NFC North News

The Lions have personnel decisions to make even as they enter a very tough three-game, season-ending schedule. Meanwhile, the Packers are going up against a battered and desperate team in San Diego, and a few team sources seem to agree on Brett Favre's future with the team. All that, and notes galore on the Lions and Packers.

With three games left on the schedule, Lions coach Steve Mariucci is in a quandary.

Does he simplify the Lions offense to get a more consistent, error-free performance out of his players, many of whom are filling in for injured veterans?

Or does Mariucci try to pull a rabbit out of his hat and fool opponents with trick plays?

Considering the level of competition in the remaining three games — at Kansas City on Sunday, at Carolina a week later and St. Louis at Ford Field in the season finale — it's questionable whether either approach would yield the wanted results.

Since lambasting the Arizona Cardinals 42-24 in the season opener, the Lions have been one of the NFL's least productive offensive teams. They have scored only 167 points in the last 12 games, an average of less than 14 points a game.

Wide receiver Charles Rogers, who played only five games before suffering a broken collarbone that eventually landed him on injured reserve, is the team's leading touchdown scorer with three.

Cornerback Dre' Bly is tied for second in touchdowns with two.

And, compared to the offensive machine the Lions will meet Sunday in Kansas City, it is little wonder Mariucci has concerns about moving the football.

Although he obviously isn't going to discuss his approach to the Chiefs game, it is equally obvious that Mariucci's possibilities are limited in drawing up a game plan.

"We have several new players that are lining up so you've got to line them up to do the right thing first, before you get too creative," he said. "So that's being simple in some regards.

"We've got to eliminate some assignment mistakes, too. Not just physical mistakes. So in doing that, simplification often is the first thing you do and if you can get creative at all, that's the next step."

Injuries have been a major impediment to Mariucci's efforts to build an offense. He lost running back James Stewart before the season even got started and lost first-round draft pick, wide receiver Charles Rogers, after only five games.

With a running game averaging only 79.7 yards per game, the burden for moving the offense has fallen heavily on quarterback Joey Harrington, who is not ready to carry the load in his second NFL season.

Although Harrington is completing 54.9 percent of his passes and has been sacked only nine times, he has been intercepted 20 times and his 5.12-yards per attempt is the lowest among NFL starting quarterbacks.

All things considered, Mariucci might want to resort to any or all of the tricks he has picked up in 25 years of college or NFL coaching. The other way doesn't look especially promising.

SERIES HISTORY: The Lions and Chiefs will be meeting for the 10th time. The Chiefs hold a 6-3 lead in the series, including wins in the last three games played. The Lions' last win in the series was a 7-6 decision 15 years ago in a game at Kansas City.

  • Quarterback Joey Harrington is getting some heat in the forum of public opinion for dumping the ball to his backs and tight ends — frequently for no more than three or four yards — on such a consistent basis.

    Although the Lions wide receivers have not done a good job of getting open and catching the ball on a consistent basis, coach Steve Mariucci acknowledged that Harrington sometimes has pulled the trigger too soon.

    "He's got to develop some rapport with his receiving corps," Mariucci said. "Do we have a go-to guy? Not really. I don't know who he's most comfortable with because there will be times he will come off his primary receivers — his one or two in the progression — and check it down because he knows he has it, rather than trust his protection and wait for that guy to work open for another tick on the clock."

    The Lions two leading receivers are running back Shawn Bryson, who is averaging 6.3 yards on 51 receptions and wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim, who is averaging 8.6 yards on 36 receptions.

  • Mariucci is taking a little different approach to the Lions three remaining games against division leaders Kansas City, Carolina and St. Louis than most Lions fans.

    Most fans and media believe the Lions have virtually no chance against any of the three and are destined to a 4-12 record.

    Mariucci's approach to the Lions players is that the three tough games provide them a rare opportunity to grow and learn.

    "We have three games left against playoff teams and we're going to make that a good thing," he said. "If we're ever going to get to the playoffs — and hopefully that's soon — we've got to be able to butt heads at the end of the year against real good teams in bad weather and loud stadiums.

    "We get to practice that this year. We get to practice against Kansas City, Carolina, St. Louis. Awesome. What better test could you have? We're going to see how we can stack up against playoff teams. If we're ever going to get there, we've got to be able to compete and win these sort of games."

  • Believe it or not, the Lions are actually the best in the NFL at something — and it's not total losses in the last three seasons, although they will be close at the end of the 2003 season.

    The Lions have lost only two fumbles during the entire season.

    Some of their success in that area is probably due to the fact that Mariucci and running backs coach Tom Rathman stress the importance of good ball security from the opening day of training camp through the end of the season.

    "I emphasize it, I guess, and you get a little lucky because the ball has been on the ground a few times," he said. "It's either been out of bounds or we got it back.

