The Gift of Opportunity

Who could have predicted that 12 years after I played my last game for the Green Bay Packers, I would return to the scene to report on the team – and the same brash young guy who replaced me would still be the starting quarterback? It's a fact of life that every professional football player will be replaced. In my case, while it was disappointing to see my Packer career end, it's humbling and a little easier to swallow knowing I lost my spot to Brett Favre.<p>

This marks the debut of my new column for Packer Report. I'm thrilled with the chance to reconnect with the fans of the greatest team in football history! I'm also grateful to be associated with a publication with such solid roots. It wasn't so long ago that Packer Report's founder, Ray Nitschke, had his name atop page one. He launched this newspaper with the same fury that he brought to the gridiron.

This season I'm planning to have a lot of fun with all of my media work. Last year, I realized just how much I missed it all. My injuries and the years all took a toll on me physically, but my love for the game never dimmed. I just needed time to get my non-football career started. My wife, Kelly, and I are blessed with two great kids, Danielle (8) and Bo Cannon (6). We live near Atlanta, Ga., where I have been building from the ground up a real estate investment business. I have reached the point where we're making a good living, but just like my football career, it's taken a lot of hard work and sweat equity to get to this point.

This year, in addition to Packer Report, I'll be working in radio and TV with some outstanding stations. I'll be heard every Monday morning on WSAU-AM 550 (Wausau). I'll offer Packer insights with one of the real pros in this business, morning news host Pat Snyder. I'll also be an occasional co-host on "Pack Attack," a weekly TV show out on WAOW-Channel 9 (Wausau). It'll be great to get back in front of the fans at a place like Dale's Weston Lanes.

I'm really excited about another opportunity that's still developing involving THE MAJIK NETWORK, a network of radio stations that will carry "Majik Moments in Packer History," a series of weekly programs on Packer history. Suffice it to say, the further I got away from the game, the more I came to realize how Green Bay is really a very special place. That's why I wanted to title my first Packer Report column as "The Gift of Opportunity."

As the players get set for the home opener, the entire organization has an opportunity to do something that is very special. From my perspective as the team's last starting quarterback, I see lots of positives coming up this year. Coach and General Manager Mike Sherman and his staff have assembled an offense that returns all 11 starters. In an era of free agency, returning a starting unit of this caliber is extremely rare. Sherman deserves a lot of credit for running a tight ship and instilling Packer Pride, but he also seems to recognize what this team needs on both a collective and player-by-player basis.

Offense

It starts and ends with the O-line. The wrecking crew that's in there now is among the best in the game. As a former quarterback, I can appreciate the importance of the front line because they set the tone for the whole offense. The west coast offense comes together when the front five – Chad Clifton, Marco Rivera, Mike Flanagan, Mike Wahle and Mark Tauscher – fire off the ball to open holes or protect the quarterback.

Once again, All-Pro running back Ahman Green figures to take a lot of pressure off Brett Favre this year. Having established himself as one of the top two backs in the NFL, his running threat always sets up the play action pass and bootlegs which is something Brett does extremely well. Tony Fisher and Najeh Davenport will be called upon as the "running back by committee" to generate some serious yards (600+ last season). Fullbacks William Henderson and Nick Luchey will again set up the run with big leading blocks.

The wide receivers – Donald Driver, Javon Walker & Robert Ferguson – may be the best-balanced trio in the league. These guys are maturing as a unit. Having three guys as legitimate deep threats keeps defenders honest. In my day, Sterling Sharpe was the obvious go-to receiver because we had no legitimate threat on the other side. This year, the three wide-outs will force defenses to pay them all equal attention. At tight end, Bubba Franks is a proven entity as an All Pro and great run blocker. It's my hope that he gets the ball in his hands even more this year.

From a quarterback's perspective, I think the Packers are solid at every offensive position. To have all of these tools at your disposal is really exciting. It's going to be a high scoring, potent offense, and barring turnovers and the injury bug, it's going to be virtually unstoppable.

As far as Favre is concerned, I don't see him slowing down very much. He still has a cannon for an arm and he still has very good mobility. His poise is second to none, and his leadership is obviously the best in the NFL. Seeing him overcome adversity last year with the passing of his father and to play at such a high level was nothing less than heroic. To do all of this with a broken thumb was unbelievable. I had an opportunity to visit with Brett and see his thumb up close and it was just mind-boggling that he could play with such a disfigured thumb and not miss a game. The only area of concern I have is his body's ability to recuperate after each game. As a former player I still remember how unbelievably tough it was to recuperate after a Sunday's worth of hits, and in Brett's case, especially at the age of 35.

