Packers counting on big year from offense
Retirement talk and pending free agency have created a sense of urgency in Packers camp.
DE PERE, Wis. -- Seven months after a stunning overtime loss to the Eagles during the playoffs, the Packers can't escape the nightmare of that fourth-and-26 completion by Donovan McNabb in the fourth quarter. Then there was the Brett Favre long pass intercepted by Brian Dawkins in overtime.
Reporters and loyal Packers fans still ask about the conservative call for a three-man rush, dropping eight into coverage. They ask about the Favre pick. They still politely ask about punting and not going for a fourth-and-1 with two-a-half minutes left. Some of the principles are gone: Former defensive coordinator Ed Donatell is in Atlanta. Punter Josh Bidwell is in Tampa Bay. But the memories remain.Can the Packers recover? Arms crossed, Packers coach Mike Sherman stares down field from the secondary wondering if he's come back with the right answer. He says this is his most talented offense. He admires an athletic linebacking corps and young cornerbacks who might be factors late in the season. What he and the Packers can't shake is the chance that escaped. A chance to go to the NFC championship game slipped by. Can they get back to that point?Brett Favre led the NFL with 32 TDs passes in 2003.
Training camp opened Monday with a new attitude and new wonderment. Favre can still throw well at the age of 34 even though his broken right thumb of a year ago is never going to be he same. However, Favre was throwing the deep passes fans clamored for early last season. Javon Walker, Robert Ferguson and Donald Driver went up and grabbed those long passes. And, more than any unit, the Packers defense will hide its frustration of a year ago with a new bravado.
"We have an 'all out, give-them-hell' system to try to put pressure on offenses," safety Darren Sharper said. "We're not going to sit back and wait to react. We are going to be a more aggressive defense. We're not going to be sit back and let a team drive on us at the end the game."
Outsiders wonder if the Packers are overreacting. Though the Eagles loss was emotionally tough, the Packers have one of the youngest starting units in the league. Receivers Driver, Walker and Ferguson are 29, 25 and 24, respectively, and just touching the surface of their talents. Halfback Ahman Green is 27, just hitting his prime. Tight end Bubba Franks is 26. Tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are 28 and 27. Defensive tackle Grady Jackson is the only defensive starter in his 30s.
Insiders and teammates guess he'll stick around two or three more years even though retirement is a yearly thought and a daily question. Management locked up Ferguson to a contract extension that kept the receiving trio in tact until at least 2006, and Favre loves this group. But Favre the indestructible keeps going against the odds.
He's started 191 consecutive regular season games since 1992. Including playoffs, the streak is 208. The right thumb is permanently bent but not a factor in his throws. Still, the aches and pains don't go away as quickly. And as the quarterback goes, so go the Packers Super Bowl chances. The solution: "Go for it and go for it now."
Reality, though, is the Vikings may be on the verge of passing them and ending their two-year reign atop the NFC North. On paper, the Vikings have young, defensive playmakers the Packers have been scrambling to develop. Everyone knows the Vikings offense can match the Packers touchdown for touchdown. And it's definitely not lost on the Packers that they had to overcome a three-game deficit after the Vikings' 6-0 start to win the division.
The Packers Super Bowl or bust mentality isn't much different than the Broncos' approach during the late 1990s that resulted in two Super Bowl rings. John Elway was aging but still effective. Mike Shanahan decided to ride the legs of halfback Terrell Davis to grab the rings. However, that's the frustrating past about last season for Green Bay. The running game did its part with Green putting together an 1,883-yard, 15-touchdown season. As much as Favre and the Packers are a West Coast running team, the "Green light" is on running and the passing game is on yellow for caution.
"Our philosophy is going to be to use the running game, and we will run it against eight in the box," Sherman said. "We've got a lot of people who disguise getting that eighth guy up there. But our premise is to establish the run. Because of those runs, we work a lot of pass plays on movement, waggles, naked plays. It's misdirection."
And Favre is still the master of the disguise. For the first time last season -- possibly because of the thumb injury -- the Packers had to rely more on Favre's efficiency than his big arm. He completed only 131 passes to his three wide receivers. In the old days, he's thrown 112 to Sterling Sharpe and 102 to Robert Brooks.
“ We have an 'all out, give-them-hell' system to try to put pressure on offenses. We're not going to sit back and wait to react. We are going to be a more aggressive defense. We're not going to be sit back and let a team drive on us at the end the game.” —S Darren Sharper
"When you run the ball for 1,800 yards you ain't going to throw the ball too much," Driver said. "Everybody is looking to stop Ahman. If they try to just stop Ahman this year, guys at receiver are going to get a chance to make plays."
That's kind of what happened last year. In the opener against the Vikings, the three receivers were hurt, Driver being the most serious with a neck injury. Then came the Favre thumb injury. The Packers started relying more on Green. The more defenses stacked up against him, the more varied Sherman managed the running games.
"My goal was to get 1,500 yards," Green said. "Everybody talks about 2,000 this year, but our goal is still 1,500. You don't have to have a tremendous running game to be effective. If you have a good running game, then the passing game will take over as long as you are picking (up) five and 10 yards with the runs."
Truly, the Packers may have the most unselfish group of skilled offensive players in football. Take Walker as an example. He's worked a maniacal training regiment this offseason. His goal is to have a breakout season, and maybe even start ahead of Driver and Ferguson. The starting job was his carrot as he trained.
When he arrived at camp, Walker, who caught 41 passes for 716 yards, found out he was still No. 3. No problem. He worked harder in practice, jumping into the air to grab balls away from cornerbacks.
"We're a great offense, and I'm so excited for this year," Walker said. "We'll use three guys and the tight ends. We'll use a lot more personnel packages with the three of us. As a group, we should get respect as the top three receiver group in NFL."
No one doubts the Packers offense will cook. What everyone wonders about is the defense. Players thought Donatell became a little too conservative at times last year. Sherman apparently agreed and gave the job to Bob Slowik.
Slowik is installing a hybrid defense that stresses aggressiveness. It combines the blitzing packages of the Eagles along with the varied fronts of the Patriots.
"We're going to do more zone blitzes," Sharper said. "We'll do more all-out blitzes. We'll do more man blitzing. We still have our basic coverage, but we are going to be a lot more aggressive."
If it's four-and-26 and the game is on the line, expect an all-out blitz.
Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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