NFC North News

The Bears are narrowing their search for a new head coach, the Lions are celebrating their upset wins at the end of the season and the Packers are ready for their playoff opener. Get the NFC North personnel notes that matter.

CHICAGO BEARS
General manager Jerry Angelo has a list of between six and eight candidates to succeed Dick Jauron. Although Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was to be interviewed on Wednesday, Angelo has talked only in general terms concerning who and what he's looking for in the Bears' next head coach.

Dozens of names are being tossed about as potential candidates for the several head coaching vacancies in the NFL. Many of them are assistants on teams competing in the postseason, and those whose teams have byes this weekend will be making the rounds of teams looking for a new leader. Some of them are on Angelo's list, and he will talk to them this week, but he will not meet with all of his candidates this week.

He hopes to pare his list to no more than three or four by the third week in January.

"I'm not limited to any particular type," Angelo said. "I've made sure that I've explored all our options and made sure that we're going to do our due diligence to all our candidates. Once I've established who the finalists are, I will bring them here to Halas Hall. I will introduce them to ownership, management and to the media. Once that process has started, then shortly after we'll make our final decision."

Although president and CEO Ted Phillips will have input into the decision, as will the McCaskey family, Angelo has the final word.

"The decision rests with me ultimately," Angelo said, "and I feel very confident that we'll find a coach that will take us to the next level."

Because the Bears are obligated to pay Jauron and his staff for next season, there has been speculation that the team might be financially restricted in hiring a new coach.

"No, there won't be," Angelo said. "We'll create a very good package, and I don't anticipate that to be a problem at all.

"Our bottom line is to find the best football coach for this football team. The monies will take care of themselves. If somebody's fixing a dollar sign, and he's going to create an auction, I'm not necessarily motivated to go down that path with that type of person. I want somebody who wants to be here. I think that's very, very important."

Jauron said head-coaching experience will not be a prerequisite but it would be a plus.

"It would be a good something to have on your resume, but I'm not going to be restrictive with it," Angelo said. "Naturally any time you've been through the process of being a head coach, it's beneficial."

Angelo expressed admiration for some of Jauron's assistants, who are still under contract for another year but will be allowed to explore other interests. He hopes some will interview with the Bears' new head coach before moving on.

"If that works out, it would be great," Angelo said. "One of our coaches brought up to me (that) it's a business of musical chairs, and they want to make sure that when the music stops playing, that they have a spot to sit, and I understand that, too. I told them I'd take it on a case-by-case basis. But I would like the new head coach to come in, look at our staff, evaluate it and make his own decisions."

One perk the Bears' new coach will not be offered is any of Angelo's authority in personnel decisions.

"I think I know personnel," he said. "That's my lifeline. That's what I do. His lifeline obviously is to coach the football team and develop players. I don't do that well. I don't call plays, and I'm not in the mind to learn our coach's playbook. I think these jobs are very, very difficult, and there's a lot involved, and I want to draw from everybody's expertise. My expertise happens to be in personnel and I don't want to surrender that."

NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • Support for fired head coach Dick Jauron was universal among the players, but not so for all of his assistants, who are still under contract for another year but will be allowed to pursue other jobs.

    "I like Dick, and he was a good guy to me, and for the most part I learned a lot," said wide receiver David Terrell, who struggled to find a greater purpose in the offense. "My problems never came through Dick. It was through other people."

    Like many critics of the team, Terrell had issues with the way he was used by offensive coordinator John Shoop, and with Shoop's play-calling.

    "That's what the problem was," Terrell said. "Maybe because he was inexperienced, I don't know. I was not his favorite anyway, but that's neither here nor there. You want to talk about me having 6.5 yards per catch? Look at why I was having 6.5 yards per catch. Look at the routes I was running. Tell me why I was in the slot. Tell me who put me in the slot. Tell me how I was being used. Tell me how other players were being used.

    "It wasn't Dick, man. We came out here and we played hard for him. (But) with the situation the way it was going out here, knowing what we faced and what we had to use, it wasn't cool. We didn't have a lot of opportunities to make stuff happen with what (Shoop) gave us."