    "But we try to make it an emphasis to take care of the darned thing. Everybody knows how to hang onto a ball — four points of pressure. Next time you do a banquet, you can talk about it," he said, jokingly. "It's good stuff."

    BY THE NUMBERS: 13.9 — The Lions' average score in the 12 games since their 42-24 victory over Arizona, giving them the second-worst point production in the NFL.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm torn between where to go from here with our offensive staff. Do you simplify so your precision can be a little bit better, your timing can be better, the assignments can be more perfect? Or do you try to fool people and be creative and crazy, and put in something new, something else or some triple-option — that sort of thing — to make a first down or get a cheap score with guys that haven't been out there much." — Lions coach Steve Mariucci on how to improve the Lions offense.

    The Lions' injured reserve list grew to 13 players this week, which means director of pro personnel Sheldon White has been one of the busiest men in the NFL this season.

    With the loss of long snapper Bradford Banta (broken collarbone) and strong safety Cory Harris (torn hamstring), White had to supply to more players to fill critical vacancies on the Lions 53-man roster.

    This week's additions are long snapper Jody Littleton, who played part of the 2002 season with the Chicago Bears and was in training camp with the Lions, and rookie safety Julius Curry, signed off the Lions practice squad.

    Littleton is expected to take on the long snapping duties immediately. Curry isn't likely to have such a prominent role. Rookie Terrence Holt, who has gotten significant experience in the last six weeks, will probably have an expanded role.


  • S Terrence Holt, whose performance level has increased in proportion to his increased playing time over the last six weeks, is expected to play a bigger role in the Lions defensive secondary after the loss of SS Cory Harris with a torn hamstring. Holt has two interceptions.

  • WR Az-Zahir Hakim leads the Lions WRs with 36 receptions but is averaging only 8.6 yards per catch with two touchdowns, and has been battling minor injuries. He had back spasms last week and left the game early after dropping two passes. He also suffered a hand injury that contributed to his early departure from the 14-7 loss to San Diego.

  • RB Artose Pinner might finally be ready for his NFL debut when the Lions play at Kansas City on Sunday. Pinner, the Lions fourth-round draft pick, has been recovering from a broken leg suffered in the Senior Bowl but has had increasingly more reps with the first offense in the past two weeks.

  • LG Eric Beverly was not on the practice field Wednesday when the Lions began preparation for their game Sunday at Kansas City. He was listed as questionable on the injury report but has a high ankle sprain, which generally requires more than a week recuperation time.

  • PR/KOR Eddie Drummond continues to battle the knee injury that sidelined him for eight Lions games earlier this season. Drummond made his comeback Thanksgiving Day against Green Bay but tweaked the injury the following week against San Diego and his availability is uncertain for the Lions game Sunday at Kansas City.

    Nobody thought that the Chargers would be this bad but the collapse of quarterback Drew Brees and a slew of injuries proved to be too much for Marty Schottenheimer to overcome.

    When the Chargers (3-10) host the Packers (7-6) Sunday, they aren't sure who will start at quarterback but as many as eight of their preferred starters won't play due to injury.

    Schottenheimer has never lost 10 or more games before in 17 seasons as an NFL head coach. There is no future with Doug Flutie and there might not be with Brees, but the Chargers would like to evaluate Brees one last time before establishing their draft needs.

    Two assistant coaches for teams that recently played San Diego said the Chargers clearly would have a better chance beating the Packers with Flutie. Since Brees was benched Nov. 2 in Chicago, Flutie has a 2-3 record and a passer rating of 84.2. Brees is 1-7 with a rating of 63.3.

    "Flutie can get them out of trouble," one assistant said. "Looking at Brees early in the year, he wasn't accurate and he didn't look real crisp throwing to the right guy. That's why they benched him."

    The Chargers upset visiting Minnesota (42-28) on November 9. After getting drilled in Denver (37-8), they were competitive in home losses to Cincinnati (34-27) and Kansas City (28-24) before winning Sunday in Detroit (14-7).

    "Trust me, the Chargers are a bad football team," another assistant said. "Their defense is atrocious and their offensive line is terrible, but Flutie makes unbelievable plays for a 41-year-old guy and (LaDainian) Tomlinson is such an excellent player."

    The Packers are a 5-point favorite, just as the Vikings were against the Chargers. Earlier, the Packers lost in Arizona and Detroit as a 7-point favorite.

    "When you turn on the film they don't look like a 3-10 team, and I'm not just saying that to be professionally courteous," a third assistant said. "They play hard. I'll put it this way: they won't lay down. For anybody."

    SERIES HISTORY: The eighth meeting. The Packers lead, 6-1. The last meeting was in October 1999 at Qualcomm Stadium. The Packers rolled, 31-3, and about 15,000 and 20,000 fans in the then record crowd of 68,000-plus cheered for Green Bay.

