NFC North News

We're pretty sure you wouldn't want to revel in the pain of the Packers, but just in case, here is the week's happenings in Chicago, where they have a new coach, and in Detroit and Green Bay.


Lovie Smith definitely wasn't G.M. Jerry Angelo's first choice to succeed Dick Jauron as the Bears' head coach, and he may not have even been his second or third choice. But he wound up with the job.

Angelo's top candidate was his long-time friend Nick Saban, but he couldn't pry the LSU coach away from the bayou, where he's king of the football world after winning the BCS portion of the national title. Angelo also talked to California's Jeff Tedford, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz and Fresno State's Pat Hill about the Bears' job, but none of them were interested.

So, after missing the playoffs nine times in 11 years under former defensive coordinators-turned-head coaches Dave Wannstedt and Dick Jauron, the Bears went back to the defensive well a third time.

Smith, who has been the Rams' defensive coordinator for the past three seasons, agreed to a four-year contract Wednesday afternoon. Reports peg the deal at $5.4 million, which would make Smith one of the NFL's lowest-paid head coach, at an average of $1.35 million a year. Fired Buffalo Bills head coach Gregg Williams recently agreed to a $1.8 million-a-year deal to become the defensive coordinator under Joe Gibbs with the Washington Redskins.

Before joining the Rams, Smith spent the five previous seasons coaching the Buccaneers' linebackers and getting to know Angelo, who was Tampa's director of player personnel under general manager Rich McKay.

"We both had a background starting together in Tampa, especially on what we put together down there defensively — the type of guys that you play with at certain positions," Smith said. "I've known Jerry for a while, just being around someone for five years and knowing what they're looking for and things like that."

This relationship will be different.

"I haven't actually worked with him in this role," Smith said. "But I think it helps when you know someone and know a little bit about them. He knows a little bit about me and my family."

Anyone who knows Smith, knows he will bring with him the attacking style of defense that he learned under Monte Kiffin in Tampa, which helped the Rams force an NFL-best 46 turnovers this season. Smith's defense can be expected to play a lot of cover-2, with the safeties deep to prevent big plays and cornerbacks given a chance to make plays underneath.

Smith's defense was No. 2 in interceptions this season and No. 4 in sacks. In his scheme, defensive end Leonard Little accumulated 39 sacks over the past three seasons. As a team, the Bears had just 18 sacks last season.

"I think the players will be real eager to play for him," Little told Mike North and Doug Buffone on WSCR (AM-670) Wednesday night. "He's a guy you can trust. He's going to be a great one."

A bigger concern is the offense, where the care and nurturing of quarterback Rex Grossman is considered essential to the team's success. The 2003 first-round draft pick was impressive enough in three starts at the end of the season for Smith to say, "The Bears will go as he goes. I think the future can be bright with him leading."

Grossman will be playing under his fourth offensive coordinator in four years next season, but he said that's helped him assimilate different schemes rapidly and made him adaptable.

"I'm getting used to it," Grossman told WSCR. "I will be a rookie (again) in some sense, but I started three games, so I have some experience."

Smith envisions an offense similar to the Rams' but with a greater emphasis on running the ball.

"If you talk about just offensive philosophy, you look at what I've been around," he said. "Of course, my defensive philosophy is what we did in Tampa and what we've done in St. Louis. I got a chance in St. Louis to be around Mike Martz and see how an offense can work and really be a big part of what you're doing."

Smith didn't reveal any names of potential assistants when he visited Halas Hall on Tuesday. But a Rams source indicated Smith might bring St. Louis' wide receivers coach John Ramsdell along as his offensive coordinator or quarterbacks coach, and linebackers coach Bob Babich as a defensive aide. It is highly unlikely that Rams offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Steve Fairchild would leave St. Louis.

While Smith says he'll be hands-on in every aspect of the team, his area of expertise has always been and will always be defense. He has always on the defensive side of the ball, even when he coached at the college level for 13 years before coming to the NFL.