  • His players accepted the firing of Bears coach Dick Jauron because they realize the transient nature of the profession.

    "It's going to be sad to see him go," wide receiver Marty Booker said. "I came in with him. I've been here five years with him. It's going to be sad, but sometimes maybe a change is good, I don't know. He's a real loyal guy, and I guess loyalty kind of bit him in the ass."

    The move didn't come as a surprise to anyone, considering the Bears are 9-21 in their last 30 games.

    "We weren't in there crying and everything," Booker said, "but you could tell that guys were sad. You kind of expected it, but this is a business, and you've just got to keep moving on no matter what."

    As for Jauron's final meeting with his players, he left them with optimism for the future, even though he won't be part of it.

    "He just told us we've got a championship team and to keep striving and be better and in the next couple years we'll have a championship here," defensive end Phillip Daniels said. "It was all positive, nothing negative. He took it in stride and that's what you've got to do."

    Jauron's even disposition and stoic personality remained unchanged even on a most difficult day, according to Daniels, who said that steadiness might have been his greatest gift to the team.

    "He kept the team together," Daniels said. "He kept us focused. He stands up for everything. He's not down on himself right now. He knows he'll get a job somewhere out there. He's a (heck) of a guy. I guess he rolls with the punches. For us as a team, to look at him and how he takes in stride, it really helps us out too. I think a lot of guys are going to miss him, but we move forward from here."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "You sit there and say, ‘Wow, I wish I had the ability to have that much charisma, that much poise, that much class,' particularly at a tough time in your life. I know it had to be hard for him to stand up in front of that football team and the players that he cares so much about and be able to present it as well as he did. It was one of those moments that I don't know if I'll ever forget." — Bears defensive coordinator Greg Blache talking about fired head coach Dick Jauron's farewell to his players.

    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    Jerry Angelo realizes that Romeo Crennel, and quite likely several of his other 6-8 candidates, will also be targeted by competitors.

    But the Bears' G.M. said he won't rush into a decision at the risk of not being thorough.

    "There's competition, and I do feel a sense of urgency, but I'm not desperate about it," Angelo said. I feel there's a good list of candidates that I'm comfortable with researching and continuing down the path. I'm not naÔve enough to think that there's that someone special there and we have to be the first in line to get to him.

    "These are very difficult jobs. Most of these guys don't make it after three or four years. It's a very, very tough industry to stay afloat in, so it's important to me that we get the person that comes in and he's the right fit for us, and I won't really know that until we go through the interview process."

    Angelo said money will be available to put together an attractive package, but he did not sound like a man who would enter a bidding war for any candidate.

    "Our bottom line is to find the best football coach for this football team," Angelo said. "The monies will take care of themselves. I want somebody that's motivated to come here and be a part of something that we're doing right now. If somebody's fixing a dollar sign and he's going to create an auction, I'm not necessarily motivated to go down that path with that type of person.

    "I want somebody that wants to be here. I think that's very, very important. That will all get addressed and work itself out."

    COACHING CAROUSEL: Speculation is that Dick Jauron will resurface in the NFL soon, if not as a head coach then at least as a defensive coordinator.

    "In no way do I feel like this is the end of my coaching career," Jauron said. "So I hope to back in this city at some time working for somebody else. That's my goal and my ambition."

    G.M. Jerry Angelo is hopeful that most of the assistant coaches, all of whom remain under contract, will interview with the new head coach.

    "If that works out, it would be great," Angelo said. "I also told our coaches that I understand, as one of our coaches brought up to me, it's a business of musical chairs. And they want to make sure that when the music stops playing that they have a spot to sit, and I understand that, too. I told them I'd take it on a case-by-case basis. But I would like the new head coach to come in, look at our staff, evaluate it and make his own decisions."

    Quarterbacks coach Greg Olson seems the most logical assistant to remain considering the outstanding job he did of preparing Rex Grossman to play and perform well as a rookie.

    FREE-AGENT UPDATE: OG Chris Villarrial (Solid, steady eight-year vet, but the Bears probably won't pay what he's worth because of an abundance of young players with potential).

