The Packers let a golden opportunity slip away last year when they blew an elementary pass coverage on fourth-and-26 late in their NFC divisional game at Philadelphia and allowed the Eagles to tie a game they would eventually win in overtime. That would be a horrible loss for any team, but for Green Bay it was devastating. There is no team right now with a quarterback--running back combination as prolific as Brett Favre and Ahman Green. And while many teams talk about having a narrow window to win, the Packers mean it because Favre could retire any year and running backs who take as much punishment as Green have a short life expectancy in the league. That's why Green Bay has to play every year as if it may be the last stand for two great offensive weapons.
"We've got to develop a take-charge defense," says new defensive coordinator Bob Slowik, who replaced Ed Donatell after the Philadelphia debacle, "so we can take advantage of the time we have left with those guys."
Favre, who turns 35 next month, has shown some signs of decline--against the Eagles he threw an interception on the Packers' first possession in overtime, which led to the Eagles' game-winning field goal--but he still is one of the league's top quarterbacks. Favre's .654 completion percentage last year was his career best, and his 32 touchdown passes led the league. Green's 1,883 yards would have won the NFL rushing title in 77 of the previous 84 seasons, but his outstanding season was overshadowed by Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, who rushed for 2,066 yards. Former general manager Ron Wolf acquired Green from Seattle for cornerback Fred Vinson in 2000, Green has led all NFL backs with 5,685 rushing yards and 7,598 total yards.
The addition of Green has been a godsend for Favre. Because defenses have to spend so much energy accounting for and focusing on the speed, power and elusiveness of Green, and because Favre is getting such good protection from his line, Favre has taken much less of a beating (through he did fracture his right thumb in the seventh game last season) in recent years. In the four seasons before Green's arrival, Favre was sacked 138 times. In Green's four years Favre has been sacked 100 times.
"I know there aren't many years left for me," Favre says. "I do know if I stay healthy and Ahman does, we've got a heck of a shot to win it all. We had such confidence at the end of last year. We felt as if we could beat anybody. The thing I think we're all focused on this year is getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs. It means so much, especially here. No one here thinks we would have lost to Philadelphia if the game was in Green Bay."
Favre doesn't put a timetable on his retirement because he changes his mind about it so much. When he has to leave his 465-acre ranch in Hattiesburg, Miss., to go to training camp, the pull to stay home is a mighty one. In his younger, partying years, Favre couldn't wait to globe-trot, but nowadays it takes a lot to get him off his riding mower. "People come by my house and stare," he says. "They say, 'I ain't never seen no NFL quarterback cut grass.' Hey, maybe there's something wrong with me, but I love mowing the lawn." One day at practice last month Favre found his mind wandering back to Hattiesburg, thinking about two things: trying to figure a way to outsmart the beavers who were damming his lake and adding another feeding station for the herd of deer he has on his property.
"I have the best of both worlds right now--Mississippi in the off-season and the fun of Sundays during the season," he said. "I still love playing. And there's no doubt in my mind I can lead this team to the Super Bowl, and win it."
Favre is one of only five players remaining from the team that won the Super Bowl in January 1997. Now many of Favre's teammates are using a win-one-for-Brett motto as a motivating force. "I've got a sense of urgency to win a Super Bowl for Brett," says linebacker Na'il Diggs. "I'm going to try my damnedest to win it for him before it's his time to go."
Favre smiled when Diggs's message was relayed to him. "That's the first I've heard of that, but that's nice," he said. "I'll take that sentiment from Diggsy over any award I've ever won. I love this team. I love these guys. I think we all know we've got a real chance this year." --P.K.
PLAYER ON THE RISE
> Third-year man NAJEH DAVENPORT is emerging as the best backup running back in the NFC. As a rookie the 6'1" 250-pounder out of Miami, where he also excelled in track, averaged more yards per carry (5.45) than every other NFL back (minimum 75 attempts) except Clinton Portis at 5.49. Coach Mike Sherman plans to platoon him with Ahman Green.
ENEMY LINES An opposing scout's view
Brett Favre seems like he's getting more careless, but there's still no one I'd rather have in a pressure game.... No other team has a better one-two rushing combination than Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport. Someday Davenport might win a rushing title.... They have a superior offensive line, except Mark Tauscher can be bull-rushed effectively at right tackle.... There are times Javon Walker looks like a star, but he's not disciplined enough as a route-runner.... On defense, now that Gilbert Brown is gone, I'd be worried about the productivity of Cletidus Hunt and Grady Jackson on the inside. They're immature guys, although Jackson was great against the run down the stretch.... Nick Barnett is going to be one of the best linebackers in the league when he gets better in cover situations. He's very instinctive, fast and strong.... I worry about the secondary, with the Mike McKenzie holdout and Al Harris blowing too many coverages on the other side. I'd start at least one of the rookies, Joey Thomas or Ahmad Carroll. Thomas is a big kid who, even though he played at Montana State, is very NFL-ready.
"There are times Javon Walker looks like a star, but he's not disciplined enough as a route runner."
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2003 statistics
2003 RECORD: 10-6
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
COACH: Mike Sherman; fifth season with Green Bay (45-24 in NFL)
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year)
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 172)
13 at Carolina (M)
26 at Indianapolis
3 N.Y. GIANTS
17 at Detroit
31 at Washington
7 Open date
21 at Houston
29 ST. LOUIS (M)
5 at Philadelphia
24 at Minnesota (F)
2 at Chicago
Opponents' 2003 winning percentage: .508
Games against playoff teams: 4