McCarthy had suggested during his season-ending news conference Jan. 3 that no coaching changes were in the offing, other than filling the vacancy at offensive coordinator. Nevertheless, some of the defensive players headed home within days of the final game New Year's Eve not sure that things would, for a change, remain status quo next season.
"I sure hope so," defensive end Aaron Kampman said when asked whether Sanders was deserving of a second year coordinating the defense.
Speaking for his fellow veteran teammates, Kampman didn't downplay how he's grown tired of what has been an annual off-season rite for the defense. Kampman and some others have gone through a coordinator each of the last four seasons -- from Ed Donatell at the end of his four-year tenure in 2003, to Bob Slowik in '04, to Jim Bates in '05 and to Sanders.
Up until the final month of the season, it seemed a given that McCarthy would have to cut bait with Sanders. The former defensive ends coach was McCarthy's fallback replacement at coordinator after Bates spurned an invitation to remain with the team that passed on him to be the head coach.
Sanders stuck to the framework installed by Bates, but the results were a far cry from those attained by the seventh-rated overall defense and top-rated pass defense in 2005. Despite being supposedly bolstered by the free-agent signings of Pro Bowl cornerback Charles Woodson, defensive tackle Ryan Pickett and safety Marquand Manuel along with the top-five selection of linebacker A.J. Hawk in the draft, the unit was a travesty.
The Packers were gluttons for giving up the big play -- 44 passes of 16 or more yards just in the first six games. They ranked last in total defense after Week 7 and brought up the rear in pass defense for five straight weeks, through Week 10.
"To be able to have the same system, the same terminology, all of those types of things in place, it takes a while to get your feet wet," Kampman said in retrospect. "Anytime you have group dynamics like that, it takes a while for everyone to get used to each other."
Better late than never, the defense resolved most of its lax communication and coverage lapses on the back end and apparently spared Sanders from the chopping block. Green Bay's four-game winning streak to close the season was due in great part to the defense's yielding all of 35 points and three touchdowns, producing 13 turnovers and 12 sacks and giving up a meager average of 226 total yards per game.
No one was apologizing that the Packers might have benefited from playing a feeble offensive quartet of San Francisco, Detroit, Minnesota and Chicago.
"Obviously, we came together well at the end of the year," Kampman said. "So, yeah, I really hope that everything continues to just go the way it has been and we can all keep this going."
By season's end, the Packers had shot up the league charts to 12th in total defense and 17th against the pass.
Provided they re-sign Cullen Jenkins, a potential restricted free agent who starred as a late-season starter at end, and keep cornerback Al Harris and middle linebacker Nick Barnett from squawking over their contracts, Green Bay will enter next season fortified on defense.
Kampman (NFC-leading 15 1/2 sacks, first Pro Bowl nod) and Woodson (NFC-high eight interceptions) had career-best seasons. The linebacker corps, featuring Hawk's team-leading 155 tackles, established itself as one of the top groups in the league. Pickett and Corey Williams solidified the interior of the line.
As the players and presumably McCarthy see it, retaining Sanders is in the defense's best interests to continue its turnaround from a disastrous first three quarters of the past season. Yet, there will be little tolerance for any relapses.
"It would be convenient for me to sit here and say that (the transgressions) were (due to) growing pains; some of it was," McCarthy said. "But, there's definite identifiers that we need to go back and look at and make sure we get it ironed out because we cannot have that again. To go through the stretch that we went through with the explosive gains, and be so productive in the other areas, there's something wrong there. We just need to make sure that doesn't happen again."
Packers allocate five to NFL Europe
The Green Bay Packers have assigned cornerback Antonio Malone, defensive back Alvin Nnabuife, tackle Adam Stenavich, linebacker Tim Goodwell and wide receiver Carlton Brewster to play in NFL Europe this spring. None of the five players were on Green Bay's regular season roster last season.
NFL teams are limited to five players, down from 10 in recent seasons, to assign to NFL Europe and receive roster exemptions.
Packers free agent update
The Packers are interested in bringing back Ahman Green and has been in talks with the running back's agent. Green held up for the entire season after suffering a ruptured thigh early in the 2005 season. He reached the 1,000-yard benchmark on the ground for a franchise-record sixth time in the last seven years. Green is seeking a multiyear contract after cashing in some with the one-year, incentive-laden deal he signed last off-season.
DE/DT Cullen Jenkins figures to be an attractive commodity as a restricted free agent after he played like gangbusters as a late-season insertion in the starting lineup in place of RDE Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila. Since Jenkins was signed as an undrafted free agent by Green Bay in 2003, the Packers likely will have to sign him to at least the middle tender and force a suitor to put up a first-round draft pick as compensation.
Punter receives courage award
Punter Jon Ryan was chosen by teammates as Green Bay's recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award. The league's 32 honorees will receive their awards at a banquet March 20 in Baltimore.
Ryan, a first-year NFL player, was considered to have displayed a commitment to the principles of courage and sportsmanship, while serving as an inspiration in the locker room.
He dealt with personal adversity most of the season. His father, Bob Ryan, was diagnosed with terminal cancer during the summer and died Dec. 1. Jon stayed with the team to punt in the Dec. 3 loss to the New York Jets before returning home to Canada for his father's memorial service.
Ryan tied for eighth in the league with a gross average of 44.5 yards per punt.