  • WR Dez White (Inconsistent player who has a lot of tools but has never shown the ability to use them).

  • CB Todd McMillon (Mediocre-to-solid nickel and dime back and a standout on special teams).

  • FB Stanley Pritchett (Journeyman who can catch a little but isn't a great blocker).

  • DT Keith Traylor (Still an effective run-down player, but he'll be 35 before next season starts).

    FEELING A DRAFT: The Bears draft 14th and they should be looking for an offensive left tackle, which they have lacked for several years. That would be the first step in solidifying a unit that has been in makeshift mode more often than not the past couple years. A defensive tackle might be another consideration because none of the ones they have are dominant players by any means.

    MEDICAL WATCH: QB Rex Grossman may be able to avoid surgery on the torn tendon on his right middle finger.

  • FB Stanley Pritchett may need an arthroscopic procedure on his right knee.

  • OT Mike Gandy may need a scope on his injured right shoulder.


    DETROIT LIONS
    All season Lions fans waited for the new coach — Steve Mariucci — to make a difference and, in the end, he probably did.

    He did not turn the Lions around as dramatically as Bill Parcells turned the Dallas Cowboys from 5-11 blunderers into a playoff team, or as Marvin Lewis turned the Cincinnati Bengals from 2-14 stragglers into a division contender.

    In the final five games of the season, however, Mariucci got the Lions to do something they had not done the past two years — they beat two eventual division champions.

    They upset the Green Bay Packers, 22-14, in the Thanksgiving Day game and they upset the St. Louis Rams, 30-20, in the season finale. Both games were at Ford Field, giving the Lions a 5-3 home record for the season.

    And, more importantly, the two wins in the final five games — especially the win Sunday that knocked the Rams out of the NFC home-field advantage — might have given the Lions and their fans a hint of what lies ahead.

    The victories against Green Bay and St. Louis were not the final gasps of one of the NFL's oldest teams; they were more like the first breaths of a team still in its infancy.

    If Mariucci and Lions president/CEO Matt Millen are going to build the Lions into a contender in the next two or three years, they will be relying on many of the same young players who were responsible for the wins against the Packers and Rams — quarterback Joey Harrington, running back Artose Pinner, tight end Casey FitzSimmons, defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, linebacker Boss Bailey and cornerback Dre' Bly.

    Bly is the only one of that particular group with more than three years NFL experience, but he is still only 26 years old, completing his fifth NFL season.

    Pinner, FitzSimmons and Bailey are rookies; Harrington has played two years and Rogers three years.

    Of course, Millen and Mariucci still have a long way to go to get the Lions from their 5-11 record of 2003 even to a level where they can compete week in and week out against the quality teams in the NFL.

    Aside from the quarterback position, where Harrington seems to have established himself as the man for the job, there is hardly an area of the team that doesn't need off-season attention.

    Start with the offense:

  • Running back. Although Pinner showed promise in the three games he played at the end of the season, he is a fourth-round draft pick and it remains to be seen if he has the big-play potential the Lions want. He is not a Clinton Portis.

  • Wide receiver. Charles Rogers played only five games in his rookie season, so he didn't get a lot of experience. And two receivers — Az-Zahir Hakim and Bill Schroeder — still have not delivered as Millen hoped they would when he overpaid for them in 2001. Rogers will be good, but not necessarily a No. 1 receiver in the mold of Terrell Owens or Randy Moss. The Lions still need help there.

  • Tight end. FitzSimmons, an undrafted rookie, catches the ball well but both he and Mikhael Ricks are primarily receivers. They give the Lions very little help in the blocking department. Millen will look for another tight end either in the draft or free agency.

  • Offensive line. The Lions need two starting-caliber guards. Right guard Ray Brown will retire after 18 NFL seasons and left guard Eric Beverly would be better suited to a backup guard/center position than starting 16 games a season.

    And there are needs on the defensive side also:

  • A pass rusher up front. Defensive end Robert Porcher isn't the force he once was and second-year defensive end Kalimba Edwards had a disappointing season, in part because of injury problems. The Lions' 28 quarterback sacks were among the lowest total in the league.