"I don't think you can ever leave what is your expertise as far as football is concerned," Smith said. "So I'll always have a hand and a special place in my heart for defensive football.

"But, from defending different offenses, I think I know a little bit about what it takes to stop them, and I will be giving my input quite a bit. I see myself being on both sides of the football, contributing as much as possible. But our coordinators will run both sides of the football."

Smith, who also with the Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills, got the nod from Angelo over the other finalist, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line coach Russ Grimm.

In addition to the four college coaches, Angelo interviewed New England Patriots defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora Jr., who got the Atlanta Falcons' head-coaching job last week.

Smith is the first black head coach in Bears history. He's also the fifth black head coach in the league, joining Dennis Green, hired two weeks ago by Arizona. The others are Herman Edwards of the New York Jets, Marvin Lewis of Cincinnati and Tony Dungy of Indianapolis. There have never been more than three black head coaches in a season before.

  • By hiring a defensive coach in Lovie Smith, the biggest concern is what type of coaching and teaching will be provided for quarterback Rex Grossman, who showed so much promise as a rookie this season.

    "I'd say we have talent here (with) Rex," Smith said. "I like him as a player. He did well at the end of the season this past year. The Bears will go as he goes. I think the future can be bright with him leading.

    "You just have to be patient with him. You have to have a good system in place for him. You have to have a good coach for him, a good quarterback coach for him, a good coordinator for him to be able to get into an offensive system that he feels comfortable in. I think we can bring that to him. If he's a young player, it can take a little bit of time for him to really get into a groove, but I think we can do that."

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Obviously we're talking about two different ends of the spectrum, but that's good, too. I didn't want to bring the same (type of candidates) into the building. I want some diversity, and we have that. I feel very good about their qualifications, given that they're two distinct people." — Bears G.M. Jerry Angelo on Lovie Smith and Russ Grimm, his two finalists to become the team's next head coach:

    After discussing the Bears' top coaching job with LSU's Nick Saban, California's Jeff Tedford, Fresno State's Pat Hill and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz - none of whom were interested - Angelo said on Tuesday that he had exhausted that avenue.

    He also explained for the first time, what transpired during his courtship of Saban.

    "I've pursued four college coaches, and all four, for varying reasons, did not want to come to the NFL," Angelo said. "I respected that, I understood it, and we moved on."

    Angelo addressed the perception that the Bears might be settling for less than their first choice, considering the rejection by Saban, who was clearly their leading candidate.

    "Yes, you always kind of have a pecking order in your mind," Angelo said. "Some had better credentials, yes, but it's got to be a good fit, too. Some of these people are working from a position of strength, and they have some really good things going on in their lives. I'm very understanding of that, and I said going into this process that I want somebody that is motivated to be our coach, and that to me is first and foremost.

    "I didn't go down there to recruit Nick to be here. I went down there to educate Nick a little bit on the NFL because we are friends and he wanted me to do that if I found the time. We didn't have a big window there because he has a great situation there and those people are very loyal to them, and he probably made his decision given that he had to make one right now and he just wasn't comfortable with it."

    COACHING CAROUSEL: While Lovie Smith was being hired to replace Dick Jauron as the Bears' head coach, some of Jauron's assistants were making the rounds.

    Defensive coordinator Greg Blache interviewed for the same position with the Pittsburgh Steelers, while quarterbacks coach Greg Olson spoke with Detroit Lions head coach Steve Mariucci about a job in Motown.

    Blache is not considered the favorite for the Steelers' job, which is expected to go to Dick LeBeau, who coached there from 1992-96, including the last two years as defensive coordinator. LeBeau was the Buffalo Bills' assistant head coach last season and the Cincinnati Bengals head coach for three years before that.

    Olson, was Mariucci's quarterbacks coach with the San Francisco 49ers in 2001, and he expects a to receive a job offer from Mariucci Thursday. But Olson said he would also talk with Bears GM Jerry Angelo today to determine if Smith is interested in retaining him to continue his work with quarterback Rex Grossman.