  • Quarterback Brett Favre is keeping his options open but when the Packers peer ahead 4 1/2 months to the draft they do so with little urgency to replace No. 4 any time soon.

    The Packers want to and almost certainly will draft a quarterback high, probably in the first three rounds. But hints about his future dropped by Favre in the last few months as well as the shortage of premium quarterbacks lead one to conclude that it will be another defensive draft in Green Bay April 24-25.

    Several club sources said recently that their best guess is Favre will play two more seasons.

    "I think he's pretty much said he's coming back," said one of the sources. "I think he will be back for two more years at least. Maybe I'm wrong, but that's my gut feeling."

    Obviously, the scenario for a return by Favre could change by the end of the season. If, for example, the Packers go belly up and events occur that might lead Favre to doubt the team has a chance to win the Super Bowl next year, the odds of his returning could decrease.

    He is 34, isn't interested in fronting a rebuilding project and not long ago expressed keen reservations about continuing to play if his skills deteriorate.

    It is clear that he can't run like he could even three or four years ago. That has limited his ability to scramble, which in turn has kept him more in the pocket and reduced his number of long-ball strikes off broken plays that made him the NFL's greatest quarterback.

    The coaches say Favre was throwing the ball fine before he suffered the broken right thumb Oct. 19 in St. Louis. Since then there have been ups and downs, but Favre has taken every snap in just another illustration of his uncompromising toughness.

    "Way too competitive just to shut it down," another team source said. "He's too prideful. I'm not in a panic at all. I say two more years."

    Unless the Packers trade up, they will have almost no chance to land one of the two top-rated quarterbacks. Mississippi's Eli Manning might be the first player selected. If, as expected, junior Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio) declares for the draft by the Jan. 2 deadline, scouts say he'll be gone by the 10th pick.

    Tulane's J.P. Losman has the talent to interest a team later on in the first round but had a disappointing season and rubs a lot of people the wrong way with his cocksure attitude.

    After that, there's a cluster of five to seven quarterbacks with second- and third-round skills that would have a chance to develop as Favre's successor.

    As long as the Packers re-sign tackle Chad Clifton, they don't need much on offense.

    Bubba Franks and David Martin both will be unrestricted free agents in March 2005, so if coach Mike Sherman can get past his affection for aging Wesley Walls there would be room for a young tight end.

    The return of Carl Ford from injured reserve and the probable re-signing of practice-squad find Scottie Vines will be just about all the reinforcement the Packers can afford at wide receiver.

    Running back is the deepest position on the roster.

    Bringing back Clifton will be costly but must be done unless the Packers really think Mark Tauscher or Brennan Curtin can start at left tackle next season. His signing bonus could be about $10 million, which is what the New York Giants paid Luke Petitgout and Dallas paid Flozell Adams on the eve of free agency last February.

    The Packers' needs on defense are just as numerous as last year, when they used their top four picks on that side of the ball. They need defensive linemen, cornerbacks, linebackers and a safety.

    As it stands now, Jamal Reynolds and Gilbert Brown in all likelihood will be gone. Joe Johnson looked all but finished before he suffered a torn thigh muscle in Week 6 and could retire. If not, maybe the Packers bring Johnson back to rotate if he agrees to slice his base salary of $4 million to the minimum of about $775,000. On the other hand, maybe they don't or maybe he won't.

    Thus, Sherman takes the cap hit, admits he blew it and moves on.

    Unless power end Aaron Kampman continues to play like he did in whipping Bears tackles Mike Gandy and Aaron Gibson last Sunday, the Packers will look for the next Vonnie Holliday in the draft.

    It appears as though the Packers will try to re-sign Grady Jackson as their nose tackle before free agency March 3 as long as he doesn't want much more than the minimum. Either way it's a risk, given Jackson's age (31 in January), lazy streak and injury history plus the fact that James Lee and Rod Walker are all that's behind him.

    Lee has responded to a structured regimen during his wasted season on injured reserve and gets another shot. Walker seems unlikely to receive a restricted tender in February.

    The Packers appear satisfied with their starting corps of linebackers but they basically need a whole new crew of backups.

    The safety position opposite Darren Sharper has been weak since LeRoy Butler went down 25 months ago and the Packers need to get it fixed one way or another. Antuan Edwards probably won't be back, Marques Anderson's career is on the line, Bryant Westbrook's career likely is over and Curtis Fuller is too small.

    Al Harris, 29, is right on the margin as a starter. At least the former Eagle works cheap ($1.34 million cap salary in ‘04), so undoubtedly the Packers will try to get another year out of him.

    However, if Harris loses even a half step of speed, he might not be able to play. With injured Chris Johnson, erratic Bhawoh Jue, high-maintenance Michael Hawthorne and green as grass Derek Combs in reserve, the need level is high.

