Commentary: 13 burning issues as camp nears

As I write this from my suburban Green Bay home, the windows are closed. No, the air-conditioner isn't on due to the dog-days-of-summer heat. Quite the opposite. Global warming around these parts has been decidedly underwhelming. In fact, as I type on my basement computer, my space heater is blowing warm air on my cold toes. At this rate, the tundra will be frozen in time for the Family Night scrimmage.

As they say, though, if you don't like the weather in Wisconsin, wait five minutes and it will change. That no doubt will be the case when training camp starts in earnest on Aug. 2. The weatherman is about as reliable as a seafood diet for Gilbert Brown. (That's seafood, Gilbert, not see food.) Still, a prediction of 90 degrees and muggy when camp kicks off is as much a sure thing as Ryan Longwell kicking an extra point.

I know you fans are ready for some football. Same goes for us writers. Here at, stories about the Jamal Reynolds trade/voided trade and subsequent release outnumbered his career sack total by a more than 2-to-1 ratio. A story simply saying "Jamal Reynolds was a horrible draft pick. Good riddance." would have been enough, but instead we typed 4,684 words over the course of seven stories/commentaries.

Talk about beating a dead horse. I'm surprised we aren't being boycotted by PETA.

Now, finally, it's time to look ahead. Here are a lucky 13 issues that must be sorted out before the regular-season opener at Carolina on Sept. 13.

1. Is there a fourth-and-26 hangover?

The sight of the Packers' secondary dropping 30 yards into coverage during that critical fourth-quarter play at Philadelphia will make Packers fans ill for years. Green Bay was better than Philadelphia. Green Bay may have been better than Carolina, too, and probably should have played in the Super Bowl.

There's plenty of blame to go around for that playoff loss, but the buck stops at the top, and that's coach Mike Sherman. No doubt there's a decent number of players who are still shaking their heads that Sherman didn't go for it on fourth-and-one when a first down would have all but clinched the victory. No doubt there's a decent number of players who can't believe Sherman didn't overrule deposed defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and call for another blitz on fourth-and-26.

That, of course, is history. It's pertinent today, however, because for this team to get where it wants to go — the Super Bowl — it needs to have faith in its leader. If Sherman makes another controversial coaching decision that backfires, will he lose the team for good?

2. Who starts at safety?

Common sense says it's Mark Roman, who the Packers signed for $2.75 million over three years as their only major off-season acquisition. I say it's Marques Anderson, who not only is saying all the right things about his miserable 2003 campaign but appears to mean what he's saying. Anderson is in phenomenal physical condition, he knows the defense, and he accepts total responsibility for his poor play last season. Roman and Anderson will be profiled here in the coming days.

3. What can stop the Packers?

Injuries. With the addition of wide receiver Terrell Owens and defensive end Jevon Kearse, the Philadelphia Eagles are the experts' pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. Last I checked, though, the league's best pair of cornerbacks left Philly, with Troy Vincent in Buffalo and Bobby Taylor in Seattle. The Eagles' defense is predicated on blitzing, and you can't blitz without good corners. At full strength, there isn't a team in the league the Packers can't beat.

4. Speaking of good corners ...

Throughout the minicamps, the Packers made it clear they not only want Mike McKenzie back, but they expect him back. McKenzie has vowed to never play another down with the Packers, but the standout cornerback has no leverage whatsoever. Still, it's Super Bowl or bust for this Packers team, and the smart money says the Packers will coax (read: bribe) McKenzie back to the team with a couple-million-dollar pay raise.

5. Still speaking of corners ...

Bitter with the McKenzie situation, a lot of fans are saying Michael Hawthorne is more than capable of replacing the dreadlocked cornerback. No he's not. Hawthrone talks a good game but he hasn't played one yet. Not saying Hawthorne isn't a good player, but if you pair him with Al Harris, you've got the slowest pair of corners in the league. That's not a good combination if you want to blitz like new defensive coordinator Bob Slowik plans on doing. That means first-round pick Ahmad Carroll and/or third-round pick Joey Thomas have to step forward quickly. Those two will be profiled here in coming days, as well.

