Tonight's the night

Will tonight's Pro Bowl selections bring a few pleasant surprises under the Packers'Christmas tree?<P> Besides the obvious picks -- Brett Favre and Bubba Franks -- at the top of the team's wish list is a long-awaited Hawaii trip for a Green Bay offensive lineman.<P>

The NFL will announces the 43-man squads that will make up the NFC and AFC Pro Bowl teams this evening.

While center Frank Winters made the Pro Bowl an alternate in 1996, the Packers haven't had an offensive lineman voted into the all-star event since Larry McCarren in 1983.

"There has been a drought around here for quite a while," Wahle said. "But we've got some guys we feel like have had some good years, and hopefully that will show up (in the balloting)."

Despite a pair of season-ending injuries on the offensive line to Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton, the Packers' offensive line has found a way to make 2002 one of best rushing seasons in recent team history.

The Packers' 121.4 yards per game average represents more yards on the ground than they have in 17 years, since the 1985 team finished the season at 138.0-yards per game.

At the heart of the effort is Mike Flanagan, who started the season with a broken hand and made three starts at his natural position of center before being shifted to left tackle for two starts, followed by three more at center and then back to left tackle for the last three.

Fans recognized that versatility by giving him more Pro Bowl votes than any other offensive lineman, 180,230.

"I sure hope he has a chance to make it because of what he's brought to our football team," Packers GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "He's playing left tackle as well as he played center. There's no drop-off in him." Too bad there's not a category for adaptability -- like baseball's utility infielder.

"Jack of all trades, master of none," Flanagan said in assessing his chances. "If you want to make a category, sure, but it doesn't exist." Flanagan, who has given some creative voting counsel to his teammates (who cannot vote for eachother), is putting his hopes in comrades Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera.

"If at least one of them doesn't go, it's criminal," Flanagan said. "I'm going to raise hell if they don't."

All Rivera and Wahle have done this season has been to battle through injuries to start in all 14 games. The only other Packers offensive players to do that this season are Donald Driver, Favre and Franks.

"There are a lot of flaws in the system," Flangan said. "Especially with offensive linemen, the names aren't as recognizable ... Outside of defensive linemen, who knows four good guards in the league?"

Flanagan has been encouraging teammates to vote for unknowns from around the league, therefore keeping the votes away from the front-runners.

"A guy like Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila might say 'I don't know any guards, who do I vote for?' and I might say 'We, there's a guy on IR who hasn't played any downs.' Things like that. You kind of point them in a direction."

Flanagan doesn't necessarily think the tactic will work, but it's worth a try.

"If everybody listened to me all the time, this place would be mayhem," Flanagan said. "Guys are going to vote for who they want to vote for."

Dallas guard Larry Allen was the leader in fan balloting despite playing just three games.

Fan balloting counts for one third of the selection process. Quarterback Brett Favre dominated the fan balloting with 930,270 votes -- 182,973 more than Kansas City Chiefs running back Priest Holmes, who was the NFL's second-leading vote-getter.

Tight end Bubba Franks also had strong support from the fans, garnering 603,753 votes, the ninth-most in the league. And safety Darren Sharper was seventh among NFL defenders with 224,572 votes.

Fan balloting counts for only a third of the vote, as the NFL is the only professional sports league to combine the voting of fans, coaches and players in selecting its all-star teams.

Flanagan said although he believes the system is flawed, he won't worry about it after tonight.

"It's a nice recognition, but ultimately I'm sure every guy in this locker room would rather be playing at San Diego than in Hawaii," Flanagan said.

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