Commentary: Eight burning issues as season looms

Are you ready for some football? Judging by the four preseason games, the Packers could use a few more weeks of training camp.

Preseason doesn't mean a whole lot, though. The Super Bowl champion New England Patriots finished 1-3 this summer, then went out and beat Indianapolis in a thriller to open the season Thursday night.

So what can we expect this year? Beats me, but I get paid to pontificate, so here goes.

1. Is this really Super Bowl or bust, as Brett Favre said at the start of training camp?

Yes. The only way to get rid of fourth-and-26 from the tips of our tongues — and a U.S. 41 billboard — is to win the Super Bowl, and this is the last best chance for Mike Sherman and Co. to accomplish it. Favre at some point has to start showing his age. What goes up must come down, and Ahman Green was at the pinnacle of his game during his record-setting 2003 season. And most of all, this is the end of the line for this offensive line. Pro Bowler Marco Rivera's contract expires at the end of the season, and almost-Pro Bowler Mike Wahle is due $11 million bonus next season. One of them almost certainly won't return.

Even without the head-up-his-you-know-where Mike McKenzie, the Packers have 20 of 22 starters returning. That's an unheard of number during this era of free agency. Sherman will never have a better chance to win the Super Bowl than this season.

2. The Packers were horrible on offense in the preseason. Will that carry over into the season?

Yes, but the Packers are too talented, to let the injuries to Wahle, center Mike Flanagan and Green affect them for too long. The Packers posted the best running attack in the long history of the team last season, led by Green, who ran for the seventh-most yards in NFL annals. They finished second in team history in points and touchdowns.

Sure, that's last year and none of that means anything now. But all 11 starters are back on offense, so there's no reason to believe the offense won't be humming again. In fact, the offense should be better this season. It took the coaching staff half the season to figure it out, but with defenses concentrating so heavily on stopping Green, the Packers started going deep with exciting regularity. After practically no deep passes in the first 10 games last season, Favre completed passes of 40 or more yards in six of the final eight games. If the running game is even close to as productive as it was last season, then there will be nothing but one-on-one coverage on the receivers.

3. So what's the key to the season?

Getting ahead in games. Everything, especially early in the season, is dependent on the Packers getting ahead. If the Packers lead, then they can continue to mix the run and the pass and basically dictate the tempo of the game. Defensively, it's a lot easier to play if you know what the offense is going to do. New defensive coordinator Bob Slowik can let it rip, and the resulting pressure on the quarterback will make life a lot easier for rookie first-round pick Ahmad Carroll, who will be starting sooner rather than later.

4. Will the Packers be as good defensively as they were in the preseason?

It's hard to say. Certainly, Slowik didn't show all of his blitzes during the preseason. On the other hand, the Packers' preseason opponents probably spent little if any time preparing for the blitzes. Carolina has had a couple of weeks to get ready for what it will see on Monday, so this opening game should be a good gauge.

5. Who's going to have breakout seasons?

On offense, Javon Walker; on defense, Darren Sharper. Walker was the best player in training camp. Nobody could cover him. If the ball is thrown high, Walker will get it. With all the one-on-one coverage the receivers will be seeing with the opposing defenses focused on stopping the run, Walker could average 20 yards a catch and score a dozen touchdowns. On defense, Sharper finally will be lining up next to a competent safety. With Mark Roman on the scene, Slowik will put Sharper in position to make plays.

6. Who are the most important players?

Outside of the obvious ones in Green, Favre and Sharper, here are six players, in order, who absolutely cannot suffer long-term injuries: linebacker Nick Barnett, cornerback Al Harris, nose tackle Grady Jackson, left tackle Chad Clifton, center Mike Flanagan and defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila.

Outside of being among the team's best players, what these six have in common is there is nobody who can fill their shoes. Barnett plays practically every down and has unmatched athleticism and work ethic. Harris is the team's best cornerback and a leader. The Packers' run defense was horrible until Jackson signed last season. In the second half of the season, the Packers ranked in the top 10 in the league. He's overweight entering the season, so limiting his snaps is a must. The Packers' have little depth on the offensive line, especially at Clifton's left tackle position. Without Clifton, how long would Favre's starting streak continue? In Flanagan's case, there is no Frank Winters able to step in. KGB is the team's only consistent pass rusher and a surprisingly good run stopper for his size. Cutting back on his snaps — he played 87 percent of plays last season — will be vital to keep him fresh to rush the passer late in games and late in the season.

7. What's the most worrisome issue?

The special teams have been horrible. Mike Sherman rightly came under fire for drafting B.J. Sander, but give him credit for tabbing Bryan Barker to punt. The main problems are with the return and coverage teams. Green Bay's return teams did absolutely nothing — Antonio Chatman can barely decide when to catch a punt, and when he does field it he runs in place until he's tackled — while the punt-coverage team has been a frequent source of frustration for Sherman. A team with a suspect defense and an offense that isn't quite up to speed can't afford to give away field position on a consistent basis.

8. So can the Packers win it all?

There are three trendy picks to reach the Super Bowl out of the NFC, and I'm not buying into any of them.

The obvious pick is Philadelphia, which lost in the last three conference championship games but added pass-rushing defensive end Jevon Kearse and game-breaking receiver Terrell Owens. Those are great pickups, but after losing cornerbacks Bobby Taylor and Troy Vincent in free agency, who covers the opposing wide receivers? And the Eagles couldn't stop the run last year — Ahman Green ran for 348 yards in two games last season — and they've done nothing to upgrade that area.

Seattle won just one road game last season and the defense is a question mark there, too. Minnesota is one of the league's most talented teams and the defense should be significantly better, but the next big game the Vikings win will be their first.

So why not Green Bay? The Packers will be better at the end of the season than they will be now, and they actually have a better defense than the aforementioned contenders. In what should have been the NFC championship game last season, Green Bay wins at Carolina.

Huber writes for This commentary appeared originally in the Green Bay News-Chronicle.

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