    Staying in Chicago would be more conducive to Olson's family situation. His wife Lissa is the men's and women's track coach at Purdue and the couple is expecting twins in April. Olson's commute between Chicago and West Lafayette, Ind., is difficult. It would be impossible between Detroit and the Purdue campus.

    "My wife would probably have to leave her job," Olson admitted. "It wouldn't be feasible. You take some chances in life, and I knew there was a chance that this would only last a year. But it could be a good opportunity to get back with Mariucci."

    With Olson as his quarterbacks coach for, Jeff Garcia threw for 3,258 yards and 32 TDs in 2001.

    Mike Sweatman, the Bears' special-teams coach the past three seasons, was named the New York Giants' special teams coordinator by new head coach Tom Coughlin on Wednesday.

    Sweatman, 56, was the Giants' special-teams coach from 1985-92 under Bill Parcells and Ray Handley. Sweatman has been to three Super Bowls, winning two with the Giants in 1986 and 1990, the latter when Coughlin was a member of the coaching staff.

    "When I was there before, the coaches were sitting around a conference table and the subject of statistics came up," Sweatman said. "Len Fontes, who coached the defensive backs, was quoting a league statistic that made his group look good. Bill (Parcells) told Len what he could do with statistics. He told him that winning is the only stat that counts. I think that is what Tom (Coughlin) is all about."

    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.


    As the NFL playoffs move toward the ultimate February 1 conclusion in Super Bowl XXXVIII, the Detroit Lions are already three weeks into their off-season.

    No more game-planning.

    No more all-day sessions in the trainers' room.

    No more thrill of victory or agony of defeat for the Lions.

    If you're a football player who values his time away from the practice facility, this is one of the advantages of playing football with the Detroit Lions.

    You have to stretch your memory to recall the last time the Lions participated in the NFL's post-season tournament. Not the last time they won a playoff game; that was back in 1991 when Wayne Fontes was the coach and Barry Sanders hadn't even thought about retiring.

    Actually, it hasn't been that long since the Lions went to the playoffs. It was only four seasons ago, in 1999 — the team's final full season under Bobby Ross. But somehow it seems like an eternity ago, and for good reason.

    Since Ross steered the Lions into the playoffs with a modest 8-8 record that led to a not-so-surprising 27-13 wildcard loss to the Washington Redskins, the Lions have had one of the most turbulent runs of any team in the NFL.

    It started with the surprising decision by Ross to retire nine games into the 2000 season, followed by owner William Clay Ford's decision to move defensive coordinator Gary Moeller into the top job and extend his contract, followed by Ford's decision to hire Matt Millen as the team president, followed by Millen's decision to dump just about everybody from the locker room to the front office and start over.

    Since then the Lions have won a not-so-grand total of 10 football games — two in 2001 and three in 2002 under Marty Mornhinweg, five in 2003 under his replacement, Steve Mariucci.

    And it appears the Lions are no closer to the playoffs now than they were when Millen took over the team that had gone 9-7 in the 2000 season.

    Mariucci is in the process of rebuilding his coaching staff. He has one new assistant — offensive line coach Pat Morris — in place with vacancies remaining at wide receiver and defensive line, and the possibility of other changes looming.

    Millen, after taking the NFL-equivalent of a mulligan on his first two years in office, has the front office operating smoothly since the promotion of Tom Lewand to executive vice president and COO.

    And although Millen has stumbled horribly in free agent decisions involving offensive players (wide receivers Bill Schroeder, Az-Zahir Hakim and guard Brenden Stai have all been major disappointments), his eye for defensive talent might have a foundation on which the Lions can build.

    Millen landed cornerback Dre' Bly (selected to his first Pro Bowl appearance this season) and middle linebacker Earl Holmes in free agency; he signed defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson after Wilkinson had been released by Washington; and he directed the draft that landed promising young linebacker Boss Bailey, defensive back Terrence Holt, defensive tackle Cory Redding and linebacker James Davis.

