Fast start critical for young Packers

Maybe Mike Sherman was in a state of denial, or maybe he just lost count of the younger players on his team. Sherman, when questioned by a reporter a day after the final roster cuts about the 11 rookies on Green Bay's roster, quickly tried to make a correction.

"I think that's standard in the National Football League for the most part. There is such transition across the league. … How many new players haven't been in an NFL game?"

Reporter: "Eleven"

Sherman: "I don't think we have 11 rookies on our roster. We drafted 11 but we don't have 11 right now. We might have eight."

For the record, the Packers enter Sunday's game against the Lions at Ford Field in Detroit with 11 rookies on their 53 (9 of the team's 11 draft picks this year, and two undrafted free agents). The Packers have a total of 21 first- and second-year players. Linebacker Roy Manning and center Chris White are the two undrafted free agents to make the team.

Packers could be starting three rookies in a season opener for the first time in 17 years. Second-round draft pick Nick Collins is entrenched at free safety, and seventh-round draftee Will Whitticker is penciled in at right guard. Manning, meanwhile, could get the call at weakside linebacker Sunday.

Of the second-year players, either Joey Thomas or Ahmad Carroll will start at left cornerback, and Corey Williams is a possibility to replace the deposed Cletidus Hunt at defensive tackle.

"My first year, when we won the Super Bowl (in the 1996 season), these young guys were not even in high school yet," Pro Bowl center Mike Flanagan said almost incredulously. "But, once you get between the hashes, those numbers don't matter anymore."

The 31-year-old Flanagan is one of only nine Packers who are 30 or older. By comparison, there are 27 players aged 25 or younger.

At 35 going on 36 next month, quarterback Brett Favre is the second oldest of the bunch this season, with long snapper Rob Davis the oldest by 10 months.

Favre decided in March to return for a 15th NFL season, and 14th as the Packers starter, in part because he felt the team coming back was talented enough to remain a championship contender.

However, the Packers released a number of veterans that they figured could plug the gaps at certain positions. Safety Arturo Freeman, guard Matt O'Dwyer, linebacker Ray Thompson and defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt were set free by new general manager Ted Thompson.

At least for now, Favre is willing to roll with the decidedly younger cast around him.

"I'm not sure who all the guys are. I'm still learning," Favre conceded Wednesday. "I don't know if we're too young, not old enough or if we're not in the middle. But just from an outside-looking-in perspective, if you just walk into our locker room, you go, 'Who's that?' It seems like you're saying that a little bit more this year than in years past. Is that good or bad or indifferent? We will find out.

"I don't think there's any substitute for experience because experience sometimes is better than talent. But if you're unsure what guys can do, there's only one way to find out. That's to play for real."

With the youth, the Packers must get off to a fast start this season. In the last two years, Green Bay has stumbled out of the blocks. The Packers were 1-4 last year before turning their season around with a convincing win over the Lions in Detroit. In 2003, the Packers started 1-2 and were 3-4 before the bye week before finishing 10-6.

This year, the Packers' schedule faces teams that are very beatable, even for a younger team, early in the season. After Detroit, Green Bay returns to Lambeau Field to play the Cleveland Browns and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. After a Monday night game in Carolina, the Packers return home again to play the New Orleans Saints.

After their Oct.16 bye week, the Packers play a number of opponents who are expected to be in the playoffs this season, including Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and Philadelphia.

A three point underdog to the Lions, the young Packers could gain a jolt of confidence with a win on Sunday.


Todd Korth

Note: Todd Korth is managing editor of PackerReport.com and Packer Report. E-mail him with your thoughts and comments at packrepted@aol.com.


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