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Commentary: The slide begins

Mike Wahle is no longer a member of the Packers. That news isn't really news since it's been expected for months. Still, seeing the line "Green Bay Packers: Released G Mike Wahle" in the transactions section of the newspaper is a tough pill to swallow.<p>

What the transactions list doesn't say is the whole truth: The Packers' long reign as one of the NFL's elite teams is dangerously close to coming to an end. The inevitable slip from great to good to mediocre eventually afflicts all the great teams. The Packers avoided that kiss of death longer than most teams, but the salary cap eventually catches up to everyone, and it has in Green Bay.

It's painful to see a stalwart such as Wahle be sent packing, but Green Bay had no choice. Blame whoever you want for the salary-cap morass the Packers found themselves in entering the off-season, but that's the price for being good. It takes good players to have a good team. It takes money to keep good players, which is why Mike Sherman signed off on big paydays for the likes of Chad Clifton, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Al Harris, Robert Ferguson and several others.

What's worse is the carnage isn't over. The Packers are only about a million bucks under the cap, hardly enough to space to find a way to re-sign Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera, delve into free agency or sign April's draft picks, nevermind miraculously keeping Wahle.

As if losing Wahle wasn't bad enough, the Packers had to cut ties with Grey Ruegamer, who filled in so well at center for Mike Flanagan last season. Cutting Ruegamer's $1.6 million salary cap number got the Packers the rest of the way under the threshold, but at what cost? Assuming Green Bay can keep Rivera, it goes into next season with only one backup lineman, seventh-round pick Scott Wells, with any real experience.

The offensive line is the lifeblood of the Packers' offense. Quarterback Brett Favre's ability to handle a pass rush has decreased in the last few seasons. The running game, of course, depends on the line to open holes. The Packers aren't a power running team; they rely on their linemen to get out in space on sweeps and counters. That's where the athletic Wahle, a tight end at the Naval Academy, was so great.

Can the Packers adjust to a new style of running game with Kevin Barry, Mark Tauscher or perhaps a rookie manning the left guard slot? They had better hope so, because this is no longer a team built to win with the pass. With Javon Walker and Donald Driver, the Packers have superb starting receivers, but is Robert Ferguson going to be able to bounce back from a terrifying hit against Jacksonville to become a regular threat as the No. 3 receiver? No. 4 receiver Antonio Chatman isn't going to scare anyone, and the Packers don't have a dangerous threat at tight end. You can't win through the air with only two big-time targets.

Adding to the uncertainty, will running back Najeh Davenport be back as the backup to Ahman Green? The Packers couldn't afford to give Davenport the highest of the restricted free agent tenders, so a team could offer him a contract so big that the Packers can't afford to match it.

If Wahle signs elsewhere, Davenport is lured from Green Bay and Ferguson can't return to form — all legitimate possibilities — can the Jim Bates-led defense make enough improvement to pick up the slack? That's doubtful unless the Packers land a couple of immediate impact players in the draft.

The release of Wahle is the opening salvo of what is the most important off-season in memory. New general manager Ted Thompson has his work cut out for him because the Packers are a whole lot closer to falling from the top than staying there.

Huber writes for packerreport.com. Contact him via e-mail at packwriter@hotmail.com


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