Season preview: Turning the page

If there was any question about the desired destination of the 2004 Green Bay Packers football season that kicks off Monday night, Brett Favre made things crystal clear early in training camp.

"There is no sense in beating around the bush, to me it's either Super Bowl or it was a bust," Favre said. "Carolina is going to be very tough this year. I think Philly is going to be good. There's going to be some very competitive teams. But I don't see why we don't fit right in there at the top."

Time is of the essence for this football team. Favre, while still one of the league's most feared gunslingers, isn't getting any younger. Perhaps more importantly, this season likely will be the last hurrah for the dominating offensive line. Running back Ahman Green, who broke the team's single-season rushing record last season, will be hard-pressed to duplicate that remarkable season. And even with Mike McKenzie seemingly entrenched in his holdout, the Packers return 20 of last year's 22 starters, an almost unheard of numbers in this era of free agency.

To be sure, it is now or never for this version of the Packers.

To that end, the changes made to the roster were minor. The only major change was at defensive coordinator, where Packers coach/general manager Mike Sherman fired Ed Donatell over the fourth-and-26 breakdown against Philadelphia with a trip to the NFC championship game in hand. In his place is Bob Slowik, last season's defensive backs coach. Slowik promised to attack, attack and attack again, and he's made good on that promise with a blitz-happy scheme during the preseason.

For a taste of what's to come, think back to the preseason game against the New Orleans Saints.

"They blitzed every snap," Saints coach Jim Haslett said.

Not every snap, but it sure seemed that way. And it was effective, with New Orleans' high-octane offense thwarted until a long touchdown pass in the final minutes. New Orleans rushed the ball for just 42 yards and threw it for 227.

"It's going to be aggressive. They haven't seen anything yet. That was only a little somethin', somethin' to let them look forward to," standout defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila said after the game.

"We're going to try to use everyone as far as getting after the quarterback and blitzing," safety Darren Sharper said. "It's just not going to be our defensive line and linebackers. We're going to bring safeties, corners, try to come from all areas to really try and confuse opposing offenses."

The two new starters have the biggest impact on Sharper and the new defensive scheme. Gone, at least for now and likely for the long term, is star cornerback Mike McKenzie. McKenzie hasn't been seen since the playoff loss at Philadelphia, allegedly upset that other, lesser cornerbacks signed during the off-season larger contracts than his five-year, $17.1 million deal. Starting with the first game, McKenzie will miss out on his first $162,000 game check.

In McKenzie's place is veteran Michael Hawthorne, who will be the starter at least Monday night at Carolina. First-round pick Ahmad Carroll, with consecutive sterling efforts to close the preseason, is closing fast, and will line up in the dime defense and even take some of Hawthorne's snaps in the base alignment.

The other change in the lineup is Mark Roman starting opposite Sharper at safety. Roman, a former starter in Cincinnati, has been as advertised. Roman has the skills to cover receivers and the tackling skills to be the last line of defense. Roman's play is huge since Sharper will be a primary blitzer.

Status quo reigns on the offense, and that's a good thing. All 11 starters are back, including quarterback Brett Favre and running back Ahman Green. Favre led the NFL in touchdown passes last season — his 32 marked the seventh time he topped 30 TD passes; Dan Marino is next on the all-time list with just four — while Green had the seventh-most rushing yards in NFL history.

Favre can't pass it and Green can't run it without the offensive line. All five starters return, including Pro Bowlers Mike Flanagan and Marco Rivera, as well as left tackle Chad Clifton, who signed for seven years during the off-season. The Packers allowed only 19 sacks, fewest in team history.

Big things are expected of the receivers, especially with defenses focusing on Green and Co. Driver is healthy and hungry after injuring his neck against the Vikings in the season opener. Ferguson also signed a long-term contract during the off-season and scored on a couple long touchdown passes during the preseason. Javon Walker caught everything in sight during training camp and ranked second in the league in yards per catch last season.

If there's an Achilles' heel, it could be the special teams. Certainly, there are no problems at kicker with Ryan Longwell, who broke Don Hudson's team career scoring record last year. He is coming off a 23-of-26 season in which he made all 16 field-goal attempts from inside 40 yards.

Veteran Bryan Barker seems to have solidified the punting fiasco triggered by third-round pick B.J. Sander's inability to consistently kick the ball 40 yards. Barker averaged a respectable 42.4 yards per punt with a net of 35.9. Sherman has been aggravated with his coverage team, specifically his gunners' inability to make a play.

The return game was a mess in the preseason, with punt returner Antonio Chatman making bad decisions on some kicks and averaging only 4.9 yards per return. In his defense, the blocking has been horrible. The kickoff returning wasn't much better, though Najeh Davenport — who would have led the league last season had he got enough attempts — didn't get a crack in the preseason.

So, ready or not after a lackluster preseason, it all starts Monday night at Carolina. NFC champion Carolina. Where the Packers should have been playing for the NFC championship game in January. Fourth-and-26 will live forever, especially if the Packers fail to get it done this season.

Regardless, Sherman says it's time to move on.

"Let's put to rest the end of last season right now and move forward."

The first step is Monday.

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