Changing of the guards will be noticeable

The Packers enter the regular season with much uncertainty along the interior offensive line. The prevailing attitude regarding the Packers' interior offensive line seems to be that they will be okay and move on, even with the losses of Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle to free agency. That, however, can only be said with a certain degree of "guarded" optimism.

Rivera and Wahle were not only two guards of Pro Bowl caliber, but they also were a part of an offensive line as good as any in the league because they understood each other and had confidence in each other. Now, respected offensive line coach Larry Beightol and offensive coordinator Tom Rossley will have a challenge replacing the interior strength they could always count on over the past five years. They will look to make the necessary changes with Grey Ruegamer, Scott Wells, or free agent pickups Adrian Klemm and Matt O'Dwyer.

The Packers may not suffer so much in pass protection with new faces along the line, but they could well suffer in other areas where they were so good in years past. Foremost among those areas were third- and fourth-and-short situations. With Rivera and Wahle, the Packers were nearly automatic running the ball for first downs in short yardage. Both guards showed their strength in those situations and were confident they could help the offense convert every time.

For the record, over the past two years (including the post-season), the Packers converted an impressive 82 percent (41 of 50) of their third- and fourth-and-one situations when they ran the ball with Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, or Tony Fisher. Those conversions kept drives alive and effectively changed the flow of many games in the Packers' favor.

With long, sustained drives then because of those conversions, the Packers were able to get into a rhythm and put up some of the NFL's best numbers on a consistent basis. They used a group of plays that worked well and closed games by running the ball, something the team had not done in decades. They did it all without worrying about their interior offensive line, a unit that wore down opposing defenses and kept would-be sackers off of Favre at a record pace.

With Ruegamer, Wells, Klemm and O'Dwyer fighting for the inside spots along the line, there are many questions to be answered. All are certainly capable of doing the job, but none can be expected to perform the way Rivera and Wahle did. There will be a dropoff, and the Packers' offense likely will suffer at some point during games, especially in short yardage situations, play-calling, or leadership. Who emerges and how confident the coaching staff is in them will affect what plays the offense can run and how long they stay on the field.

Furthermore, returning center Mike Flanagan is coming off a season in which he played only three games due to recurring knee tendinitis. Flanagan is one of the best centers in the game when healthy, but his knee injuries over a nine-year career have held him back on a number of occasions. A year ago, his missed most of camp, but said he would be OK when the season began. After three starts, the tendinitis was too much to take, and he was placed on injured reserve. Again this year he is expected to return healthy, but there is always a chance he could be limited by his knee again, because of its chronic nature. His loss would really paralyze the interior over the long run, and then the middle of the line would be patchwork at best.

Even if Flanagan is ready to go at center for the opening of the regular season, the Packers may not feel totally comfortable with their starting guard combination. Changes could occur as the season moves along if any one of the candidates falter and that could affect line continuity. More importantly, it could have a larger effect on an offense as a whole that will again be expected to carry the team.


Matt Tevsh

Editor's note: Matt Tevsh lives in Green Bay and is entering his 10th season covering the Green Bay Packers for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at matttevsh@hotmail.com.


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