    The Packers are talking to punter Josh Bidwell about re-signing but would require another one if he leaves. They've still never replaced Allen Rossum as a two-way returner and will search again in the draft.

    Green Bay owns a selection in each round and could get several compensatory picks for losing Tyrone Williams, Tod McBride and Holliday in free agency.

  • The Packers have evolved into a running team this season but quarterback Brett Favre remains ready to take control of the offense if necessary.

    "The day that my confidence is questioned by me is the day I should leave," Favre said last week. "Hey, if my skills have diminished and I haven't seen it, maybe I'm blind to the obvious. I feel as confident as I stand before you today as I have at any other time."

    Favre, 34, was asked about the perception among some assistant coaches and scouts that he isn't able to carry the Packers anymore.

    "Who am I to argue with these experts?" Favre said. "They're going to say what they're going to say. The Packers obviously feel they still want me as their starting quarterback.

    "I know it wasn't that long ago they were saying, ‘Hey, this guy can do anything.' It's funny how people's opinions and attitudes change after a play, after a game, after a season.

    "I'm not concerned about that. If I was ever concerned about what other people think I wouldn't be here today. I've overcome a lot of adversity individually and as a team."

    Favre ranks 11th in passer rating at 83.1 despite playing almost seven full games with a broken right thumb.

    "I never thought I could carry this team to begin with," Favre continued. "It takes 53. Yeah, I've received my share of individual awards and had my share of criticism. That's all part of being a quarterback.

    "Until they tell me I'm not the quarterback here anymore then I'll do my best and feel confident I can do what needs to be done to win."

    Favre suffered the fracture on the first series of the St. Louis game Oct. 19.

    "It'd be easy for me to sit here and blame any lack of success in the passing game on my thumb," he said. "Everyone else maybe wants to point to that and say, ‘OK, let's stop the running game and with a broken thumb let's see what he can do.' But I'm not going to do that.

    "I'm going to play with any injury and I'm not going to make any excuses. Aside from those plays where the ball's slipped out, I felt I've thrown the ball well."

    There was discussion between Favre and coach Mike Sherman about switching quarterbacks after Favre had the ball slip from his hand three times Nov. 10 against Philadelphia, according to Sherman. But the game was played in the rain and later Favre switched tape to secure the ball better.

    Favre is about a week away from feeling significant improvement in the thumb, according to Sherman.

  • A shocking scarcity of pressure-induced fumbles in the pocket by opposing quarterbacks has played an integral part for why the Packers are 7-6.

    The Packers have 22 takeaways to rank tied for 16th. However, they have recovered only six opponents' fumbles and are tied for 30th. Last year, they were second in opponents' fumbles recovered with 21, and the year before that they tied for the league lead with 19.

    "We have not caused a turnover in the pocket by the quarterback," Sherman said. "The quarterback in the pocket is the glaring (deficiency)."

    In 2002, the Packers forced 13 fumbles by quarterbacks on pass plays and recovered six. In 13 games this season they have forced one fumble by a quarterback in the pocket, which didn't come until Thanksgiving Day on a sack by Aaron Kampman. Detroit recovered.

    "It is absolutely not luck," defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said. "More fumbles happen in the pocket than anywhere else in football. That's what we want to do in these last four games."

    Last year, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Vonnie Holliday led the team with three fumble-forcing sacks in the pocket. Nate Wayne and Cletidus Hunt each had two, Joe Johnson and Tyrone Williams each had one, and another was recorded as a team sack.

    "KGB" also forced three fumbles by quarterbacks on sacks in 2001, two of which were recovered by the Packers and another went through the end zone for a safety.

    This year, Gbaja-Biamila has stripped two quarterbacks on scrambles up the middle. Of his seven sacks, three were set up by teammates or sticky coverage.

    Is Donatell disappointed in Gbaja-Biamila's production?

    "Well, he and our staff have a higher vision for him," Donatell said. "His goals are much higher than that, and they're still attainable. He's a sudden, explosive guy who sees himself back there on the quarterback. So do I."

    The Packers had that in mind in April when they gave "KGB" an $11 million signing bonus as part of a seven-year, $37.3 million contract.

    Hunt, who received a $6 million signing bonus in February, has four sacks and one fumble forced.

    "We talk about it (forcing fumbles) just about every single meeting," Sherman said. "Our players do go after the football. But this year we've taken a step back."

    BY THE NUMBERS: 20-4 — Brett Favre's career record against the Bears.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "He's been kicking the ball as accurately as I've ever seen a kicker kick. It's dead center just about every single time. The ones he's missed have been poor footing." — Coach Mike Sherman on K Ryan Longwell, who is 19 for 21 on field goals.

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