Defense

New Coordinator Bob Slowik has done the right thing by introducing an aggressive new 4-3 scheme that features lots of blitzing linebackers. This defense will dare opposing offenses to make big plays. The 4-3 will present a lot of problems for offenses, but it also may expose the vulnerability of the Packer's young cornerbacks. Frankly, this defense is a team of "ifs" – if they play as a team, if they know their roles, if the older players assume the mantle of leadership and if the younger players step up, this could be a very formidable unit.

Don't get me wrong; there's still a lot of positives on defense. At the safety positions, Darren Sharper and free agent acquisition Mark Roman will add their leadership capabilities. Defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila remains a game-breaking pass rusher with the potential of producing double-digit sack numbers. The Packers still need to address the pass rush from the opposite side, though. If they can get a solid pass rushing defensive end to compliment KGB, look out! Last season the linebacking corps of Na'il Diggs, Hannibal Navies and Nick Barnett began to jell as an effective starting unit with Paris Lenon providing solid depth. Barnett, in particular, exceeded all expectations as a rookie and he has truly assumed a leadership role on defense. The year of experience together, along with Slowik's urgent calls for the blitz this season, will present lots of opportunities to daze and confuse opposing offenses.

The big question mark – and my biggest concern - is at the corners. With Mike McKenzie still holding out, the Packers have to go with what they have and that's a little up in the air. Al Harris is a solid veteran cornerback who should bring a lot of leadership. Meanwhile, veteran Michael Hawthorne is battling rookies Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas for McKenzie's old spot on the other side. Hawthorne is a veteran but he lacks the speed and savvy to keep up with the game's best receivers. Carroll and Thomas have excellent potential but there's just no substitute for experience. They're both going to have growing pains in making the transition from the college game to the NFL. Carroll's a bit undersized but he does have something you can't teach: blazing speed. Thomas has better size and it should be interesting to see how long it takes the rookies to move past Hawthorne.

As to McKenzie, don't be surprised if he shows up once they start cutting regular season paychecks. I think he should do the right thing and honor his contract. Hats off to Sherman for sticking to his guns and not giving in to McKenzie's demands. If McKenzie gets his act together and re-joins the team, the Packers will be much stronger in the defensive secondary. If not, look for every team in the league to go deep early and often and force Hawthorne, Carroll and Thomas to prove themselves.

As a whole, the defense needs to learn Slowik's system, limit mistakes, grow together, minimize big plays and let the Packer offense carry the team during the first half of the season. Sometime right after the "bye" week (Nov. 7), the defense needs to have its act together for the stretch run that includes five inter-divisional games, plus the Rams on Monday Night (Nov. 29 @ Lambeau Field) and at Philadelphia (Dec.5).

Special teams

The jury is still out on the punting situation. Rookie B.J. Sander seems to have had the weight of the world on his shoulders during training camp. In late August, the team brought in 15-year veteran Bryan Barker, most recently with the Washington Redskins. Sherman has a lot tied up in Sander having selected him in the third round of the draft out of Ohio State. Flat out cutting him will not be easy. Punting is one of those positions that is taken for granted until somebody screws up.

The place-kicking game is solid with Ryan Longwell back for his eighth season in Green Bay. Last year he missed just three out of 26 attempts, and was perfect on 16 kicks inside 40 yards.

Kick returners Antonio Chatman and Najeh Davenport will again carry the load while hopefully wrapping up the ball. Davenport is a proven bruiser with more speed than expected. Chatman was impressive in camp, and offers added value as an occasional fourth wideout in third down situations.

Coach Sherman has done a great job of helping this team grow as a family. From my time talking to players and being in the locker room, I think it's noteworthy that there seems to be a real lack of big egos on this team. The camaraderie is great, and they seem to really be coming together as a team. They rallied together and showed excellent support for each other last year. For this, Sherman gets the credit.

If I could offer a bit of advice to the players, please take it from a guy who played in Green Bay for six years, as well as with two other NFL teams. This is the best place to play in the NFL! Please don't take this very special place for granted. The stadium, the history and the fans are the greatest ever. You should all try to make the most of this wonderful opportunity because it goes away far too fast.

Editor's Note: Don "Majik" Majkowski played for the Packers for six seasons (1987-92). He was named to the Pro Bowl in 1989 when he led the NFL in passing yards (4,318). In addition to his duties with Packer Report, fans can catch Majik every Monday morning on WSAU-AM 550 in Wausau. He also is a frequent guest on "Pack Attack" on WAOW-TV 9 (Wausau) and occasionally contributes sideline reports for WITI - Fox 6 (Milwaukee).


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