Departures create questions

With Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, the Packers had two guards who were capable of opening huge holes. Now, with their departures, the Packers have two huge holes to fill.

In what will go down as the Packers' worst day in the history of free agency, Green Bay lost a three-time Pro Bowler in Rivera and player who might be even better than Rivera in Wahle.

The two departures — Rivera to Dallas and Wahle to Carolina — leave two critical questions. First, who will block next season? Second, and related to the first, is whether quarterback Brett Favre will play in 2005 with such question marks among his protectors.

Packers coach Mike Sherman didn't think the defections would play a role in Favre's decision.

"No, I don't think so because Brett Favre makes his decisions that are totally relevant to Brett Favre and his family, not on other people," Sherman told The Associated Press.

Rivera wasn't so sure. During his introductory news conference in Dallas, Rivera said: "With myself and Mike Wahle not there, he's probably going to have to think about that."

Favre, of course, has spent the off-season mulling his future. With his family divided during the season — one daughter stays in Green Bay while another stays in Mississippi so she can go to school with her friends — and wife Deanna undergoing radiation treatments for breast cancer, there are plenty of reasons for Favre to retire. If he was leaning toward playing another season, which all signs indicate, he may have reason to rethink things.

Favre plays the game for two reasons: to win and have fun. Clearly, the Packers' chances of winning have decreased considerably without Wahle, Rivera and possibly safety Darren Sharper.

Will Favre still have fun if he's getting hit more often? The Packers yielded a franchise-record-low 14 sacks last season. Favre's unwillingness to get hit, however, was evident in the playoff loss to Minnesota. Favre scrambled inside the Minnesota 5-yard line on a third-down play but threw the ball away — when well past the line of scrimmage — rather than trying to get a first down.

Will Favre still have fun playing the game if he thinks the Super Bowl is no longer attainable?

Or will this latest challenge be enough to bring Favre back for at least one more go-around?

The challenge for the team is putting a quality offensive line on the field next season. Certainly the pieces are in place. The tackles, Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher, are among the best duos in the league. Assuming he recovers fully from the knee injury that sidelined him for most of last season, center Mike Flanagan is among the best in the business, as well.

Generally speaking, tackles are the premium offensive line positions, followed by center, then the guards. Last off-season, the Patriots lost their best blocker when guard Damien Woody jumped to Detroit, yet won the Super Bowl this season. One of their guards, Joe Andruzzi, was cut the Packers.

There is plenty of off-season remaining to fill the vacancies. If the Packers release Sharper — his cap number for 2005 is $8.3 million, including more than $5 million in bonuses, and he reportedly has declined to take a massive pay cut — they will have created enough cap space to sign a quality starter to fill one of the gaps at guard.

Then, of course, there's the April draft.

And the Packers have some prospects internally.

One option is to move Kevin Barry inside. The Packers tried that during training camp last summer but scrapped the experiment when Barry struggled. Still, given an entire off-season to prepare and getting force-fed repetitions during practice, Barry probably would do a good job at guard.

Another option is Steve Morley, who the Packers signed from Canada last year. He's the only guard on the roster at the moment, though he didn't play a down last year. He'll get some seasoning this spring in NFL Europe.

A third option is to move right tackle Tauscher inside and replace him with Barry. Whether Barry can be an effective every-down pass blocker is a question, however. His snaps mostly have been confined to the "U-71" formation, in which passes are a surprise rather than a staple.

A fourth option is to move Flanagan to guard and replace him with Scott Wells, who impressed during limited opportunities as a rookie last year. Moving Flanagan is intriguing because his athleticism would allow the Packers to do many of the things they did with the agile Wahle.

A fifth option is to bring back Grey Ruegamer and move him to guard. Ruegamer did a fine job replacing the injured Flanagan at center last season. He was released Tuesday with Wahle as the Packers got under the cap.

The ideal situation would be to either draft or sign a guard to fill one of the spots and then move Barry inside to fill the other void. By keeping Tauscher, Clifton and Flanagan at their natural spots, the Packers would only have changes at two positions and some continuity would remain. If the Packers start shuffling personnel, then change is being created at three or more positions.

"If he needed to (Tauscher could play guard), but I don't know if we would do that," line coach Larry Beightol told the Green Bay News-Chronicle before Wahle and Rivera defected. "We have two pretty good tackles and they both had fine years. We would just have to shore up (the guard positions) some other way if that becomes a reality where we lose both guys."

As it stands, the Packers have only five experienced linemen, meaning there is no reliable depth. That problem presents a conundrum for new general manager Ted Thompson. The Packers' biggest problem last season was their porous defense. Draft choices and free-agent signings meant to bolster the offense deprive the team chances to improve the defense.

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