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Clifton's Future 'Up In The Air'


Of the Green Bay Packers' starting offensive linemen, Chad Clifton is the most unassuming by far.

During the season when media members flock to the lockers of Mike Flanagan, Marco Rivera, Mark Tauscher and Mike Wahle -- four of the most engaging and quotable players on the team -- Clifton usually remains mum. And that's if he bothers to walk into the locker room at all.

In fact, if it weren't for Warren Sapp's blindside hit that landed Clifton on injured reserve in 2002, it's likely that even the most die-hard of fans wouldn't know much about the Packers' starting left tackle of the past four seasons.

But even Clifton's quiet nature won't keep his name out of the headlines in the coming months, as he enters an offseason in which he'll be the most coveted of the Packers' unrestricted free agents.

True to form, as the 2003 season came to a close Clifton didn't have much to say about the possibility of his returning to Green Bay in 2004. But what he did say left room for hope.

"It's really up in the air," Clifton said last week, shortly after the Packers' season-ending team meeting. "I want to be back. I do believe (the Packers) want me back. But the business part of it, we'll have to see."

Young, agile left tackles are always of interest in the NFL market, but from Clifton's perspective there couldn't be a better time to head into free agency.

One season after Sapp's hit reduced him to a career-low nine starts in 2002, the 27-year-old Clifton played every snap of the Packers' 2003 season, including playoffs.

In that span, he protected the blind side of one of the NFL's greatest quarterbacks, Brett Favre, who was sacked a career-low 19 times in the regular season, 12 below his professional average.

Meanwhile, Clifton also played into the record-setting success of the Packers' running game, which -- paced by Ahman Green's 1,883 yards -- established a team rushing record of 2,558 yards during the regular season.

For those reasons and more, the Packers have a vested interest in Clifton. But they won't be the only bidders, and Clifton's future with the organization may come down to the Packers' abilities to come up with the right price.

"We want Chad back," center Mike Flanagan said, "everyone in this building will tell you that. But at the same time, Chad has to do what's best for him and his family.

"If the numbers are close, hopefully he would come back (to Green Bay). But if someone's offering him $1 million or $2 million more a year, (Clifton's) got to go, and no one will question it. Even (GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman) will tell him that.

"You don't get many shots at the money, and this league will cut you up and spit you out when you're done. So you get it when you can get it."

No player understands that latter factor more than Clifton.

This January, Clifton is in demand. Last January, he was incapacitated.

Sapp's hit during Brian Kelly's interception return in a November 2002 meeting with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers left Clifton bedridden for weeks and cast a shadow of doubt over his future.

But after 2003's performance, the road ahead is bright.

Clifton isn't expected to require any offseason surgery and should enter the 2004 season stronger than ever.

When he does, the Packers hope he'll be dressed in green and gold. But if he isn't, his teammates will understand.

"I told Chad to do what's best for him," guard Mike Wahle said. "We hope he's back, don't get us wrong, (but) if he can get a good deal somewhere else then he's got no reason to stay."

As Clifton left the Packers locker room for the offseason, he was focused less on the future than the immediate past -- still thinking about the opportunity the Packers let slip away in the NFC divisional playoffs.

But as the only unrestricted free agent among the Packers' 2003 offensive starting lineup, Clifton is the key to bringing the record-setting unit back at full strength.

"If we're fortunate to get everybody back here next year, there are a lot of things that could happen," Clifton said. "I want to be back. (Sherman) wants me back. It's the business side we have to deal with, crunching numbers and seeing what's available.

"The next few months should be interesting."

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