  • Another shutdown cornerback. Bly turned out to be — by far — Millen's best move in free agency. If he can land another cornerback anywhere near that ability, the Lions will have turned a major corner in their rebuilding program.

  • At least one safety. The feeling is that rookie Terrence Holt has a chance to step into the free safety job next year. What the Lions need is a Roy Williams-type player at strong safety to firm up the secondary.

    The two wins by the Lions at the end of the season are definitely a good sign for a team that has won only 10 games total in the last three seasons but they still have a long way to go before they can realistically think about playing in the post-season.

    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • The expectations for the Lions might finally be on the upswing after consecutive seasons of 2-14, 3-13 and 5-11 in the three years under president Matt Millen.

    And that's fine with coach Steve Mariucci, although he is looking at the 2004 season realistically.

    "We're not a playoff team yet — did I state the obvious?" he said, laughing. "But we beat a couple of playoff teams.

    "I think having some high expectations and certain ambition is good, because that's what we're working for every day — to see if we can jump in there next year.

    "That's what is going to be our M.O. in the off-season. Let's acquire the guys that make this team good enough to win the division. That's what we're trying to accomplish. Can you do it all in one off-season? No, but we're going to try and make a real dent into that."

  • Millen has indicated he will meet — probably next week — with owner William Clay Ford to map out the next step in the Lions rebuilding program.

    Ford ended speculation about Millen's future with the team Sunday when he confirmed he plans to have Millen back for the fourth year of a five-year deal worth $3 million a year.

    The two talk routinely on a weekly basis during the season but will have a major session now that the season's over, to talk about priorities, the salary cap and changes that might be upcoming.

    Ford also indicated he wants Mariucci involved in at least some of the meetings, to discuss staff changes he might deem appropriate.

    "It'll be Steve and Matt and myself, probably talking over the changes that have to be made with the staff," Ford said. "He (Mariucci) is just so vital to the whole thing. He's new here. He wants to pick his own staff and get the people he wants."

  • Mariucci wasted no time basking in the season-ending victory against St. Louis. Within a matter of hours, he was turning the Lions' attention to the 2004 season.

    The rehash of the 30-20 victory against the Rams was brief.

    "More importantly, I gave them the schedule for the 2004 season and from today we begin our 2004 season, starting this afternoon," Mariucci said.

    "I even showed them next year's schedule — home and away. We know exactly what we're getting into and I want them to be thinking about that, about going down to Atlanta and playing against Michael Vick, and going down to Tennessee and playing against Steve McNair.

    "All of those sort of things, I want them to be thinking about in the off-season. So I set the plan for their every day, really, up until we come in to training camp."

    Mariucci has indicated he will cut back somewhat on the off-season program, on the theory that the players can be overworked and emotionally drained if they don't get a chance to get away from the Allen Park training facility for a chance to get rested and refreshed.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I just asked them `give me 30 more minutes of your life, full speed. That's all I'm asking. For 30 more minutes and let's see what we've got here.' And I'd be darned if we don't score 17 points in the third quarter and hold them to minus one yard." — Coach Steve Mariucci on what the told the Lions at halftime, when they trailed St. Louis 20-10 on the way to a 30-20 victory.

    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    At least the Lions seem to have a foundation of talent on which they can build for the upcoming two or three seasons but president/CEO Matt Millen still has many, many holes to fill if the Lions hope to contend.

    The first focus of off-season business will be free agency. If he can replicate last season's successes — landing CB Dre' Bly and MLB Earl Holmes in free agency, signing DT Dan Wilkinson off the street in August — the Lions should be able to make the next step forward.

    The draft will be the second focus and the results there are some times slower in arriving. For the long-ranged development, however, Millen feels the draft is the top priority and it will be treated as such.

    It is likely several veterans — including WR Bill Schroeder and 18-year veteran Ray Brown — have played their final game for the Lions, and must be replaced.

    COACHING CAROUSEL: When Mariucci was hired last February, he retained most of the Lions staff, including offensive coordinator Sherm Lewis and defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer.

    There will be some changes in the offseason, although probably not at the coordinator level.