    Presumably Mariucci will have a greater influence in the selection of offensive players in the upcoming free agent season and draft, and perhaps the Lions will land the talent they need — a running back, a receiver capable of working the middle of the field, a full-service tight end and two guards — to begin edging their way back to the playoffs.

    Meanwhile, the playoffs roll on. And the Lions watch from the comfort of their living rooms.

  • Exactly how much progress did the Lions make in their first season under Steve Mariucci?

    The obvious — and flip — answer is simply: Not enough.

    In the only category that really means anything, they improved their victory total from three to five. A start but only half as many as they need to compete for a division title or the playoffs.

    The offense, which is considered Mariucci's area of expertise, actually took a step backwards in his first season.

    The Lions scored fewer points (270) than they did a year ago (306).

    Statistically, they dropped from 28th in the NFL in total offense to 32d, and from 29th in rushing yardage to 32d. They improved in passing from 25th in the NFL to 24th.

    The area of biggest improvement was the defense where — oddly enough — coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer might yet be replaced.

    The defense gave up fewer points (379) than it did a year ago (451).

    And statistically, they improved from 31st in the NFL in total defense to 24th; they improved from 17th best rushing defense to 15th; and they improved from 30th best pass defense to 28th.

  • Pat Morris, who was an assistant coach for six years under Mariucci at San Francisco, has joined him again as the Lions' offensive line coach.

    Morris was the first assistant hired in what could be an extensive rebuilding of the Lions' coaching staff. He replaces Carl Mauck, who was with the Lions for three seasons.

    Mariucci and Morris also coached together for a season at Southern Cal in 1986, and Mariucci is obviously comfortable putting Morris in charge of the Lions' offensive line.

    "We've known each other for a long time professionally, and we've known each other as friends for a long time," Mariucci said.

    Although the 49ers were a strong run-blocking team during Morris' tenure, Mariucci expects the Lions to be solid in every area.

    "It's not that his forte is running the ball, because he's a good protector, he's a good innovator, he's good with the schemes, he's creative and he's got a great rapport with his players."

    The Lions gave up only 11 quarterback sacks, the fewest in the NFL, but that was as much a product of quarterback Joey Harrington's quick release as it was the line's pass-blocking ability.

  • Although Jason Hanson will be 34 years old before the start of the 2004 NFL season, the Lions will not be shopping for a replacement placekicker in free agency or the draft.

    Team president Matt Millen believes Hanson has at least two or three more seasons in him. And, after Hanson's performance in 2003, it's hard to argue with Millen's theory.

    In fact, the argument might be made that Hanson had his best season — despite getting limited opportunities with the Lions' tepid offense — in 2003.

    Hanson missed only one of 23 field goal attempts all season. His only miss was a 43-yarder in the Nov. 23 game at Minnesota. He was 4-for-4 on field goal attempts from 50 yards or more and his 10 touchbacks on kickoffs placed the Lions sixth among the 32 NFL teams.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "Everything that we're going to do in terms of matching up with opponents and trying to outdo somebody is to compare ourselves with Minnesota, Green Bay and Chicago — win the division, that's the number one goal. Then, once you get into the dance, see how far you can take it with the big boys." — Lions coach Steve Mariucci on the focus of his off-season rebuilding program.

    The goal again this year is to get younger and faster. And the Lions have a number of holes to be filled.

    Coach Steve Mariucci and president Matt Millen are making the rounds of the college all-star games with stops in San Francisco for East-West practices and with the Senior Bowl workouts coming up next week, followed by the scouting combine in February.

    The offensive line is a major concern. The Lions need at least one starting guard (to replace 41-year-old Ray Brown, who is not expected back) and possibly another to compete with veteran Eric Beverly, who might be better suited to a backup guard/center role.

    It's doubtful they will find a starting caliber guard in free agency, which might mean they will have to draft one or draft a tackle and move one of their current starting tackles — Jeff Backus or Stockar McDougle — to guard.

    COACHING CAROUSEL: Offensive line coach Pat Morris, who worked with Mariucci at San Francisco, has been hired as the replacement for Carl Mauck, whose contract was not renewed.