6. Is this a championship-caliber defense?

It could be, and the key is up front. Grady Jackson turned the Packers' run defense from a farce into a force when he was acquired midway through last season, but he missed the June minicamp with a nagging knee injury. Assuming he shows up hungry again — and we're not talking about food for the 350-pounder — the Packers should be stout against the run again. But if Jackson lacks the fire after signing through 2005, is hobbled or is simply too heavy to get the job done, then the defense could be in big trouble. It would help as well if Cletidus Hunt becomes more of an every-down force. It also would help if rookie defensive tackles Donnell Washington (third round) or Corey Williams (sixth round) emerge. The wild card could be defensive tackle James Lee, a fifth-rounder last year who missed all of last season. Sherman always warns not to get too excited about defensive linemen before the pads come on, but the 315-pounder shows great lateral quickness and has flashed some leadership skills.

7. How good is this offense?

Only injuries and the Packers themselves can stop this unit. Green Bay moved the ball at will for much of last season, and that was with wide receiver Donald Driver doing next to nothing after taking a horrifying tumble against the Vikings in Week 1. Fellow receivers Robert Ferguson and Javon Walker only emerged in the latter part of the season. Quarterback Brett Favre gets a gleam in his eyes when he talks about that threesome. If they come close to Favre's expectations, then this could be the greatest offense in team history. Oh, by the way, the league's best offensive line returns intact and Ahman Green has an eye on rushing for 2,000 yards. And then there's Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher and William Henderson and Nick Luchey and ...

8. How will Tim Couch do?

Let's hope this question is irrelevant. Couch was an average quarterback in Cleveland, but he was surrounded by average talent there. If Couch gets a grasp of the offense and if he's forced into action, you would think he'd succeed simply because he's surrounded by such superior talent. Line Green up behind me and give me Chad Clifton, Marco Rivera, Mike Flanagan, Mike Wahle and Mark Tauscher protecting me, and I complete 60 percent of my passes.

9. Will Bob Slowik make a difference as defensive coordinator?

Only if he can drag McKenzie into camp and only if he can teach the secondary to drop 23 yards into coverage on fourth-and-26 plays. Seriously, everything rides on McKenzie coming back. Slowik wants to blitz, but you can't do that if your corners are getting toasted.

10. Will the Packers miss Josh Bidwell's punting?

Only if they relish touchbacks when punting from midfield. Argue with Sherman's fourth-quarter coaching in the Philadelphia playoff game all you want, but if Bidwell punts the Eagles into a hole instead of booming another ball into the end zone, then the Packers more than likely advance to the NFC championship game.

11. What player is on the hot seat?

Punter B.J. Sander cost the Packers a third-round draft choice, an eyebrow-raising move to say the least. He had better make the team and he had better have a good season. The competition will be stiff, with Travis Dorsch getting off his share of big kicks in minicamp and Australian Nathan Chapman finally getting his visa problems straightened out. He wowed the Packers' brass during his tryout.

12. What "name" player doesn't make it out of camp?

Safety Bhawoh Jue is living on borrowed time. Jue couldn't hack it at cornerback and now he's been moved to safety, where Roman and Anderson are superior players. Defensive tackle Larry Smith, who couldn't make the final roster last season but was re-signed and played a big role as a reserve, may be a victim of a numbers crunch. Lee, Washington and Williams are three players who weren't in the mix last season who could earn playing time this season. If that's the case, someone has to go, and that will be Smith.

13. Is this a Super Bowl team?

"If anything, the last four of five games should have proved to this team what we are capable of doing and how good we can be," Favre said last month. The potential is there, certainly. The offense should be brilliant, especially if the line can dodge injuries like it did last season. Unfortunately, injuries tend to run in cycles, and the Packers enjoyed a season relatively free of major injuries a year ago. The offense has star power in Green and Favre, a receiving corps that could be primed for a breakout season, a dominating offensive line, and ridiculous depth at running back. The other side of the ball obviously is the question mark, but Sherman has built his deepest defensive line and that's where games are won and lost. The linebacking corps should be better than a year ago as Nick Barnett can build on his remarkable rookie season, Hannibal Navies can hit the ground running in his second season as a Packer and Na'il Diggs is another year wiser. If a majority of the following happen, then you can book your tickets to Jacksonville for the Super Bowl: Hunt plays to his enormous potential, one of the young defensive tackles emerges, McKenzie returns, one of the 2004 rookie cornerbacks plays like the 1999 rookie McKenzie, and safety Darren Sharper does something other than intercept Hail Mary passes.

If you think that's a lot to wish for, imagine being a Carolina Panthers fan a year ago.

Huber writes for Contact him via e-mail at

Packer Report Top Stories