Butler: The Pack Is Back

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Training camp is here again and just like every other Packers fan, I can't wait to get the 2004 season going!

This week got started off on a sad note with the tragic death of Mark Hatley, and I'd like to express how deeply saddened I was when I heard the news of his passing. I'd like to thank the fans for all the nice comments as many people have called me or talked to me in the airport to offer their condolences.

Whenever someone in the Packer family passes away, it's tough for everybody. That's one thing I love about this team, that the fans take it very personally.

Mark was a fun guy to be around. I got a chance to spend time with him in the offseason at the combine interviewing players. He was a very smart guy, he knew his stuff. The Packers were very lucky as a team to have a guy of that caliber, and to lose him is a big blow to the organization.

I know that myself, as well as all of you will have his wife, Claudia, and the rest of his family in our minds for a long time to come.

As for the dawn of the new season, we're all ready to turn the page and get moving in the right direction in 2004. We were all disappointed with the way things ended back in January, but we have to move on because this is a new season. We don't have time to sit and think about Philadelphia when we've got Carolina staring us right in the face on Monday Night Football. You don't want to have a lingering effect, for that to carry over into a new season. You've got to have a short memory and move on.

I think the fans will be very excited to see that the Packers are going to have a very different defense this year, a defense that will be very smart and very aggressive. I think you'll see that the Packers are going to be in games at the end and be able to win games on defense. Everyone knows what our offense is capable of doing, but we're in it to win it on defense.

When you look at the Super Bowl teams from the last four or five years, they've all had pretty good defenses. That's the formula -- you want to have a good defense as well as a healthy offense and you'll be able to win any game.

I think people are going to want to pay money to see the Packers defense play. They're going to be smarter, faster, and more athletic. Bob Slowik has a great scheme and this is going to be a defense to watch.

This year's team has a chance to be great and a big part of that is that they were able to bring back so many guys from last year. In fact, the Packers have the most returning starters in the NFL this year.

But let's start with defense first. Grady Jackson was just uncontrollable in the middle, and the Packers have all three linebackers (Barnett, Diggs and Navies) returning.

In the secondary, you've got to feel like the Packers have a chance. Although Mike McKenzie's not there right now, you bring back Darren Sharper, a Pro Bowl caliber guy, Al Harris, who's playing at the top of his game, and Marques Anderson. All of these guys went through that tough time last year and they know what it takes to win games.

But then you add guys like the two draft picks -- Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas -- and a few other guys such as Mark Roman sprinkled in there, and you've got a formula for success.

Offensively, that's where the Packers' strength is. They've got all five front line guys back, which could be trouble for the NFC, really for anybody on the schedule. Ahman Green, who I think is the best running back in the league, not just because he's my boy, but statistically he's the best running back and Brett Favre are both in wonderful shape. And the receivers, I think, are one of the best top three groups in the league. Packers fans should be very excited about what they could do this year.

Behind Green, the Packers have one of the deepest running back corps too. Najeh Davenport -- nobody wants to tackle that guy. One of the best things John Bonamego could have done last year as special teams coach was to put him back on kickoff returns because this guy is big, strong and fast, and you saw that against the San Diego Chargers. On third down you get Tony Fisher, a guy who's very elusive, can catch the ball out of the backfield and cause match-up problems for linebackers.

In addition to Davenport, the Packers are strong on special teams, with guys like Paris Lenon and Robert Ferguson. Those guys make the Packers special teams really go, and they still have the best kicker in the league in Ryan Longwell.

Punter B.J. Sander, one of the Packers' third-round draft picks, is really going to get thrown into the fire in his first season. But I think he will be able to pin teams deep, and that hasn't been one of the Packers' strengths in the past. If you're punting from your own 45, you want to keep teams inside the 20 and make them have to go 80 or 90 yards to score, and I think Sander is capable of doing that very well.

Overall, I'm very optimistic about this team. I'm glad they start out with Carolina and have a chance to measure themselves against a team that was just in the Super Bowl to see where they're at. As I look at this roster, I get very excited about what the Packers could potentially be if they just believe in themselves and do as Coach Sherman said, 'Let's turn the page and let's get moving.'

But before they see Carolina, they have to put in their time in training camp. That's always an exciting time. For the young guys, this is a chance to make an impression on the coaches and their new teammates. For the veterans, it's always great to be back around the guys after the offseason.

If I'm a young guy right now, I'm thinking of how I can make the team on special teams. That's how Ferguson made his name. He was a monster on special teams, now he's the starting wide receiver and he's a great example to these younger guys.

They're used to being heroes in college. Well guess what, you're not the hero anymore. You're on a team that's filled with athletes who have already been the hero in the pros, so you've just got to fit in. Sometimes that's on special teams. You can't mope around just because you're not starting. You've got to find a way to help your team win.

As a veteran, you've been doing this for so long, training camp can sometimes get kind of monotonous, but the fun thing about it is you get to enjoy your teammates and get the chance to work towards that one ultimate goal.

Packers' training camps were always a lot of fun, and I think that's what most guys like. When you go ones against ones and twos against twos, it puts you in game-type situations right away. That's why some teams get left behind; they don't put their guys in game situations.

The Packers' focus for 2004 is to get out to a fast start. Even in training camp, they'll look to get off to a fast start the first day. In this division, if you can get out with a quick start, you can pretty much own your own destiny. The Packers were only a few plays away from maybe getting to the championship game last year, so now they have to win the games they're supposed to win. It's going to be a lot of fun watching the Green and Gold this year.

I'm glad I'm back with Packers.com again this year and I want to thank all you fans. It was a lot of fun last year. Soon, we'll start up the Q&As and I look forward to your questions. You had some great ones last year, and I'm just ready to get it started. It's football time, I know you're excited and so am I.

*LeRoy Butler played 12 seasons for the Green Bay Packers, helping them to two Super Bowls and earning NFL All-Decade Honors for the 1990s, before retiring in July 2002. This season Butler is again providing exclusive analysis to Packers.com beginning with training camp and later with a breakdown of the upcoming game on Saturdays, followed by a column and Q&A session on Tuesdays during the preseason and regular season.

Butler's autobiography, 'The LeRoy Butler Story ... From Wheelchair to the Lambeau Leap,' is available on his website, leroybutler36.com.

Butler will also be appearing at Lambeau Field during training camp, Friday, Aug. 13, to sign copies of his book, which will be available for purchase at that time.*

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