    That leaves openings for a wide receivers coach and a defensive line coach, and there is on-going speculation the Lions will make additional changes as well.

    It is believed the Lions are waiting to see if former Chicago coach Dick Jauron is available before deciding on whether they will replace defensive coordinator Kurt Schottenheimer.

    Mike Waufle, who coached with Mariucci at California in 1996, has been listed as a possible defensive line coach. The Lions also have met with former Bears quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, who worked for Mariucci at San Francisco in 2002.

    FREE AGENT UPDATE: The free agent market has a number of quality cornerbacks coming out but some of them — including Champ Bailey of Washington — might find themselves carrying the franchise tag, which limits their availability. The Lions are hoping to find at least one potential starter among the UFAs.

    The Lions also will be watching to see what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers do with WR Keyshawn Johnson, who was inactivated for the final portion of the 2003 season. They like his toughness as a blocker and his willingness to work over the middle.

    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 teammer, 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: The Lions have so many needs they could go in just about any direction, depending on who and what is available at No. 6 in the first round.

    All things being equal, it would not be surprising if Mariucci looks for another high-impact big-playmaker to go with the Lions' first-round picks of the past two years — QB Joey Harrington in 2002 and WR Charles Rogers in 2003.

    They could use help at RB, WR, TE and OG on the offensive side, and they need; defensively they need a pass rusher, a CB and S.

    MEDICAL WATCH: Tackles Jeff Backus and Matt Joyce both have undergone elbow surgery since the end of the season and are expected to be ready for offseason workouts on schedule. Center Dominic Raiola underwent a surgical procedure to correct an irregular heartbeat and defensive end Kalimba Edwards has undergone his second surgery for a sports hernia in less than a year.


    Coach Mike Sherman held his end-of-the-season press conference Wednesday afternoon and still seemed in a state of shock.

    Yes, the Packers were a 5 1/2-point underdog Sunday in Philadelphia, but that spread was misguided. The Packers were convinced that their personnel was better, and so the 20-17 defeat in overtime was all the more hard to accept.

    "I won't watch another football game this year," Sherman said. "It'd be tough for me."

    Sherman was up at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday and in the office shortly thereafter.

    "I had to see the tape again," he said. "There's this feeling you're kicked in the guy and it won't go away."

    This game, this team and this chance will be dissected and second-guessed for as long as pro football remains a religion in Green Bay and the state of Wisconsin.

    The Packers, destiny's darlings for more than a month, met their match in Donovan McNabb's flying feet and their own deadly mistakes.

    "The way we played the last eight, nine weeks, I think we could have played with anybody, AFC or NFC," Packers President Bob Harlan said. "We're devastated. It's tough to get these chances, particularly with free agency and the salary cap."

    A host of Packers' coaches, players and scouts all said the better team had lost. The list included running backs coach Sylvester Croom, offensive line coach Larry Beightol, director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie and nose tackle Grady Jackson.

    "Woulda, coulda, shoulda," McKenzie said. "We had our chances. It's tough to swallow."

    And so now the Packers will have to live with all the what-ifs that surely will gnaw at them for the next eight months.

    This opportunity will never be forgotten.

    The Packers were better than the Eagles at every position other than the secondary and maybe quarterback and special teams. Plus, the Packers were almost injury-free with only two lousy starters (Antuan Edwards and Joe Johnson) missing whereas the Eagles were without four key starters (guard Jermane Mayberry, running back Brian Westbrook, linebacker Carlos Emmons and cornerback Troy Vincent).

    "Hardest loss I've had," offensive coordinator Tom Rossley said. "To lose a game we should have won is very difficult."

    Four plays and one coaching decision killed them.

    A late second-quarter drive of 66 yards came down to two plays from the 2, which led Croom to think at the time, "I thought we were a cinch to score."

    On third down, Najeh Davenport was stopped inches short on a weak-side counter.

