Packers making the transition

Training camp is just over a week old and already it has a different feel to it than in recent years. There is a No. 36 again in the defensive backfield, but the name on the back of the jersey reads Collins, not Butler. Brett Favre is back, but with the exception of a few, his teammates from nearly a decade ago are not with the team. And there is a new, highly-regarded general manager watching practice who is quite more low-key than Ron Wolf who, by many accounts, was omnipotent.

The Packers are a team in transition. They are worlds removed from the Super Bowl teams and Super Bowl-caliber teams of the mid-to-late 1990's that exuded a confidence so palpable that it was felt even in practice. That does not seem to be the case anymore. Sure, the 2005 Packers have a chance to reach the playoffs again (for a fifth straight year), but more signs are pointing toward a decline this year than in the past couple. Coaches, players, and team staff will not say it or think it, but this year has more a feel of being a rebuilding one than a potential Super Bowl one. Here are five reasons why:

1. The draft: The 2005 NFL Draft did not do much to help this year's team, but rather everything to help future rosters. It is likely that up to nine of the 11 draft picks will either be cut or will not receive significant playing time this season. First pick, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, will not get his crack at the starting spot unless Favre is injured or until he retires, and second pick Nick Collins will likely be competing with fourth-round pick Marviel Underwood for playing time in the secondary. The Packers also took wide receiver Terrence Murphy in the second round at the position they are perhaps deepest at. Though it is early in camp, the Packers' do not appear to have the immediate help they need from the draft.

2. No major off-season signings: With a coach (defensive coordinator Jim Bates) being the biggest off-season acquisition in free agency, the Packers did not do much to improve themselves. Either the team's staff did not like anyone available in the free agent market or they are setting up the salary cap for future years. It is more likely that they are preparing to lock up a few of their own players, i.e. Javon Walker, to long-term deals in future years. If they had thought they could make a serious run at the Super Bowl this season, they would have gone out and improved their team in free agency. Instead, they lost safety Darren Sharper, guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle, and have no real feared player on defense.

3. Sherman not extended: With just one year remaining on his contract, Mike Sherman could well have received an extension in the off-season, but it did not happen. After all, Sherman is one of the most successful coaches in Packers' history (boasting a 53-27 regular season record over the past five years), though he has witnessed some of the worst and most gut-wrenching playoff losses the past four years. General manager Ted Thompson likely wants to see what Sherman can do this season, sans Sherman's dual role as general manager, and evaluate the coaching position from there.

4. NFC North: The Packers have dominated the NFC North the past three years winning division titles, which is not to say much. After the NFL realigned the divisions in 2002, the NFC North has been one of the weakest divisions. The Vikings have shown a recent history of collapsing down the stretch, the Lions have gone 16-48 over the past four years, and the Bears have not scared anyone. The Packers have feasted on their NFC North rivals, going 14-4 (.778) against them since 2002. Against the rest of the NFL, the Packers had a much lower winning percentage (.600), winning 18 of 30. The Packers' subtle decline over the past three seasons has been overshadowed by the division titles, and that has shown up in the playoffs where they were just 1-3. On paper, every team in the North is improved headed into this season except the Packers. Winning in the division will be much more difficult, and as such, the Packers could find themselves around the .500 mark. That could raise question marks headed into the 2006 season.

5. Another new defensive system: Getting Jim Bates to lead the defense was a step in the right direction, but the Packers are essentially implementing their third different system in three years. Bob Slowik's system a year ago got the team off to a disastrous start, primarily because the players did not really know what they were doing. When Slowik simplified the calls, the unit got better. Even with Bates, and up to as many as six new starters this season, the Packers' defense will be in a development phase, building to something bigger and better. Sure, it will rank higher than the 25th in the league, but it probably will not approach anything near a dominant level until the following season.


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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