McKenzie Hopes Return Is Sweet


Some things at 1265 Lombardi Ave. look a little different than the last time Keith McKenzie saw them through Packers eyes. Make that, a lot different.

Less than three years have passed since McKenzie's last full season with the Packers ended in 1999, but in that time the architectural geography of the Packers' home has changed drastically thanks to the $295 million Lambeau Field redevelopment project, which is still in progress.

"This place is unreal," McKenzie said, marveling at the Packers' new facilities after re-signing with the club Wednesday. "When I came in here for the visit, I was looking around and I couldn't believe how everything has changed, updated so modern."

But some things haven't changed. Just like in his rookie season of 1996, the former third-round draft choice out of Ball State joins a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

And he joins them at a time when the stakes couldn't be higher, with the Packers set to go on the road to Tampa Bay for the rights to the NFC's best record.

Of course, it's also a time when the Packers' defensive line includes a collection of walking wounded. Vonnie Holliday (knee) is listed as questionable this week. Cletidus Hunt (knee), having missed the past two games, is probable. Aaron Kampman is listed as probable as well, of course he'll have to play with a protective 'club' on his broken right hand.

"I thought we needed some more depth on our defensive line, quality depth. I thought Keith could add that to us," GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman said. "It was evident the other day (at Minnesota) we didn't get at the quarterback very well. Part of that had to do with, when we were down our defensive linemen, guys played a lot more snaps than they're used to playing.

"I think Kabeer (Gbaja-Biamila) was up over 54, 55 snaps. That's a lot. To be effective as a rusher, that's stretching it a bit. I think (McKenzie) will give us some nickel and dime stuff, but maybe helping us out on the run game as well."

After a frustrating opening of the 2002 season with the Chicago Bears in which he was used primarily on rushing downs, the thought of flying toward the quarterback is like music to McKenzie's pinned-back ears.

In four games with the Bears, he recorded 8 tackles.

"When I got (to Chicago), I was told I was going to play right end, they were going to let me rush on third down," McKenzie said. "When it all got said and done, they moved me to left end and had me playing first and second down.

"I never really got a chance to rush the quarterback. That was the problem, because that's one thing I love to do is rush the quarterback and they didn't give me a chance to do that."

Over his last two seasons in Green Bay in 1998 and '99, McKenzie played all 16 regular season games and came up with 8 sacks per. He got 8.5 sacks the following year in his first full season as a starter with the Cleveland Browns.

But in 2001 he went down with an ankle injury that put him on injured reserve after seven games. McKenzie signed with the Bears in May, but said the system played against his strengths.

"I finally got into a situation in Cleveland where they were letting me run off the ball and use my athletic ability and be an edge rusher," McKenzie said. "Chicago is not that type of deal. You can see why their D-linemen never really put up big sack numbers, because they don't really put you in a position where you can get pressure and get sacks. Nothing against Chicago, I just didn't think it was a good fit for me."

McKenzie hopes that his return to the Packers will like coming back to home, sweet home.

His knowledge of the playbook will be limited at first. So, too, might be his snaps, depending on how quickly Holliday's knee recovers from athroscopic surgery. But McKenzie insists that his injured ankle is no longer an issue and that he's ready to contribute as asked.

"This is the best team in the league," McKenzie said. "When they called me, I was the happiest I've been all year. When they called me and told me they wanted me back here I was like, how soon can I get here?"

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