    "We didn't get the kick-out block (by Nick Luchey) we needed," offensive line coach Larry Beightol said. "Najeh turned up in the first hole, which I certainly can understand. They cut us down."

    Disdaining the field goal, Sherman ran the club's signature Power-O play off right tackle on fourth down. But when right tackle Mark Tauscher was unable to block down on left defensive tackle Corey Simon, Simon was able to penetrate and knock pulling guard Mike Wahle off track. That gave middle linebacker Mark Simoneau enough of a lane to step up and pinch Green at the half-yard line.

    "Tauscher makes that block at least 90 times out of 100," Beightol said. "He missed his landmark on the guy and the guy got penetration."

    Leading, 17-14, the Packers rushed nine times on a 10-play drive, moving from their 16 to fourth and less than a yard at the Philadelphia 46 with 2 1/2 minutes left. The exhausted Eagles called their second timeout and brought out their goal-line defense for a last stand against the Packers' brutally physically offensive line.

    On the sidelines, Sherman made the decision to punt even though his short-yardage package had been as good if not better than any team in the league this season. If Ahman Green gets the first down, the game is all but over.

    Instead, Sherman opted to put the game in the hands of punter Josh Bidwell and his defense. The Packers went to the line trying to draw the Eagles offside, then watched Bidwell boot a touchback.

    "If we make it on the goal-line it's a moot point," Rossley said. "They had their goal-line personnel on the field and we didn't want to call a goal-line play out in the field."

    Beightol, Croom and center Mike Flanagan all were in agreement that the strategy was sound.

    "Hindsight is always 20-20," Flanagan said. "How many opportunities did we have out there today? You've got to look at yourself first."

    On Wednesday, Sherman said: "I did contemplate going for it. But in their goal-line (defense) there were a fair number of people in the box. If you can get a team to fourth and 26, I think you made the right call. The goal-line defense was the deciding factor for me."

    In the regular-season game between the two teams the outcome also was left in the hands of the defense and it failed. That's when the Eagles went 65 yards in eight plays for a last-minute touchdown to win, 17-14.

    Once again, that defense which Sherman placed his trust in collapsed as the Eagles went 61 yards in 12 plays to force overtime on Akers' 37-yard field goal.

    No one in Packerland ever will forget McNabb's 28-yard pass to Freddie Mitchell on a fourth-and-26.

    In a 4-1 defense, the Packers set up a four-man deep zone with Al Harris and Mike McKenzie outside and Darren Sharper and Marques Anderson inside. Linebacker Nick Barnett and nickel backs Michael Hawthorne and Bhawoh Jue were underneath.

    "We were in ‘quarters' coverage," defensive coordinator Ed Donatell said. "The guy (McNabb) stepped up and needled the seam. Shouldn't happen. We had a defense designed to stop that. Our underneath people can play deeper in that situation and our four-deep guys need to make a play."

    Barnett made a stupid, rookie mistake, leaving the middle to cover the tight end, essentially ruining the coverage. Jue was the only one in the secondary who reacted well, coming from the other side of the field to almost break it up. All he got for his trouble was blame from those who thought the defender closest to the ball was at fault.

    Also, Hawthorne should have done a much better job of trying to re-route Mitchell, and Sharper made a late, late break on the ball in front of him.

    "The fact the linebacker (Barnett) got no depth contributed to the football being thrown in 2.8 seconds," Sherman said. "They max protected and we rushed four. I feel it was the right call."

    After winning the toss the Eagles quickly had to punt. On the first play, the Packers called a two-man route with Javon Walker running deep on the right sideline. The Eagles brought more than the Packers could pick up.

    That's when Brett Favre made his first killer mistake since the Chicago game Dec. 7. With three rushers in his face (safety Michael Lewis came outside on an unblocked blitz, Bubba Franks missed his block on Ike Reese and Mike Flanagan blew his block inside on Corey Simon), Favre threw a horrible pass deep and far over the head of Walker. Brian Dawkins returned the easy interception 35 yards and the rest was history.

