The Green Bay Packers ended the 2003 season with an enviable pair of starting cornerbacks in Mike McKenzie and Al Harris, and serviceable Michael Hawthorne working in the nickel defense. When McKenzie woke up on the wrong side of the bed and demanded a trade, the cornerback situation began to unravel.

"> The Green Bay Packers ended the 2003 season with an enviable pair of starting cornerbacks in Mike McKenzie and Al Harris, and serviceable Michael Hawthorne working in the nickel defense. When McKenzie woke up on the wrong side of the bed and demanded a trade, the cornerback situation began to unravel.

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Change dominates defensive backfield

Talk about your "Extreme Makeover." <p> The Green Bay Packers ended the 2003 season with an enviable pair of starting cornerbacks in Mike McKenzie and Al Harris, and serviceable Michael Hawthorne working in the nickel defense. When McKenzie woke up on the wrong side of the bed and demanded a trade, the cornerback situation began to unravel. <p>

The moody McKenzie forced the Packers to expend a first-round draft choice on Ahmad Carroll and a third-rounder on Joey Thomas. Still, Sherman and the rest of the Packers' front office thought McKenzie would eventually come to his senses or at least play out the season. That would have given the Packers their same formidable starting duo and two young talents to groom and provide depth.

Of course, it didn't work out that way. McKenzie indeed gave in on his promise to never wear a Packers uniform, but only for a brief and forgettable nine snaps over three miserable, losing weeks.

Hawthorne, meantime, was unable to handle his starting role. A capable player when matched up against the opponent's No. 3 receiver last season, Hawthorne was turned inside-out repeatedly while facing premier receivers.

Thus, the Packers enter the bye week with a drastically different defensive backfield than Sherman had envisioned.

Harris certainly has played up to expectations; so much so that he signed a five-year contract extension earlier this season. He has been the veteran glue that held things together during some trying — and educational — times.

Luckily for the Packers, Harris was able to play through a sprained medial collateral ligament suffered in the Week 7 game against Dallas. Harris was a question mark heading into last week's game against Washington, but generally held his own, and wound up making the game-sealing interception in the final minutes.

While Harris has been steady, the left cornerback position is finally solidifying. Hawthorne eventually was replaced (and moved to wide receiver and safety) by the rookie Carroll, who has done a relatively good job considering his rookie status and how he was put on the back burner during McKenzie's cameo appearance.

Still, Carroll must get better, and in a hurry. After the bye, the Packers face Randy Moss and the high-flying Minnesota Vikings. Other marquee teams on the second-half schedule are Houston, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Minnesota again, all of which pass first, pass second and run only as a change of pace.

For every good play by Carroll — such as being solid in run support and proving capable in deep coverage — there have been bad plays, such as getting beat at the line of scrimmage and taking an intentional holding penalty on a pass that was intercepted by safety Bhawoh Jue at Washington.

With that in mind, while most of his teammates are getting a few days of rest and relaxation, Carroll, Thomas and fellow cornerback Jason Horton are staying in Green Bay for a few days of practice.

"Anytime you can get a couple extra practices in, it's important," the soft-spoken Carroll said. "You can work on some things, correct some things. You've got to (take it serious). It's the only time you get one-on-one coaching. The vets leave early and it's going to be you and the coach. It's like tutoring a session."

The extra practice time is critical for Thomas and Horton, as well. Though neither have a lot of responsibility, both know they are one play away from being key players. That's especially true for Thomas, who would have started at Washington had Harris not been able to recover so quickly.

To the casual observer, Thomas outplayed Carroll throughout training camp. Thomas, however, has been held back by his inability to grasp the system as quickly as did Carroll. Thomas played in the dime alignment against Washington and did not give up any compilations, though a few breakdowns let his man get open a few times. Still, that he is even in the lineup and Sherman wasn't shopping for a veteran shows the promise Thomas has made.

"I think the biggest thing as a rookie is understanding there is a learning curve and things don't necessarily happen the way that you want them to happen," Thomas said. "But , hey, the opportunity is here now, so you just want to make the most of the chances that you do get and move forward."

Meanwhile, Green Bay may get even greener at cornerback. Second-year player Chris Johnson, who missed all of last season with a knee injury and has been practicing for the last couple weeks after spending the first six on the physically-unable-to-perform list with a stress fracture, may be activated next week.

Johnson was a seventh-round pick last season. He didn't play much at Louisville despite being the fastest player in the draft. His speed is intriguing, and he showed a lot of promise at training camp last year.

Sherman must make his decision by Wednesday. Either he must put Johnson on the active roster — the release of safety Curtis Fuller leaves an opening — place him on season-ending injured reserve or release him.

"I can't honestly say from this point what decision I'll make," Sherman said. "I'm anxious for him to be ready, but if he's not, we'll sit him down."


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