Commentary: Packers left short-handed

Mike Sherman is too diplomatic to say it, but the Packers have a problem.<P>

Less than a week before the 2004 season kicks off, they have sacrificed a roster spot to a position they thought they had all sewn up with the investment of a third-round draft pick.

While the other 31 teams may have had a grueling time cutting down to the 53-man roster, the Packers had to make one more painful pare. The active roster includes 52 players and an extra punter in rookie B.J. Sander.

A second punter seems like the roster equivalent of an extra thumb - it doesn't do anything and frankly, it's a little embarrassing. While an ineffective receiver can make himself useful on special teams, a second-string punter can do, well, nothing. He can't even pay his dues as an extra body at practice.

This is a problem without a simple solution. No blame can be leveled against the Packers for keeping Sander. He was the model of consistency at Ohio State, leading the Big Ten and winning the prestigious Ray Guy Award. He looked solid in the post-draft minicamp. Training camp was cool, until the first preseason game on Aug. 16. First-game jitters? No problem. But then came the second game, and the third, with the final 5-yard shank as they nail in the confidence coffin.

For any other punter attempting to make an NFL roster, a five-yard punt would be followed about five minutes later by a ticket home. But ever since the draft, the Packers have planned to go into the season with Sander. Changing the plan would require pinning their hopes on Bryan Barker. The 15-year veteran is dependable, but let's face it - he's a 40-year-old last minute replacement. Changing the plan would also mean wasting a third-round pick then possibly sitting back and watching as he blossoms with another team.

Green Bay faced a similar dilemma in 1997, when they spent a third-rounder on kicker Brett Conway out of Penn State to replace Chris Jacke. Conway didn't turn out to be the phenom that Ron Wolf envisioned when he spent the 90th pick overall on a kicker, and he didn't make the team.

That time, however, the reigning Super Bowl Champion Packers had other factors in their favor. Undrafted rookie free agent Ryan Longwell had been waived by the 49ers around the same time that Conway's struggle began. Green Bay signed Longwell for some training camp competition, and the rest is history. Conway stuck around, kicking for the Redskins, Jets, Browns and now the Vikings, but certainly never caused the Packers a moment of regret.

Bryan Barker, signed under similar pretenses this time around, won't be the next Ryan Longwell. Why? Because if he was, he would be punting for the Packers into his 50s. The continuation of Barker's NFL odyssey isn't going to take anyone by surprise, although right now Green Bay is certainly glad he stopped by.

Waiting for a late-blooming draft pick to take off is nothing new. Look at Robert Ferguson, a second-rounder who did nothing as a rookie but has matured into the go-to-guy and leader that the Packers hoped he would be.

What makes this situation troublesome is that this late-bloomer is in a position that becomes nothing but a black hole.

Mike Sherman said the position most hurt by spending an extra roster spot on Sander is most likely an offensive lineman or linebacker. But only Sherman and his staff know for sure who was the "last guy" cut.

Anyone else still miss Paul Hentrich?

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