    "The options are a sack and possible fumble or you try to throw it out of bounds or you try to make a play," backup Doug Pederson said. "(Dawkins) saw Brett throw it up and made a play. (Favre) didn't say a word. He just came over to the sidelines. He just couldn't believe it."

    Said Sherman Wednesday: "I talked to Brett Sunday for 20 or 25 minutes and Monday for 45. He's as resilient a player as there is. He felt we were going to the Super Bowl.

    "We knew we had missed an opportunity. They don't come often enough. Oh, I'll get this opportunity again. Trust me."

  • Coach Mike Sherman's keen interest in old stadiums and NFL history meant a field trip in downtown Philadelphia Saturday morning for the players. They conducted their customary walk-through practice at Franklin Field, the historic venue where in 1960 coach Vince Lombardi lost his only playoff game.

    It was a saving tackle by middle linebacker Chuck Bednarik of fullback Jim Taylor at the Philadelphia 8 on the last play of the game that gave the Eagles a 17-13 victory over the Packers in the NFL Championship Game.

    Franklin Field opened in 1895, the same year it became home to the University of Pennsylvania Quakers. It is the oldest stadium still being used in college football. The seating capacity is 52,958.

    The Eagles played there from 1958-'70 and compiled a 42-45-1 record, including the victory over Green Bay in the only playoff game.

    Franklin Field also occupies a rung in Sherman's memory bank. His first college interview was at Penn in 1981. He got the job, too, and was set to live in an apartment adjacent to the stadium when he accepted a graduate assistant's post at the University of Pittsburgh.

    "I also was going to work at a racetrack nearby," Sherman said. "Then I ended up going to Pittsburgh instead of Penn. It all transpired within a month."

  • Center Mike Flanagan hadn't read in its entirety an opinion column regarding Brett Favre that appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News last Thursday. Nevertheless, he was outraged by the gist of it.

    Written by Don Russell, the column itemized some of the less memorable moments in Favre family history. Russell referred to Favre as "Saint" Brett and mocked the notion that the death of Irvin Favre Dec. 21 has had some bearing on the Packers' playoff fortunes.

    "The guy's a scumbag," Flanagan said. "I'm embarrassed to be the same species that man is. You don't do that. Involving his family is so classless."

  • Former Packers general manager Ron Wolf was in Miami last week to discuss a possible job with the Dolphins.

    "Miami wants me to do something for them but I told them I'm not interested in doing anything on a full-time basis," Wolf said. "I just plain don't want to. I feel fine. I'm just not going back full-time."

    Wolf, 65, left the Packers in May 2001. His three-year contract as a consultant expires in May.

    Last spring, Wolf spent much of March going to spring-training baseball games in Florida. He lives part of the winter at his home in Jupiter, Fla.

    "Where my place is is not that far from where their place is," Wolf said. "But I kind of enjoy second-guessing everything."

  • Running backs coach Sylvester Croom left the Packers feeling sick about the loss to the Eagles but proud of the way his star pupil, Ahman Green, cured his fumbling problem this season.

    When Green fumbled twice against the Eagles in Week 9, he had seven for the year (five lost). As it turned out, those were his last fumbles of the season.

    On Sunday, Green had 25 rushes and three pass receptions without a fumble. Thus, he ended the season without a fumble in his last 246 touches.

    "He and I talked about it at the time," Croom said. "I said, ‘If we don't fumble the football, we'll make it to the Super Bowl.' He took it upon himself not to do it anymore."

    Green rushed for 156 yards, breaking the Packers' playoff record of 116 set by Dorsey Levens against San Francisco in January 1999.

  • Stan Drayton, the Packers' quality control coach on offense and special team assistant from 2001-'03, is leaving to join Croom's staff at Mississippi State as running backs coach. Drayton, 33, previously coached running backs at Allegheny College, Eastern Michigan, Pennsylvania and Villanova.

