Opening day in Green Bay always is a festive, traditional scene. It will be even more so Sunday when the Packers entertain the archrival Minnesota Vikings before a record home crowd of 72,000-plus in fully renovated Lambeau Field.
During the week there have been ceremonies unveiling 50-foot statues of Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi, dedication of the new Packer Hall of Fame and a Saturday night made-for-TV event in the stadium in which some of the franchise's greatest players and three country-music acts will entertain what might be a full house.
On Sunday afternoon, however, there will be a football game to be won. And that promises to be one tough assignment.
The Vikings were only 1-3 in exhibition games but their victory, 21-6 at the "Black Hole" in Oakland 12 days ago, certainly opened some eyes around the NFL.
"I looked at that tape and it looked like their first units did whatever they wanted to do," an executive in personnel for an NFC team said.
One of the Raiders' coaches was equally impressed.
"On both sides of the ball they were physical up front," the Oakland assistant said. "They really did a great job in the trenches. You can really see that is their mantra, so to speak."
Under coach Mike Tice last year the Vikings became a more physical team on offense, leading the NFL in rushing after ranking 25th in 2001 under Dennis Green. The Vikings are focusing on a defense that hasn't had a top-10 finish since 1994 and ranked 27th, 28th, 27th and 26th the last four seasons under three different coordinators.
"What are we looking for?" Tice said. "A defense that could just be in the top half of the league, not always in the bottom 10 percent."
His new coordinator, George O'Leary, stunned some scouts and coaches in August by playing much more man-to-man coverage despite a shaky defensive backfield.
"The Vikings' secondaries always have been kind of their weakness," the Raiders assistant said. "A lot of teams are playing bump but these guys are playing it very tenaciously. They're trying to get that hard jam at the line that can really throw off the timing of these West Coast offenses."
Maybe O'Leary will back off and play more Cover 2 zone beginning Sunday. New cornerbacks Denard Walker (hamstring) and Ken Irvin (toe) missed a lot of camp, and the safeties are suspect.
Two NFC scouts figure the Packers will win. One said the Vikings' loss of speed running back Michael Bennett (foot) and speed tight end Byron Chamberlain (NFL four-game suspension) makes their offense too dependent on Randy Moss.
The Oakland coach remained unconvinced.
"That game is almost a tossup to me," he said. "This could be a break-out year for Minnesota. They're really sound in the running game. They got after us. They're dangerous."
GREEN BAY NOTES
Center Frank Winters and guard Bill Ferrario were the most notable cuts as the Packers hit 53 Sunday.
The 39-year-old Winters, bidding to join kicker Jan Stenerud as just the second player to wear a Packers uniform in his 17th season, was the biggest surprise because he started 11 games last year at center and there was no one else outperforming him on a daily basis.
Ferrario, a fourth-round draft choice from Wisconsin in 2001, never really developed at guard.
Sherman indicated the release of Winters might have been the toughest cut of his four-year tenure.
"I wrestled with it all last night and even today," Sherman said Sunday. "I'm sure he sees things differently and wished they were different. But Frank's a real pro and understands the business."
Winters was coming off his poorest season in Green Bay but scouts said he hadn't lost it this summer. The decisions boiled down to versatility, according to Sherman. The Packers don't think Winters can play guard anymore and doubt whether Ferrario can play center.
Center-guard Grey Ruegamer, a center by trade, isn't athletic on the move and tends to bend at the waist rather than the knees, but he played adequately enough at guard to show Sherman that he could at least get by. Marcus Spriggs will be the other backup guard.
"There are things Grey has to do better as a player, there's no question about that," Sherman said. "In his defense, he made no mental mistakes throughout the preseason, which I find remarkable considering the fact his reps far exceeded anybody else's."
The Packers allocated Ferrario to NFL Europe League last winter so he could become well-versed at center. Ferrario later pulled out, expressing safety concerns with war in Iraq imminent.
"He's more suited because of the lack of length in his arms to play center than guard," Sherman said. "I think he understood why I wanted him to go over there but he was concerned about the danger and I wasn't going to try to convince him there wasn't. There was."
* Rebuffed in their attempts to find a taker for William Henderson via trade, the Packers still will go ahead and start him at fullback Sunday against the Vikings.
The Packers will enter the regular season counting $1.703 million against their salary cap at the position. Henderson, 32, counts $987,500 and Nick Luchey, 26, counts $715,333.
* "William's been the starter and hasn't done anything to disprove the fact that he is," Sherman said. "Obviously, Luchey can help us and has a role as well. At some point, if Luchey outplays William, then we go in that direction.
"Luchey has to be a more consistent player in my mind but he's still a talented player. William has been a guy we do have a certain comfort level with."
* The Packers are right back where they were last year at nose tackle with Gilbert Brown starting and Rod Walker backing up.
"I feel like we have enough talent that we can get through it," Sherman said. "I don't know if we're any worse than we were back in June, actually."
Brown blew out his right biceps Aug. 9 but played nine snaps in the Carolina game and expects to keep playing.
"I mean, it hurt in the game but it wasn't nothing to where I was crying or thinking about it," he said. "It's sore, but not where I was going to quit or anything like that. I've got a lot of confidence."
Brown said his biceps muscle, severed just above the elbow, had "rolled up" into his upper arm.
"The biceps will never totally heal on its own but it will get a lot stronger," Sherman said.
* How badly did Frank Winters want to play? He signed a four-year, $7 million deal in April 2000, then accepted $750,000 pay cuts in '01 and '02 and a $1.25 million reduction this year.
* The Packers' 27-3 exhibition loss to Tennessee last Thursday at Lambeau Field, which lasted 5 hours and 41 minutes, included a delay of 2:33 because of lightning and heavy rain.
"I'm glad we had an opportunity to finish the game," Sherman said during a post-game press conference shortly after 1 a.m. "It gave me a further evaluation on players that I needed to have. I was actually considering bringing some back for practice (Friday) just to get further evaluations."
During the break some players put their wet uniforms in dryers while others sat in the sauna.
"The field was dry enough," Sherman said. "There was no danger other than the delay itself. I agree with what was decided."
Quarterback Brett Favre and running back Ahman Green warmed up but didn't play. Green said he was told by Sherman after warmups to take off his uniform and relax in workout wear on the sidelines.
"I wrestled with it a little bit but I just could not see it," Sherman said. "We had five preseason games. I'm pleased with where Brett is, and (Green) is as good as I've ever seen him."
* Players on the current 53-man roster who were among the 60 players that the Packers had under contract in January 1997 when they won the Super Bowl. The list includes G Marco Rivera, C Mike Flanagan, QB Brett Favre, QB Doug Pederson, FB William Henderson and NT Gilbert Brown.
* The Packers claimed three safeties Monday and were the only team to claim all three. Thus, they had to select one and throw the other two back.
Their choice was Curtis Fuller, a fourth-round draft by Seattle in 2001. He lacks size but is a big hitter and good diagnostician. Going back in the pool were Cincinnati's Lamont Thompson and Indianapolis' David Gibson.
* Injuries: CB Chris Johnson (knee) has been out for 2 1/2 weeks. He didn't practice Wednesday and is out for another week ... G Marco Rivera (torn MCL) took all the snaps with the No. 1 offense Wednesday and is expected to start. He is one of the toughest players in the league ... S Darren Sharper (groin), listed as questionable, worked with the No. defense but didn't extend himself. He probably will play, but it won't be at 100 percent ... NT Gilbert Brown (biceps) didn't do much Wednesday but will start Sunday ... RB Najeh Davenport (leg) is probable but will play ... LB Na'il Diggs (sprained shoulder) is probable but will play.
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