Grading the Packers: Coaches get an A

Always prepared and very patient, Mike Sherman proved again that he and his coaching staff can handle the adversity that comes with player injuries. They did it in 2000 and again in 2002.<p>

The Packers had all kinds of excuses to ease up early last season. From the opening game on, Green Bay lost a starter either for the rest of the season or for an extended period of time. Wide receiver Terry Glenn suffered a blow to the head in the first game of the season against the Atlanta Falcons and was limited over the next month. Nose tackle Gilbert Brown injured his knee in the same game and was unable to play in the next game. In Week 2, tackle Mark Tauscher was lost for the season with a knee injury while safety Antuan Edwards injured his shoulder. In Week 3, Ahman Green was unable to play because of a knee injury suffered in Week 2, and guard Marco Rivera suffered the first of his two knee sprains. With each week, the coaching staff usually had to adjust to one or more new players in the starting lineup. So went the season.

Sherman's experienced coaching staff didn't flinch. They "coached up" a number of younger players to not just fill in as starters but make big contributions. Rookie safety Marques Anderson stepped in for Edwards and never relinquished the starting job. Anderson finished with four interceptions and is a prime candidate for NFL defensive rookie of the year. Defensive ends Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Aaron Kampman, running backs Najeh Davenport and Tony Fisher, wide receivers Robert Ferguson and Javon Walker, and defensive tackle Rod Walker started for extended periods of time or for the rest of the season because of injuries to starters ahead of them.

"We treat them all the same, the same expectation," said Sherman. "I tell them right from the beginning, from our top player to our 53rd player, everybody has a job to do, and you better be ready when your number is called. I think it's a credit to them and their team that they buy into that."

Sherman's 2000 team also experienced a number of injuries throughout the season. Like this year, the mid-week injury report often swelled to double digits. But the coaching staff, led by offensive coordinator Tom Rossley, defensive coordinator Ed Donatell and special teams coach Frank Novak, took extra time before and after practices to prepare younger players for prominent roles. In 2000 when the season appeared over after an embarrassing loss on Monday Night Football to the Carolina Panthers in late November, the Packers won their last four games and nearly qualified for the playoffs.

This year, when most of the defensive secondary was depleted by injuries against the Chicago Bears in early October, the Packers patched the holes and upended the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots in Foxboro. One week later quarterback Brett Favre sprained a knee ligament but the Packers never let up and continued on their seven-game winning streak.

In November, left tackle Chad Clifton suffered a possible career-ending pelvic injury as a result of a blind-sided, cheap block by Warren Sapp, but the team had center Mike Flanagan prepared to fill in and veteran center Frank Winters in the wings. Veteran Earl Dotson's back got the best of him late in the season, but rookie Kevin Barry steps in and didn't allow a sack.

"I'm proud of our coaches, getting those guys ready to play," Sherman said. "We have the confidence in them. When we go tell Brett Favre before the game that his starting right tackle is not going to play, he doesn't bat an eyelash. I think a lot of quarterbacks would. He knows we're going to have somebody ready to go, as do his teammates. We've been able to do that time and time again."

The injury bug continued to bite the Packers till the final game of the season but Green Bay finished with its second straight 12-4 record and easily won the NFC North Division crown.

The Packers lost Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper (knee) in the second to last game of the season and Donald Driver suffered a severely bruised shoulder in the regular season finale against the New York Jets. With Sharper out and Driver very limited, the Packers struggled against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Wild Card game and lost. But all is not lost, says Favre.

"In my 11 years, I don't know if I've ever seen a team face the adversity that we've had to face and still win 12 games," Favre said. "... To have a chance to go into the playoffs with a bye and home-field advantage would have been amazing when you consider how good we were in '97 and have to go to San Francisco and win a championship game. You compare the two teams, you would think that that team would have had home-field and this team wouldn't have even had a chance, but we did and it didn't work out for us. I just think it's something great to build off of."

Sherman snuck through his first two seasons without losing any of his hand-picked assistants. But he is currently in the process of replacing two assistants – linebackers coach Bo Pelini, who left to become defensive coordinator of the University of Nebraska and special teams coach Frank Novak, who retired. There also have been rumors that the Denver Broncos are interested in pursuing defensive backs coach Bob Slowik to fill their vacant defensive coordinator position.

It is a safe bet that Sherman will land experienced coaches with excellent teaching abilities to fill the vacancies. Thanks to the performance of his staff this season, Sherman's team nearly snuck away with a bye in the playoffs and home-field advantage throughout. Without the excellent coaching, the Packers probably wouldn't have made the playoffs.

It is no fluke that the Packers are 33-15 under Sherman in three seasons, paralleling the won-lost of the legendary Vince Lombardi in his first three seasons. Without the injuries, the Packers are probably playing for the NFC Championship this Sunday. Because of injuries, the Packers fell short of their goal. But give the coaching staff an A for an excellent job of getting it to a 12-4 regular season record.

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