    Already let go have been offensive line coach Carl Mauck, defensive line coach George Dyer and wide receivers coach Bobby Williams. It's possible that secondary coach Ray Horton might be replaced. The Lions have to improve in all of those areas.

    FREE AGENT UPDATE: The Lions need another big-time cornerback and will be in the free agent market at that position and probably at offensive guard. They'd probably be interested in CB Champ Bailey (brother of their own rookie OLB Boss Bailey) but it's doubtful Washington will let him get away.

    Unrestricted free agents — LG Eric Beverly (A dependable player who is probably better suited to a backup role than starting); OG Ray Brown (After 18 years it's finally over); RB Shawn Bryson (Not a lead RB but has quality as a backup and catches the ball well, Lions want him back); CB Doug Evans (Signed when the Lions CBs were all hurt and gave them some good playing time, probably won't be re-signed, however); OLB Jeff Gooch (A good nickel LB and special-teamer, might get more money elsewhere); OLB Barrett Green (Has enough speed to make him valuable but sometimes over-thinks situations and assignments); DE James Hall (Was the steadiest of the Lions DEs in 2003 and will be retained as a starter); WR Shawn Jefferson (Almost 35 years old, coming off a torn meniscus, a great guy and good player but probably won't be re-signed); P John Jett (Very steady punter whose torn calf muscle ended his season prematurely); DT Kelvin Pritchett (Good player in the d-line rotation and good in the locker room); CB Otis Smith (Played surprisingly well after being signed late in camp but he'll be 39 years old before the 2004 season starts, probably won't be re-signed); RB Paul Smith (Signed late in the season and impressed with his toughness on special teams and ability as a backup RB, the Lions want him back); S Bracy Walker (Good special teams player and backup at SS, Lions would like to re-sign him).

    Restricted free agents — WR Scotty Anderson (Averaged 19.1 yards on 17 catches before an ankle injury ended his season but Lions still question his toughness); S Julius Curry (Spent most of the season on the practice squad, will probably be re-signed); P Nick Harris (Was not consistent as the replacement for injured John Jett but might go to camp in 2004); QB Mike McMahon (Completed only 29 percent of his passes in limited playing time in 2003 but he'll be tendered because the Lions like his athleticism); WR Reggie Swinton (Filled in adequately on returns when Eddie Drummond was hurt and has speed, which makes him a keeper); FB Stephen Trejo (Almost exclusively a special teams player, is expendable).

    FEELING A DRAFT: After drafting QB Joey Harrington with the No. 3 pick in 2002 and WR Charles Rogers with the No. 2 pick in 2003, the Lions will get the No. 6 pick in the 2004 NFL draft.

    They have many needs including RB, WR, OG, TE, DE, CB and S but they will probably use their first-round pick on a skilled position offensive player or a defensive back.

    Too early to say exactly how the Lions are leaning but FS Sean Taylor of Miami would be mighty tempting to a team that got very few plays from its safeties this year.

    MEDICAL WATCH: The Lions have four players scheduled for surgery early in the off-season. They are LT Jeff Backus (elbow), OT Matt Joyce (elbow), DE Kalimba Edwards (sports hernia) and C Dominic Raiola, who will have a surgical procedure similar to the one performed on QB Joey Harrington a year ago to control an irregular heart beat. There is some concern with Edwards, who had a similar surgery last year and never got back to full effectiveness as a pass rusher.


    GREEN BAY PACKERS
    Mike Holmgren, an old friend in Green Bay who has a major thoroughfare in town named after him, will become Public Enemy No. 1 Sunday when his Seahawks come to Lambeau Field for an NFC wild-card playoff game against the Packers.

    Three months ago, the Packers shut out the Seahawks in the second half to post a 35-13 victory in Green Bay.

    "I'm sure he had a bad taste in his mouth," linebacker Na'il Diggs said. "He'll have his boys fired up."

    Holmgren, who left Green Bay in January 1999 to become the NFL's highest-paid coach in Seattle, compiled a 9-5 playoff record during a seven-year run in Green Bay, reaching the post-season six times.

