Freeman Back At Home In Green Bay

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Throughout it all, Antonio Freeman never panicked.

Not when his one-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles expired in February. Not when NFL training camps opened in July and he stayed home. Not even when the offseason turned into the regular season last weekend and he still didn't have a team to play for.

From the very beginning, Freeman felt assured that his professional career would see a ninth season. He just didn't figure on moving back to a place he'd previously inhabited for seven years.

"I was confident that something would come along that I was comfortable with," Freeman said Wednesday, just hours after re-signing with the team that drafted him in 1995. "In all of my thinking, it never crossed my mind that it would be Green Bay."

And yet in the end it was.

With at least two and possibly three members of the Packers' receiving corps unavailable this week due to injury, the Packers re-signed not only Freeman, but also Chris Jackson, who spent a month with the Packers in the 2002 preseason and is coming off a standout season in the Arena Football League.

The Packers don't expect the 31-year-old Freeman to be the same player he was in 1998, when he caught a career-high 84 passes for 1,424 yards and 14 touchdowns, but they do think he can be effective, even though he hasn't seen a live rep since January.

GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman said that in his four years as head coach, he's never seen Freeman looking trimmer than he does now at 198 pounds. And quarterback Brett Favre, who combined with Freeman for touchdowns a Packers-record 57 times from 1995-2001, said that after just one practice it was feeling like old times.

"If anything he looks better," Favre said. "I don't see any reason why we shouldn't pick up where we left off. And I know this may sound a little crazy, but I know what Free can do, and more than his talent, I like his instinctiveness and his savvy.

"I mean, from the first time he came here, he was never the tallest, he was never the fastest, he never caught the ball with his hands, but somehow he caught the ball and made plays, especially in games when it counted or in particular plays when it was do or die.

"That's when he stepped up the most, and there's no substitute for that."

Likewise, there's no substitute for Freeman's knowledge of the offense.

Offensive coordinator Tom Rossley acknowledged that the team's plays change slightly from year to year, but noted that the terminology is still mostly the same as it was two years ago. It might take Freeman a second longer to remember his route, but not to the point that it will keep him off the field.

Meanwhile, the Packers will try to play to his strengths.

"There are some routes that he runs great," Rossley said. "He's not going to run away from anybody, but he has some strong points and some weaknesses. We're going to try to bring out the good part of him."

Doing so might not be that hard. After making 52 catches as the Packers' starting receiver in 2001, Freeman made an impressive 46 for the Eagles as a third receiver last year.

Adjusting to a non-starting role was tough, Freeman acknowledged, but his signing with the Packers doesn't include demands for playing time.

Injuries to Donald Driver (neck) and Robert Ferguson (knee/ankle), could get Freeman into the starting lineup this week opposite Javon Walker, but the Virginia Tech alumnus doesn't plan to get comfortable.

"It's my assumption (that) when (Driver and Ferguson) get healthy and they're back to their normal playing speed, the ball keeps rolling: they go on with their normal roles," Freeman said. "I want to come out and get hot, make some guys miss some tackles, do whatever I can do to help this football team."

Even out of the starting lineup, Freeman believes there's a place for him to contribute in Green Bay.

He called his return to Titletown a "blessing," which might surprise some, since he left town on seemingly bitter terms in 2001, when he was waived by the Packers after a contract dispute.

Wednesday, both Sherman and Freeman insisted that their relationship is strong, and that any prior frustrations have been put aside.

"Everybody has bumps in the road," Freeman said. "But you move on from that."

In Freeman's case, he moved on so much, that he landed back home.

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