Packers keeping one eye on future

The Green Bay Packers are a good bet to go 7-9 this season, but that is not to say the team's brain trust has been making poor decisions which could handicap the team for years to come. On the contrary, it has been making several good decisions of late in an effort to ensure that there is no long-term slide beyond what could be a down season this year – perhaps the first losing season since 1991.

Sure, the future of Brett Favre remains a focal point to the Packers' fortunes over the next couple of years, but general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike Sherman have been quietly crafting their roster for the long run in the past month alone. They are hoping to avoid the dreaded rebuilding tag in the midst of what could be just one season of mediocrity or worse.

This off-season it certainly appeared the Packers would try to patch the holes they had on their team, at least for one year, with mid-level free agents like safety Arturo Freeman, linebacker Ray Thompson, and guards Matt O'Dwyer and Adrian Klemm. They made defensive coordinator Jim Bates their big acquisition, and then used all 11 draft picks in April as a means to the future, not necessarily the present. At the time, none of the 11 appeared to be in a position to play significant roles for the upcoming season, which confused some Packers' fans.

Then training camp came and went and the Packers' roster and starting lineup took on a much different look. Freeman, Ray Thompson, and O'Dwyer, who all took snaps with the first unit in practice, were released. Klemm, pegged as a starter, still has not been named as such with the season opener just days away. Higher-priced veterans Cletidus Hunt, a regular starter at defensive tackle for the past three years, and Nick Luchey, a backup fullback who played an integral role in the Packers' various offensive sets, were also released, clearing spots for unproven players like Corey Williams and Vonta Leach.

When the Packers take on the Lions on Sunday in Detroit, eight of the 22 starting positions will be manned by different players than a year ago when they opened against Carolina. Ted Thompson and Sherman could have taken the safe road with rent-a-veteran-for-a-year players, much like the Packers have done in previous years. However, the decision to make more drastic changes, even amidst a run of five straight winning seasons, is just what the Packers need. That is, if they do not want to go through the multiple-seasons losing stretch that so many teams in the NFL do after a run of a few good years.

Nine of the Packers' 11 draft picks are on the team's 53-man roster, the most they have ever had on any opening-day roster. The other two, wide receiver Craig Bragg (practice squad) and linebacker Kurt Campbell (injured reserve) also made the team. Undrafted rookies Roy Manning (linebacker) and Chris White (center) were two surprises to make the roster. Manning may even start at weak-side linebacker on Sunday.

Furthermore, two drafted rookies, safety Nick Collins and guard Will Whitticker appear as though they will crack the starting lineup. Sherman as of Wednesday was mum to the media on whether the rookie tandem will be the first such duo to start together for the Packers in 13 years. He also was not about to evaluate this year's opening day roster in comparison to previous ones, though it would appear to have much more uncertainty.

"Every time we start the season I feel there's always uncertainty," he said. "Since this group hasn't gone through a season with me, it's tough to evaluate. You ask me to evaluate from my memory of last season, which is probably influenced by the occurrences throughout the season, then you'll have a certain feeling about that. So I think it's a tough call to make that comparison because of the influences I have of the entire season with that group. This is a new team, new challenges, new players at different positions, and that remains to be seen. I think potentially it could be very good."

The decision to let veterans go and take a chance on younger players as starters is a great move for the Packers now. That may seem like a strange statement after a 10-6 season and an NFC North Division title, but the Packers realized they are not as good as that record indicates, thus, it is time to look forward.

What the Packers will suffer with inexperience, learning, and mistakes from certain players will benefit the team next season, and that could begin another stretch of winning seasons, with or without Favre.

Ted Thompson's decision to extend Sherman's contract was also a justifiable move and could be beneficial. Sherman has made his share of mistakes in five seasons with the Packers and has failed miserably in the playoffs, but he has also continued a winning tradition when the Packers could have gone downhill after the Ray Rhodes disaster in 1999. By signing an extension, any talk of Sherman being a lame-duck coach is dead for the moment and the focus for him will solely be on coaching the team. With the contract business taken care of and no general manager duties on his agenda, Sherman will give Packers' fans a better indication then of truly what kind of coach he is. He will have no excuses and has had enough time in Green Bay to run a disciplined, well-prepared team. If he shows any sign of what is perceived by Ted Thompson as a poor job, then the first-year Packers' GM will have every right to find a new coach, even after just giving Sherman an extension.

The Packers will not likely make a run at the Super Bowl or even qualify for the playoffs this season, and that may be depressing to most Packers' fans knowing Favre's time is running out. The decisions the team has made, however, over the past month, puts it in a better position to continue or start another streak of winning seasons should the .500 mark not be attained in 2005. In turn, that could lead to another run at the Super Bowl, even if it could take a few years.


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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