    Croom will install the same offense that the Packers are using. Croom said that he might call the plays but hasn't decided.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "That's going to be the worst NFC Championship Game. I mean, (expletive), Carolina's got a defense. Their front four, they are legit. They are the best in football. But other than that, they're nothing. They're not the ‘Greatest Show on Turf.' They're not this, they're not that. It's two teams that are playing that game that we could beat. I mean, we didn't. We've got no one to blame but ourselves." — C Mike Flanagan.

    The Packers signed punter-kickoff man Travis Dorsch over the weekend and placed linebacker Marcus Wilkins on injured reserve.

    The king-sized Dorsch, 6-6 and 221, was a fourth-round draft choice out of Purdue by the Cincinnati Bengals in 2002. The Bengals cut Dorsch that summer, then brought him back for one game in his rookie year.

    In that game, Dorsch had two line-drive punts returned for touchdowns.

    The Bengals waived him on the last cut this year. He spent time on New England's practice squad late this season before being waived Dec. 15.

    His contract with the Packers includes no signing bonus but goes through the 2004 season.

    "He can do both, punt and kick off," director of pro personnel Reggie McKenzie said. "Strong leg. His deal is he hasn't done it and he's so erratic. If we can get the guy to calm down and be more consistent, you might have something there."

    The Packers have a decision to make on punter Josh Bidwell, who will become an unrestricted free agent in March. If Dorsch were to become their punter and also be able to kick off, it would relieve Ryan Longwell of the weakest part of his game.

    COACHING CAROUSEL: Packers President Bob Harlan confirmed the obvious in mid-December when he said that Mike Sherman would return in the dual role as coach and general manager.

    The only change that must be made is at running back, where Sylvester Croom became head coach at Mississippi State. Director of Player Development Edgar Bennett worked side-by-side with Croom for the last three seasons, and basically coached the backs when Croom wasn't around late in the week over the past month.

    "I have some names for that job I may interview," Sherman said. "Edgar is a candidate for that job. My only concern is he's so valuable in that locker room in his current position. He's the best I could ever have in that job. The No. 1 reason we have such great chemistry is because of Edgar Bennett."

    Sherman refused to discuss the future of his other assistants.


    Unrestricted free agents — P Josh Bidwell (had an OK year and the Packers want him back at their price), T Chad Clifton (will command a signing bonus in range of $10 million, which the Packers will try to come up with), S Antuan Edwards (low-grade starter expected to hit market), WR Antonio Freeman (served his purpose but 50-50 if he returns), DB Michael Hawthorne (dime back most of year and team wants back), QB Doug Pederson (Brett Favre's buddy), DT Larry Smith (had his best year as a pro and wants to return in rotation), T-G Marcus Spriggs (didn't play a down, team doesn't care if he returns or not), TE Wesley Walls (played OK and wants to return, but club isn't sure).

    Restricted free agents — S Curtis Fuller (marginal player), CB Bhawoh Jue (was burned a lot but still has potential), LB Torrance Marshall (welcome back), TE David Martin (welcome back), NT Rod Walker (unlikely to return).

    FEELING A DRAFT: The Packers are supposed to have the 25th pick in the first round. On Wednesday, coach Mike Sherman said he easily could take a quarterback early. They also need defensive linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties, plus a returner.

    MEDICAL WATCH: QB Brett Favre will not need thumb surgery ... CB Chris Johnson (knee cartilage) is making a good recovery ... NT Rod Walker will need arthroscopic knee surgery and surgery on both shoulders ... S Bryant Westbrook (torn Achilles) is working out in Houston and hopes to return ... NT Gilbert Brown has a shoulder problem and needs a knee scope ... NT Grady Jackson will have a scope on a pre-existing condition in his right knee ... DE Chukie Nwokorie underwent surgery for a broken wrist Wednesday ... G Marco Rivera probably will have a knee scope after the Pro Bowl ... S Darren Sharper might have scopes done on his right knee and right foot ... T-G Marcus Spriggs will under a scope on his shoulder Friday ... WR Javon Walker has shoulder and knee problems and will have a scope done on each ... CB James Whitley has a foot injury and will see a specialist.

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