IT WAS a curious off-season for the three-time defending NFC North champions. New general manager Ted Thompson arrived from Seattle to take over the player personnel duties stripped from coach Mike Sherman, who had had a string of bad free-agent signings. During his first tour in Green Bay, from 1992 through '99, Thompson learned at the right hand of Ron Wolf, the G.M. who had returned the Packers to Super Bowl greatness. Like Wolf, he believes in building a team through the draft. Yet in his first off-season as the new architect of the team, Thompson moved cautiously in picking through free agents and the draft pool.
For instance, Green Bay had gaping holes in its defense, in particular the secondary: No team surrendered more touchdown passes (33) than the Packers last year. The run defense wasn't much better; only Arizona allowed more yards per carry. Green Bay also tied for last in the league in takeaways (15) and was hammered for 45 points or more three times. What's more, when safety Darren Sharper, the team's defensive leader and the NFL player with the most interceptions since 2000, wouldn't take a pay cut, the Packers released him and watched him sign with archrival Minnesota.
So what did the brass do to fix the defense? For the second year in a row Sherman changed coordinators, replacing Bob Slowik with Jim Bates, who held the same position with the Dolphins for the last five seasons. In shoring up its lineup, however, Green Bay did close to nothing. Thompson spent $50,000 in signing bonuses--virtually cab fare--for a pack of no-name free agents, including safeties Todd Franz, Arturo Freeman (who was cut on Aug. 14), Earl Little and outside linebacker Raynoch Thompson. No impact players came out of the draft, either: Green Bay had three picks in the top 100 but spent only one, a second-rounder on Nick Collins of Bethune-Cookman, on a defensive player.
When it was the Pack's turn to pick in the first round, at No. 24, Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers--once projected by some as the top pick in the draft--was still on the board. Thompson felt compelled to pick Rodgers given his high grade on the Packers' draft board and the team's long-term need at the position. Besides, he says, to pick a defensive end (one of Green Bay's great needs) higher than the sixth round, which is when he chose Mike Montgomery out of Texas A&M, would have been forcing the issue.
"You're right," Thompson says. "We didn't address the defense aggressively. But it was not a big year for free-agent defensive players. And you have to live with the way the draft falls sometimes. You can't force a pick at a position of need if the player's not there. When we talked to the new defensive staff and they analyzed the players we had, we felt we had some guys who haven't played up to their potential."
Thompson is counting on Bates to make sure they do so this year. The new coordinator has installed the same sort of aggressive zone-dominated scheme that produced a top 10 defense in each of his five years in Miami. He's still looking for a defensive end--perhaps the blue-collar Aaron Kampman--to be a complement to sack specialist Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and physical safeties to help a shaky set of cornerbacks. Even respected veteran corner Al Harris, who takes the opposition's best wideout each week, allowed 27 plays of 20 or more yards over the last two seasons. At the other corner, Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas, both rookies last year, proved to be poor cover players.
"There's no question we have to play error-free to be very good, and we need to find another rusher on the outside," says Bates. "But [in Miami] we had good success getting players to improve. Trace Armstrong increased his sack total in our scheme, and Adewale Ogunleye went from nowhere to 15 sacks. The pass rush will help the coverage. It always does."
In what could be quarterback Brett Favre's last season, it was odd to see that Green Bay didn't stock the pantry for a serious run at the Super Bowl. The goals, it appears, are more modest for now. "We'll be pretty good on offense and will improve on defense as the year goes on," Thompson says. "Our situation is a little bit of an unknown. But it's pretty interesting that we're the three-time defending division champ and a lot of people don't think we'll be able to compete. We do." --P.K.
Before last season Brett Favre said the only thing standing between Najeh Davenport and an 1,800-yard rushing year was Ahman Green. Well, Green's still there. But Davenport, a bruising, surprisingly fast 250-pound back, should get more carries this season if he can avoid the minor nicks that have plagued him. Davenport looked fast and strong in training camp, and the coaches are drawing up a key third-down role for him as well as plans to give Green more rest this fall.
An Opposing Scout's View: Enemy Lines
With all the great things Ron Wolf did when he was general manager, probably the biggest mistake he made was not re-signing Craig Hentrich as punter, holder and kickoff man back in 1998. That has haunted this team, and if B.J. Sander doesn't justify his third-round selection last year, the Packers will be hurting on special teams again.... Adrian Klemm is a fighter but nowhere near as athletic or talented as the guards who left, Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera.... It's a contract year for Ahman Green. That, plus the speed and power of Najeh Davenport off the bench, should give Green Bay nearly as good a running game as last year's--even with the loss of the guards.... No team has two better physical receivers with speed. Donald Driver and Javon Walker are not afraid to mix it up.... Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila might be almost as good as the defensive end Jim Bates had in Miami, Jason Taylor, but there is no one on the other side of the pass rush to scare anyone.... Ahmad Carroll killed the Packers last year. He can't keep his hands off the receiver after five yards, causing too many dumb penalties, and he has poor ball awareness and coverage technique.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2004 statistics
2004 RECORD: 10--6
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total): OFFENSE 10/3/3 DEFENSE 14/25/25
COACH: Mike Sherman; sixth season with Green Bay (53--27 in NFL)
ADRIAN KLEMM [NEW ACQUISITION]
WILL WHITTICKER (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
FG MADE 24
SACKS 13 1/2
MARK ROMAN [NEW ACQUISITION]
NICK COLLINS (R) [NEW ACQUISITION]
SACKS 4 1/2
RAYNOCH THOMPSON [NEW ACQUISITION]
NEW ACQUISITION (R) Rookie (2004 college stats) *2003 college stats PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 170)
11 at Detroit
25 TAMPA BAY
3 at Carolina (M)
9 NEW ORLEANS
16 Open date
23 at Minnesota
30 at Cincinnati
13 at Atlanta
21 MINNESOTA (M)
27 at Philadelphia
4 at Chicago
19 at Baltimore (M)
NFL rank: 17 Opponents' 2004 winning percentage: .496 Games against playoff teams: 6