    "They're going to make the corrections from that first game," center Mike Flanagan said. "Holmgren didn't get to Super Bowls because he's pretty. He's a good coach and they've got some guys who can play. They're going to get right what we did to them last time. I expect it to be a dogfight."

    The Seahawks claimed a playoff berth for the second time in five seasons under Holmgren by beating the 49ers, 24-17, at 3Com Park Saturday. It was a victory of critical importance, not only because it prolonged the Seahawks' season but also because it broke a six-game losing streak on the road.

    "Their problem was the road," Packers vice president Mark Hatley said. "To go out and beat San Francisco has to give them a lot of confidence."

    The Seahawks incurred a significant injury against the 49ers. Chris Gray, a solid starter at right guard, suffered a torn knee ligament and is finished.

    Jerry Wunsch, the top backup at guard, went on injured reserve last Friday with an ankle injury. Thus, Holmgren has to start tackle Floyd "Pork Chop" Womack at guard.

    Otherwise, the Seahawks are healthier on defense than they have been in weeks. Shawn Springs, who sat out the Green Bay game with a broken shoulder, is back starting now at left cornerback opposite rookie Marcus Trufant.

    The Seahawks, who ranked 15th in sack percentage, are led by end Chike Okeafor with 8 sacks, linebacker Chad Brown with 7 and backup tackle John Randle with 5 1/2.

    "They've got a defense that's scrappy," Hatley said.

    On offense, former Packers backup Matt Hasselbeck threw for 315 yards and two long touchdown passes against the 49ers. He finished the season with a passer rating of 88.9, just behind Brett Favre's final mark of 90.4.

    "He's looked good all year to me," Hatley said. "I think he's been the difference for them this year."

    Traded to Seattle in March 2001, Hasselbeck's longest completion was just 24 yards against the Packers the last time they met. His passer rating was 64.6.

    "He's definitely a different quarterback from when we played them," linebacker Na'il Diggs said. "He's in a groove. He's making throws into coverage. He's confident right now. That's how a quarterback's got to be."

    Running back Shaun Alexander has 1,435 yards in 326 carries (4.4-yard average) this season. He was 20 for 102 against Green Bay.

    Wide receivers Darrell Jackson, Koren Robinson and Bobby Engram have combined for 185 receptions and 2,670 yards (14.4). Tight end Itula Mili has caught 46 for 492.

    "They've got a well-balanced team," Hatley said. "They know us. We know them. The offenses are similar."

    After winning the AFC West in Holmgren's first season the Seahawks were eliminated at home by Miami, 20-17, in a Wild Card game. Before that, their most recent playoff appearance had been after the 1984 season, when they beat the Los Angeles Raiders before losing to Miami.

    If the weather is frigid, the field is icy and the wind is whipping, the Seahawks figure to be at a major disadvantage. Since beginning play in 1976 the coldest game they have played in was 22 degrees at Denver in 2000.

    The Seahawks are 2-9 in their history when the temperature was 34 degrees or below.

    "But Mike Holmgren won't let that be a factor," said Packers safety Curtis Fuller, who played for Seattle in 2001-'02. "He'll address that right away. In fact, tomorrow morning."

    "I watched them (against the 49ers)," guard Marco Rivera said. "They're very hungry and aggressive. We don't want any repeats. We know what happened with Atlanta coming in here and hitting us square in the mouth. I'll make sure these guys know that this week. We've got to get ready for a big-time game."

    SERIES HISTORY: This will be the 10th meeting between the two teams. The Packers lead, 5-4.

    NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
  • The Packers made a key signing Saturday night, convincing nose tackle Grady Jackson to accept a two-year deal. He would have been an unrestricted free agent in March.

    Jackson has had major impact since arriving on waivers from New Orleans Nov. 3.

    The deal is worth between $2.5 million and $3 million and includes a signing bonus of about $750,000. He is starting ahead of Gilbert Brown at nose tackle and could be the team's best defensive lineman.

    By signing Jackson before the end of the regular season the Packers were able to spread his signing bonus over three years instead of just two for salary-cap purposes. The Packers had $870,000 of cap room as of last week and will be able to use some of that room to take care of one-third of Jackson's signing bonus.

