NFC North Hot News

The Packers are flourishing in the NFL's smallest market, while the Bears and Lions are anticipating better depth.

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At the end of last season's 4-12 disaster, the Bears had 11 players on injured reserve. Ten of them were starters at one time or another. At least six were considered full-time starters.

How well that sizeable group rebounds this season will have a lot to do with how well the Bears bounce back from their worst one-season drop-off in franchise history. With everyone all the way back, the Bears could have the kind of team they did in 2001, when they went 13-3.

It's possible the Bears will need everyone fully recovered just to get back to respectability. The good news for coach Dick Jauron, who could quickly find himself on the hot seat if his team starts slowly, is that the prospects are good for a healthy team heading into training camp on July 25.

"They're all serious enough injuries that they kept them out for a year," Jauron said, "but none of them seem to be injuries that will affect their football-playing abilities in the short term or the long term. So when they come back, they should be ready to go. Most of them are back now, and a lot of them will be back at the end of this month and certainly by training camp."

Defensive tackle Ted Washington missed 14 games with a torn ligament in his left foot and a fractured left fibula. Linebacker Warrick Holdman missed 12 games with torn cartilage in his right knee. Guard Rex Tucker missed 11 games with a dislocated left ankle and fractured fibula. Wide receiver David Terrell, a starter in three-wide receiver sets, missed 11 games with a fractured left foot. Offensive tackle Marc Colombo missed six games with a dislocated kneecap. Quarterback Jim Miller missed six games with shoulder and elbow injuries.

Tight end Dustin Lyman suffered what was presumed to be one of the most serious injuries -- a ruptured ACL graft in his left knee on Dec. 1. But he was back by the first minicamp early in May and looked as good as ever -- maybe better. Even though UFA Desmond Clark was brought in to be the starter, a healthy Lyman would provide depth.

The same is true of other injured players like safety Bobby Gray and cornerback Todd McMillon. And with so many backups forced into playing increased roles last season, the Bears may have better depth than at any point in Jauron's four-year reign.

"I believe we're a deeper team than anytime I can remember since I've been here," Jauron said.

Defensive tackle could be one of the team's deeper positions with Bryan Robinson moving inside full-time to join veteran run-stuffers Keith Traylor and Washington. But Traylor (33) didn't participate in the first week of spring practices because of what the coaching staff called a minor knee irritation. The 6-foot-2, 340-pound tackle practiced on a limited basis during the second week of workouts.

Washington, 35, participated, but he is not 100 percent recovered and will be handled delicately by the coaching staff.

"We'll use common sense," Jauron said. "But, on the other hand, Ted's a big part of our football team. He needs to be on the field as much as he can and around our football team."

The Packers play in the NFL's smallest city but the $295 million renovation of Lambeau Field has made them an economic force in pro football.

In terms of revenue, the Packers now rank 10th in the 32-team league based on the fiscal year that ended March 31. One year ago, the team ranked 20th.

The Packers reported this month that their net income after taxes was $15.5 million, a jump of $11.7 million over the previous fiscal year.

In addition, the Packers benefited from the Houston Texans, the newest team in the NFL. Last season, the Texans sent a check for $5 million ($3.3 million after taxes) to the Packers and each of the other teams as part of the team's expansion fee.

The Packers' total operating income was $153.1 million, compared with $132 million the previous fiscal year, or an increase of $21.1 million.

Also impressive is the growth of the team's corporate reserve account, the piggy bank that is used for player signing bonuses and other football operations. Last season, the account grew to $58 million, a jump of $22.4 million from the previous year of $35.6 million.

The turnaround is the direct result of the $295 reconstruction of Lambeau Field, a project that is expected to be completed by August.

Although the Packers were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, they had much better luck off the field. A combination of agreeable weather, few construction problems and the availability of additional seats and fan amenities gave the Packers a bigger financial shot in the arm than expected.

"This has given us the financial horsepower to survive and compete," Packers treasurer John Underwood said.

Said John Jones, senior vice president and chief operating officer: "We have delivered on our promise to protect this franchise for future generations."

Last year, the team was able to put in about 1,000 new outdoor seats and increase capacity by 3,000 to 64,000. In addition, new, pricier private boxes were made available.

Meanwhile, the new Packers Pro Shop, including Internet and catalog sales, produced even more revenue. The Pro Shop had gross revenue of $11.1 million for the last fiscal year compared to $6.2 million the year before. The Packers expect to generate about $12 million this year.

The financial picture should be bright in the years ahead, although there was some grumbling among fans when ticket prices were raised for 2003.

The Packers intend to make Lambeau Field a place to visit throughout the year, not just during football season.

The team's new banquet facilities, its new atrium with restaurants and the Packer Hall of Fame all are expected to make more money.

Already the team has locked up nearly 140 events from September through December.

"Our goal is to make the economic playoffs," Jones said.

Of course, the NFL's shared TV package is the crucial element to the club's bottom line. Although gate receipts provided additional revenue, the Packers received $77.1 million as part of their share of the TV contract in the last fiscal year.

That money represents a little more than half of the Packers' operating income.

The Packers said they didn't know which teams rank ahead of them in overall revenue. Clearly, however, Dallas, Washington and Houston are ahead of them.

QB ready to prove his worth

Lions rookie quarterback Curt Anes is battling the perception that Division II quarterbacks are a cut below major college quarterbacks in NFL potential.

Anes, who led Grand Valley State to the NCAA Division II national championship last winter, believes he can compete.

"I know I can play with the big guys," Anes said. "I proved that in the all-star games. I made the all-star dream team but it doesn't matter. I was playing with the elite competition of Division I and I'm outplaying the other quarterbacks -- the Ken Dorseys, the Brian St. Pierres and others -- and still the big question was: Well, he played Division II, what can he do against better talent?''

Diamond in the rough
There wasn't much that James Davis didn't do for the defense in his four years at West Virginia. Although he played most of his college career at 220 pounds, he lined up -- at various times -- at defensive end, strong safety and linebacker.

In the Lions minicamps it became clear he will get his chance to play in the NFL as a linebacker. Lions president Matt Millen doesn't expect immediate results from Davis, he expects eventual production.

"He's gained weight now," Millen said. "He's like 238 pounds so I'm going to put him in the middle to have him learn that and I'm going to have him learn the outside spot.

"He's going to sit there for a year, run down on kickoffs and punts, and then hopefully next year he's going to compete for a starting spot -- inside or on the strong side. I think that kid's kind of a diamond in the rough."

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