Can the Packers compete in 2006?'s Doug Ritchay analyzes the Green Bay Packers' chances of winning, yes winning, the NFC North Division title this season. Despite finishing dead last in the division last year at 4-12, Ritchay explains why the Packers can reclaim the title that they owned from 2002-04.

For the next month the NFL goes into hibernation before training camps open, and for now most teams feel pretty good about themselves. Should the Packers feel this way?

Since Mike Sherman was escorted out of Green Bay and Mike McCarthy was welcomed in, here's what has happened:

* Brett Favre has returned for another season.

* A.J. Hawk was drafted in the first round of the NFL draft, and some experts have called him the safest pick in the draft.

* The Packers traded wide receiver Javon Walker to Denver.

* The Packers didn't add a new body at running back. They still have the hobbled trio of Ahman Green, Samkon Gado and Najeh Davenport.

* The Packers didn't add anybody significant to replace Walker opposite Donald Driver.

* The Packers signed free-agent defensive tackle Ryan Pickett.

* The Packers have a potential headache in the making if cornerback Al Harris holds out of training camp with three years left on his deal. With this list in mind, can the Packers be better than 4-12, which they were last season?


Favre cannot play as dumb as he did a season ago, not all the running backs can get hurt again (right?) and the offensive line has been upgraded through the draft.

Defensively, Pickett should help, while the additions of Hawk and Charles Woodson surely will help.

Yes, the Packers will be better than 4-12, but I don't believe making that claim is saying much. The real question is, can the Packers challenge for the NFC North title?

Call me crazy, or anything else (I can take it), but I say yes. Here's why:

The Lions and Vikings each have new coaching staffs, like the Packers, and both teams have first-time head coaches like the Packers.

Additionally, the Vikings are relying on Brad Johnson at quarterback (good!) and the Lions have the combination of Jon Kitna and Josh McCown.

Furthermore, the Bears' defense is stout, but the offense may be the worst in the division. Also, Lance Briggs, Nathan Vasher and Thomas Jones are taking Harris' contract stance, wanting more money.

The Bears have the best unit (defense) in the division, making them the favorite, but they aren't clear runaway winners.

This means the Packers have a chance to be at least 3-3 in division games, leaving their non-division schedule a possible key to the season. Looking at the non-division schedule, the Packers play just two 2005 playoff teams in Seattle and New England. Beyond that, the Packers aren't playing any juggernauts, giving them a chance. But for the Packers to make an incredible turnaround in 2006 a lot has to go right. Favre has to play smart, knowing he can't take chances as he did in 2005.

The running game has to be the backbone of the offense, leading to the passing game. It can't be the other way.

The defense has to continue its improvement from a year ago, when former defensive coordinator Jim Bates had the defense ranked in the top 10. That responsibility goes to new coordinator Bob Sanders, who a year ago witnessed Bates' magic as the team's defensive ends coach. Unlike Bates, Sanders has had the likes of Hawk, Pickett and Woodson added to the unit and a more-season Nick Collins at safety.

The defense should be better.

The season is less than three months away, as the Packers and Bears tee it up Sept. 9 at Lambeau Field. If the Packers can stay healthy, Hawk can progress and Woodson stays healthy, this team can be a surprise in 2006.

Can it be a memorable 2006? Yes.

Will it be? Maybe.

A lot needs to happen for the Packers to brush aside the disappointment of 2005. Not only do the Packers need to improve everywhere, the rest of the division needs to struggle somewhat. It's not all in the Packers' hands, but there seems to be a light at the end of this tunnel for the Packers to at least be a threat in the NFC North.

Doug Ritchay

Editor's note: Doug Ritchay is a longtime sportswriter and former Packers beat writer for the Green Bay News-Chronicle. E-mail at

Packer Report Top Stories