    "This place has been a great fit for me," Jackson said. "I never should have signed with the Saints. I feel like this is a second chance for me, and I'm going to make the most of it."

  • Re-signing left tackle Chad Clifton looms as the team's No. 1 priority during the off-season.

    Clifton's pelvic, knee and elbow injuries within the last year prompted both sides to take a cautious approach. The Packers wanted to see if Clifton would be the same solid player that he had been and Clifton wasn't about to settle for a salary commensurate with someone in football's version of limbo.

    Now that Clifton has started all 16 games and the Packers say he's back to his pre-injury form, both parties can begin to debate his market value. If a contract extension isn't reached by March 2, Clifton would become an unrestricted free agent.

    "I think they'll meet after the season," Clifton said. "It's just now kind of getting started. It will work itself out."

    If the two sides can't reach an agreement, the Packers could designate Clifton as their "franchise" player and basically remove him from the market. The franchise player tender in 2003 for an offensive lineman was $5.734 million.

    Two of the NFL's three finest left tackles, St. Louis' Orlando Pace and Seattle's Walter Jones, reluctantly signed one-year deals for that amount just before the start of the regular season.

    Pace, Jones and Baltimore's Jon Ogden, whose contract averages $7.45 million, represent the top level of left tackles. Clifton, according to offensive line coach Larry Beightol, is in the next level.

    "And he could move into the top one," Beightol said. "He's a young fellow. He could be as good, really and truly, as he wants to be. He is truly a superb pass blocker."

    Last February, one day before the start of free agency, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Giants gave blockbuster contracts to left tackles comparable to Clifton. Flozell Adams, who made the Pro Bowl this season, received $25 million over five years ($10 million signing bonus) from the Cowboys. Luke Petitgout got $30 million over six years ($9.75 million signing from) from the Giants.

    At the time of the signings Adams had started 76 of 80 games in five years and Petitgout had started 56 of 73 games in four years. Clifton will have started 48 of 53 games in four years.

    Is Clifton, 27, looking for a contract similar in value to Adams' and Petitgout's?

    "Certainly, I think so," Clifton said. "I would definitely compare myself to those guys as far as players. I want to be back here but I realize it's a business."

    "I think he's better than them but I'm not the one signing the checks and figuring out what you can and can't do," right tackle Mark Tauscher said. "Chad's had a great season. He's timed it up pretty well. You've got to give him credit for coming back from the injuries that he's had."

    All five offensive linemen have started every game, the main reason why the Packers broke the club's record for fewest sacks allowed in a 16-game season. They gave up 19, three less than the mark of 22 set in 2001.

    Of the 19, quarterback Brett Favre has been responsible for 9 1/2 and the line just five. Clifton, 6-5 and 330, has yielded 1 1/2 sacks in 2003 and just eight in his career. When Ross Verba started 17 games at left tackle in 1998 he gave up nine sacks.

    "There's nobody who's quicker out of his stance and getting into his set than Chad," Tauscher said. "It's pretty tough to come across with an athletic left tackle in this league. When you get one it's going to cost you money to keep him."

    The Packers figure to be in more than reasonable shape in relation to the cap for next year and should be able to afford Clifton if management decides he's a wise investment.

    Clifton hasn't had a holding penalty this season but does have far too many false-start penalties with nine. By unofficial count he also has been responsible for 17 runs of 1 yard or less, five more than anyone else on the line.

    "Sometimes we look upon him as such a good athlete that we probably think he ought to be doing a little bit better," Beightol said. "Sometimes he loses a little focus and he doesn't always finish like I would like to see, but he's gotten better at that. He's had a fine year."

    If the Packers were to lose Clifton, their primary options would be moving Tauscher or Kevin Barry to the left side, developing rookie Brennan Curtin, trying to get a year out of former Dolphin Marcus Spriggs or signing another veteran.

    "I played (left tackle) in college a little bit but that's a different story," Tauscher said. "I'm hoping that they re-sign Chad."

  • Najeh Davenport averaged 31.6 on kickoff returns but had just 16 returns, four fewer than the minimum number needed to qualify for the NFL's statistical title.

