Guards follow the green

The Green Bay Packers were hit with a dizzying one-two punch when standout guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera traded the green and gold for a load of green on Thursday.

Wahle's departure is no surprise. The stellar left guard signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Carolina Panthers. His signing bonus was not revealed, but it's believed to be worth upward of $10 million.

The loss of Rivera, to the Dallas Cowboys, is a stunning blow. Rivera had said he wanted to remain in Green Bay, but he was blown away with Dallas' offer: five years and $20 million, including $9 million up front.

"We certainly wanted to try to keep them in Green Bay, but the market was such that they felt they had to take advantage of it," coach Mike Sherman told The Associated Press. "I appreciate everything they've done for us. I hate to see them go, but we have to move on."

The Packers entered the off-season knowing they had practically no shot at retaining the services of Wahle. The Packers released him on Tuesday because his 2005 cap number was slated to be $11.375 million, including a $6 million roster bonus.

There was no way the Packers could make that number fit under the cap. In fact, the Packers were so far over the salary cap that erasing Wahle's huge number wasn't even enough to get the Packers below the league-mandated ceiling; they also released backup center Grey Ruegamer, who filled in ably for Mike Flanagan last season.

"It is tough leaving anywhere, especially after so long," Wahle told reporters after being introduced at a news conference in Charlotte, N.C. "It is a safe spot for me, but the safe spot is not always the best spot, and I think this is a better situation from a professional standpoint and I needed to make a change."

Wahle in some eyes was the best free agent available, regardless of position. He will remain at left guard, the Panthers said, although a move to right tackle isn't out of the question. In Green Bay he got his start at left tackle but struggled. It was when he moved inside to left guard when he became a star.

"The good part is that he is very flexible," Panthers coach John Fox said. "More than likely, he'll start at left guard, and we'll go from there."

Fox's philosophy is run first, pass second. The Panthers got away from that plan last season due to injuries at running back and ineffective play up front. Carolina's run offense ranked 28th in the league at a mere 98.9 yards per game.

The move wasn't all about the money, Wahle said. In fact, he may have been able to attract a bigger deal from a team with more cap space, but Wahle said he's intrigued by his new team. The Panthers started last season 1-7 but rallied before being eliminated in the final weekend of the season.

"When I found out that the Panthers were interested, I was hoping it was going to be a one-stop deal. I really wanted to come here," said Wahle, who was being courted by several teams, including the New York Giants. "I think this team is going to be good for a number of years, and I wanted to be a part of that. They're on the doorstep (of the Super Bowl), and to be part of something like that was too good to pass up."

Wahle, who had started 64 consecutive games, said he enjoyed his time in Green Bay, especially playing with Brett Favre. Wahle compared his new quarterback, Jake Delhomme, to Favre by saying he "has a swagger very similar to Brett's."

"I was very, very fortunate to play with a man like (Favre) because he's one of the best that there ever was," Wahle said. "That's something I'll always hang my hat on. But it's time to move on."

It was time to move on for Rivera, too. The Packers had hoped to keep the three-time Pro Bowler and unrestricted free agent at a discounted price. Instead, the Cowboys offered a stunning contract to a player who hasn't missed a game in six seasons but has a history of knee injuries. Rivera turns 33 next month.

The Cowboys have salary-cap space and a win-now mentality fostered by owner Jerry Jones and coach Bill Parcells. Parcells loves to run the ball, and there are few better run blockers in the game than the tenacious Rivera. Adding Rivera would be a huge upgrade for the league's 20th-ranked rushing attack. Rivera also is a solid pass blocker, vital since Dallas signed the slow-of-foot Drew Bledsoe to be its quarterback for next season.

"Marco brings a lot of things to our offensive line that are very tangible — things you can see on the field, things you can see by the Pro Bowls," Jones said. "But there are some very, very valuable intangibles (such as) his durability, his experience, and I underline this three times, his leadership."

Combined with perennial Pro Bowl left guard Larry Allen and tackle Flozell Adams, the Cowboys' line has gone from a weakness to a strength.

"My part in this is to come and fit together right with this team," said Rivera, who had scheduled a trip to meet with Detroit. "I'm going to (remain) a right guard, and I think we are going to have the best offensive line in the NFL."

Playing in Dallas — for the so-called America's Team — with a high-profile owner and a high-profile coach, means a high-pressure environment. That doesn't concern Rivera.

"I've been protecting Brett for nine years, that's pressure enough," said Rivera. "For me, it's not pressure of protecting the quarterback, it's doing my job. I've got to worry about my right tackle and my center. If we do our job, we don't have to worry about the quarterback.

"I've got to block the guy in front of me and we've all got to be on the same page. All five have to be working as one unit. That's the pressure the offensive line has is working as a unit and getting the job done."

Rivera's agent, Jimmy Sexton, represents Parcells, as well as nose tackle Jason Ferguson, who the Cowboys signed away from the Jets on Wednesday.

With the signings of Rivera, Ferguson, Bledsoe and cornerback Anthony Henry, the Cowboys have handed out about $30 million in signing bonuses this off-season.

"It would be wrong not to recognize this is a record for us," Jones said. "I think it speaks to our commitment to try to win now. It speaks volumes about our time frame when our expectations are to win. It explains more how strongly we feel about the Bledsoe move. If you do the Bledsoe thing and then not follow it up with big commitments, then you are talking out of both sides of your mouth."


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