Season preview: Airing it out

The mantra on the offense is "if it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Certainly, the offense wasn't broken during a historic 2003 season. With every big piece of the puzzle back from last season — and even most of the minor pieces — the best way to look forward to the 2004 season is to look back to the 2003 season.

While there has been plenty of criticism over offensive coordinator Tom Rossley's play-calling, he returns to direct the Brett Favre-led attack. Rossley must have done something right, considering the Packers had the best running game in team history in regards to yards and yards per rush. The offense ranked second in team history in total yards, points and touchdowns.

All 11 starters return, and so do the key backups at every skill position. The only changes of note came on the offensive line, where there are some new faces at the backup positions.

At quarterback is the unbreakable Favre, who has started a record 208 consecutive games, including playoffs. Favre threw a whopping 21 interceptions last season — only St. Louis' Marc Bulger and Detroit's Joey Harrington threw more, with 22 apiece — but his overall brilliance overcame those turnovers. Favre finished sixth in the league in passing efficiency, thanks in large part to a league-high 32 touchdown passes. Not bad for a guy with a broken thumb.

The story of last year, however, was the running game. In the long and proud history of the Green Bay Packers, no runner has had a better season than Green. Lost a little in the 2,066-yard season posted by Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, all Green did was rush for 1,883 yards last season. That figure tied Barry Sanders for the seventh-best season in the history of the league. Throw in his five touchdown catches, and Green reached paydirt 20 times last season, yet another team record.

Behind Green is enviable depth, with the Miami Dolphins — minus the retired Ricky Williams — coveting top backup Najeh Davenport to be their featured back. Davenport rushed for 420 yards and two touchdowns. Next in line is versatile Tony Fisher, who averaged 5.0 yards per rush, gained 200 yards and is an excellent receiver.

Leading the way for the halfbacks is ageless William Henderson. Henderson rushed the ball exactly zero times last season but caught 24 passes. The numbers are meaningless, however. Henderson generally is leading the way for Green, making the key blocks that turn no gain into 5 yards or 10 yards into a breakaway.

In the 2003 off-season, the Packers signed Nick Luchey to take Henderson's job in the starting lineup. That hasn't happened, however, though the Packers will get plenty of use out of Luchey, who is a good blocker and a superior runner and receiver to Henderson.

Nothing happens without the offensive line, and the Packers' starting group is considered the best in the conference and perhaps even the best in the league. Green Bay finished third in rushing and fifth in sacks allowed per pass play. That combined ranking of eight led the league, one spot ahead of Denver's acclaimed group.

The 2002 season ended with tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher out with serious injuries. They returned as if they hadn't missed a down. Clifton, a wall at the all-important left tackle position, signed a lucrative contract during the off-season to keep him as Favre's most important pass protector.

Guard Marco Rivera is a Pro Bowler and guard Mike Wahle is on the cusp. Rivera is a power player and a scrapper. Wahle is athletic, frequently pulling on the Packers' famed counter runs. Rivera is a free agent after this season and Wahle is due an $11 million bonus. Something has to give, and likely one of them will not return next season.

At center is Mike Flanagan, who also made the Pro Bowl last season. Few players at his position have his athleticism, making him a rare center who can pull and lead on counters, sweeps and screens.

The wide receivers aren't exactly household names around the league, but they could be at the end of the season. Favre has called this his best group of weapons. Donald Driver led the team with 52 receptions despite taking a horrifying fall against the Vikings in the opener. Robert Ferguson, also re-signed during the off-season, caught 38 passes for 520 yards and four touchdowns. Favre has compared Ferguson with the great Sterling Sharpe. The Packers are 7-0 when Ferguson scores. Javon Walker doesn't even start, but he's one of the most dangerous threats in the league. He caught 41 passes for 716 yards and nine touchdowns last season. The latter two figures led the team, and his yards-per-catch of 17.5 ranked second in the league. He was the standout of training camp, so big things could be in store.

As good as the offense was last season, there's no reason to think bigger things won't be in store this season. With defenses paying particular attention to Green and the running attack, the Packers will be dared to throw. That's a dangerous proposition considering who's lined up under center.

"I feel like when our offensive line is healthy, we have the best offensive line in football. I definitely feel like we have the best running back in football," Favre said. "People may say, ‘What about the quarterback?' Well, we did the league in touchdown passes. You don't have to throw for 4,500 yards to be productive in the passing game. For the first time in my career, we have a very explosive running game. I think that's where it starts. From that, there's got to be down-the-field throws."

That facet of the game emerged in the last month of the regular season and into the playoffs. Against Philadelphia in the playoffs, Ferguson caught a 40-yard touchdown and Walker had a 41-yard grab. In the Seattle playoff game, Walker caught five passes for 111 yards, including a 44 yarder. It rained big plays against Oakland, in Favre's memorable game after his father's death. Favre averaged 18 yards a completion against the Raiders and threw three touchdown passes of longer than 20 yards. Walker, Ferguson and Driver all averaged more than 25 yards per catch.

In fact, the Packers had just three completions of 30 yards or longer in the first 10 games, but completed passes of 40 or longer in six of the final eight games, including the playoffs.

The Packers have aired it regularly in the preseason, with Ferguson being the prime recipient. Walker has been largely silent in the preseason, leading to the possibility he was kept under wraps for the start of the season. Regardless, the long ball figures to be a big part of the offense as teams are almost forced to play a safety near the line of scrimmage to stop the run game.

"It's like Dallas those years they beat us and won the Super Bowl three out of four years, (Troy) Aikman didn't throw many passes, but when he threw 'em they were productive," Favre said. "Everyone knew Emmitt (Smith) was going to get it on third-and-1 and you still couldn't stop him and he'd be tackled five yards into the defense. So when they did throw it, everyone's mind was focused on the running game. You get a lot of one-on-one matchups. That's what we're going to see."


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