaust.

The Packers, once they start looking ahead and not behind, have their sights on much bigger and better things. Namely the Super Bowl being played about 12 months from now.

The Packers began that process Friday when head coach/general manager Mike Sherman called the firing squad for defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and tight ends coach Jeff Jagodzinski. Actually, as packers.com so delicately put it, the two coaches were "relieved" of their duties. As if Sherman called Donatell and said, "Ed, you seem pretty burdened lately between doing the grocery shopping and shoveling the driveway. What do you say if I relieve you of some of your duties? Like your job."

Anyway, Sherman needed a fall guy to clear the demons of that fourth-and-26 nightmare, and since Lee Majors isn't on the roster, Sherman called for the head of Donatell.

Sherman said Friday that he didn't, ahem, relieve Donatell of his duties because of the fourth-down play. Which makes sense because promising rookie linebacker Nick Barnett, not Donatell, ran himself out of position on the fateful play. And safeties Darren Sharper and Marques Anderson, not Donatell, inexplicably played 30 yards deep when the Eagles only needed 26 yards.

Sherman on Wednesday said Barnett simply misread the play and expected Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to roll out. Extrapolating from there, if Barnett had dropped back in coverage, McNabb would have been unable to throw a laser of a pass. Instead, McNabb would have had to put some air under the ball, giving Jue and/or Sharper time to break up the pass.

No, what cost Donatell his job is the fourth-quarter meltdown against Arizona. And the second-half meltdown against the Chiefs. And the last-minute meltdown against the Eagles during their regular-season matchup. If the Packers simply make Jeff Blake play like Jeff Blake instead of Peyton Manning in the Arizona game, pose anything more than token resistance in the second half against the Chiefs and hold off the Eagles during the regular season, then the Packers not only are playing today with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, but they are playing at Lambeau Field.

"My entire life, missed opportunities, I have a hard time with those," Sherman said Wednesday of the Eagles game. He could have been talking about the season as a whole given the impact of losing four of the first seven games.

Sherman knows his team is oh-so-close to playing for the championship, which is why he's more likely to be reviewing the fourth-and-26 play for the thousandth time instead of watching today's NFC title game.

Sherman, however, also knows that while defenses may not win championships anymore, they aren't exactly a detriment. And Donatell's defenses have never been of championship caliber. His defenses ranked 15th in 2000, 12th in 2001 and 2002, and 17th this season. And while the Packers led the league in forcing turnovers over the last three seasons, playoff-caliber teams aren't quite as giving. At some point, you need to stop somebody. And Donatell's defenses failed to meet the challenge in nearly every loss this season.

One gets the feeling that the house cleaning is over, which will come as a disappointment to my mother-in-law, a cadre of e-mailers and everyone who dials up the local sports-talk station. Tom Rossley, boys and girls, figures to be your offensive coordinator next season. Love him or hate him, the Packers finished fourth in the NFL in total offense, third in rushing and a one-thumbed Brett Favre led the NFC in touchdown passes. You won't see much better balance from an Olympic gymnast.

The potential on the defensive side of the ball and the production on the offensive side of the ball has Sherman excited to kick off next season.

"I feel very confident about the talent and the people we have coming back and I'm excited about it," Sherman said Wednesday. "I think we're much farther ahead than we've been since we've been here. I think we've made tremendous strides in many areas."

That's true. Remember all the question marks on defense heading into training camp six months ago? The pieces are certainly in place today. The defense improved dramatically in the second half of the season, thanks in large part to the large addition of the large Grady Jackson, and the experience gained by their learn-on-the-fly linebacking corps. The offense, even if the Packers can't find enough cash under the sofa cushions to keep left tackle Chad Clifton, should remain formidable given the strides made by the receivers over the last six weeks.

For this team to take the next step, however, Sherman must hit a home run when he hires his defensive coordinator. He will not be allowed to grow into the job, given how the 3-4 start nearly kept the Packers out of the playoffs and certainly kept them from earning the critical home-field advantage. A repeat of that slow start will not be acceptable. Not when so much is riding on next season. With Favre another season older, the Packers may not get many more cracks at the Super Bowl. That's what makes this hiring perhaps the most important move Sherman will make with the Packers.

Pick the right guy, and the Packers could be going to the Super Bowl.

Pick the wrong guy, and it's another early-round playoff flameout. And if that happens, how much longer will Sherman be here? The playoffs are nice for some teams, but not for the Packers. Not when the wick on Favre's career is getting pretty short. The philosophy has to be win now and worry about the 2005 season when it gets here. That's why the Packers would be wise to hire a coodinator with a proven track record rather than an up-and-coming position coach.

When asked if he feared the Packers had missed their opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl, Sherman proclaimed, "The Packers will get this opportunity again."

Opportunity had better knock next season, or it may not visit Titletown for a long time.

(Huber is a copy editor for The News-Chronicle in Green Bay. Contact him via e-mail at packwriter@hotmail.com)


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