    Davenport wasn't given the job over Antonio Chatman until the 10th game.

    During the first nine games Davenport was used mostly as a blocker for Chatman, who averaged 22.3 in 36 returns before being replaced.

    Travis Williams set the NFL and club record in 1967 with a 41.1 average. Tom Moore is next with a 33.1 average in 1960, but Davenport moved in front of Al Carmichael (29.9 in 1955) into third place on the team list.

  • Tight end David Martin is about the only player with even the whiff of a bad memory Monday from the 41-7 victory over Oakland.

    After Davenport returned the second-half kickoff 60 yards, Martin dropped a pass from Favre in the end zone behind safety Derrick Gibson that would have been a 30-yard touchdown.

    "That pass was perfect," Martin said. "I kind of looked over the wrong shoulder and looked back sort of late. He was so hot and he put us in a position to make plays. We all made our plays except for me."

    If Martin had made the catch, the next four plays leading to a field goal wouldn't have been necessary. Thus, Favre would have completed 22 of 27 passes for a career-high 427 yards and five touchdowns, leaving him with the maximum passer rating of 158.3 that is extremely rare. As it was, Favre still set a club record at 154.9.

    "Man, you're not supposed to tell me that," Martin said. "Know what I'm saying? I didn't need to know that."

  • Neither defensive coordinator Ed Donatell nor four of his players would provide a name when asked who had been the team's most valuable player on defense through 15 games.

    "We don't have any blow-out players," linebacker Na'il Diggs said. "We don't have anybody going to the Pro Bowl. We never even think about stuff like that."

    Safety Darren Sharper led the team with five interceptions, but three were on Hail Mary tosses. Cornerback Mike McKenzie had four.

    "Actually, it's a couple guys," Sharper said. "I think I'm in that group of guys who played well but I think some guys had better years than me. Me and Mike, we had good years, but we could have had better years, too."

  • Tauscher is 14 1/2 months removed from reconstructive knee surgery and has started all 16 games.

    "I'm excited about finally getting back to where I was at right tackle," he said. "I'm still not back exactly where I want to be."

    BY THE NUMBERS: 6 — The Packers had six touchdowns and two field goals on their game-opening drives this year for 48 points. In the last three weeks they've started games with touchdown drives measuring 60, 80 and 80 yards. Last year, they had just one touchdown and three field goals in 17 games.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "I think we're capable of doing some great things. Obviously, it depends and starts on how we play in our first playoff game. I think that tells everything on where we are and whether we belong and all that." — Coach Mike Sherman.

    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
    The Packers are struggling trying to defend kickoff returns. Over the last four games teams have had returns of 45, 88 and 83 yards against them.

    They definitely need an attitude and tactical adjustment to succeed in the playoffs. However, it's doubtful that the Seahawks will be able to exploit them on kickoff coverage. Kerry Carter isn't much of a returner.

    PERSONNEL/INJURY NOTES
  • G Mike Wahle suffered a broken metacarpal bone below the little finger of his left hand. He will play with a club.

  • CB Mike McKenzie (turf toe) has missed two straight games and was replaced by Michael Hawthorne. On Monday, coach Mike Sherman said McKenzie wouldn't practice before Thursday but remained optimistic about his chances to play. He is expected to try running Thursday.

  • DE Chukie Nwokorie suffered a broken bone in his wrist Sunday and will play with a cast.

  • WR Robert Ferguson (heel) was withheld from the Denver game but is expected to be ready this week. He did not practice Wednesday, but is expected to be available on Thursday.

  • LB Marcus Wilkins (calf) was hurt against Denver and appears to be doubtful this week.

  • NT Gilbert Brown (knee) was withheld against Denver. "His knee has been bothering him," coach Mike Sherman said. "Denver also stressed the low cut block and we didn't want him to get hurt." Brown did not practice Wednesday, but is expected to play Sunday.

  • WR Javon Walker (hamstring) missed practice Wednesday because of tendinitis in his hamstring. He is probable.

  • WR Donald Driver (ankle) also missed practice Wednesday but should be fine Sunday.





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