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Optimism Reigns On Both Sides Of The Ball


As the Green Bay Packers cleaned out their lockers on Monday to officially conclude the 2006 season, there was a hint of regret with narrowly missing an NFC playoff berth, particularly because the team was hot and may have had a chance to make a postseason run.

But the predominant feeling was that of optimism, as the team takes a four-game winning streak into the off-season with the belief that the foundation has been laid for another step forward in 2007.

"I would have loved to be in the playoffs," center Scott Wells said. "The momentum we were building with our four-game winning streak, the way the defense is playing right now, I think we'd have a good opportunity in the playoffs, but it wasn't in the cards for us.

"The most important thing we could have done is finish 8-8, 5-1 in the division, which is huge, and really give us a boost in the off-season, give our fans something to be excited about."

That they have, on both offense and defense. While the growth of a young offensive line was the overriding story on that side of the ball, an improving defense that played by far its best football in December and has the makings of a dominant unit in the future.


The Packers played three rookies - draft picks Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz and Tony Moll - throughout the season along with veteran tackles Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton, and Wells at center. The hope is that the roughest of the growing pains are now behind them, and that going through those now will pay dividends as soon as next season.

"People don't start three rookies on the offensive line, that's unheard of in this league, and we did and we still held our own," said outgoing offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski, who leaves for his head coaching job at Boston College on Wednesday. "We ended up being 8th in the league in total offense, and that is those young kids coming along. You could see their development. I think this will be invaluable for the Packers, playing those young kids."

It remains to be seen if the experience they gained has the Packers on the verge of developing an offensive line that can match the continuity and production of the unit from 2001 through 2004 that was considered one of the best in the league.

But everyone is anxious to find out. Adding strength will be an emphasis in the off-season, and all the rookies are sure to put in the work.

"I feel like we're building in the right way," Tauscher said. "Production is not what we were then, and there's a lot of things we need to improve upon, but if you're asking me this question last year at this time, I would have said we were kind of in disarray, because we didn't really know what we were doing.

"We had some guys we were trying to plug in to replace guys. It wasn't really a case where we were building anything, it was kind of like we were stop-gapping. Now we got a really great group of rookies came in and contributed and that's a huge reason we were able to finish 8-8."

Even with some of the offensive struggles in the red zone and with turnovers, the confidence of the young players continued to grow as the season went on, and that as much as anything will provide valuable carry-over to 2007.

"I think we made some tremendous strides," Moll said. "Definitely our showing from the preseason in our first couple games, there were a bunch of questions there what was going to happen. I think we had to come together as a team and the players and we had to turn it around ourselves.

"I think these last four games we showed we have the players and the capability to win games. It was just in ourselves, and I think we found it."


The defense found an even greater level of continuity and finished the season playing dominant football. Plagued by big plays and communication breakdowns off and on for three months, the defense allowed only one touchdown in the last three games and held all three NFC North opponents to single digits on the scoreboard in December.

{sportsad300}As the season wound down, players continued to credit defensive coordinator Bob Sanders for holding the unit together and experiencing success.

"They never swayed from the things they were teaching us," defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. "Coach never doubted us. He still believed in us. He always told us we could be one of the best defenses in the league.

"Coach Sanders never really changed even though we were having an up and down year. He just knew we were going to pull it together soon, and he was right, we pulled it together."

Under Sanders, the Packers will be running the same defensive scheme next year for the third season in a row, and if a contract situation or two are able to be worked out (defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins may soon be a restricted free agent), they could potentially have all the same players manning the unit.

That could eliminate, or at least reduce, much of the getting-used-to-each-other that was needed with essentially five new starters at the beginning of 2006.

"Any type of group dynamics, it takes a while for everyone to get their feet wet," five-year veteran defensive end Aaron Kampman said. "You look around at the names in the locker room here, it's changed a lot when I first got here. Hopefully we can keep a lot of these names up for a while and keep building together. That's how teams continue to have consistency and hopefully have success."

Added Jenkins: "If we're able to keep our same group together, and everybody is used to each other and everybody trusts each other, we'll come back with the momentum we had and everybody will know that we can do it."

That could mean the defense's climb from near the bottom of the league rankings to the upper half in the season's last month is only the beginning of the ascension.

"Our goal is to be the best defense," Pickett said. "We were already talking about it on the plane on the way home after the Chicago game. It brings excitement to the off-season because we do have the potential to be one of the best defenses in the league, and that's our goal next year -- to be No. 1."

Packers pick 16th in 2007 NFL Draft (2007 NFL Draft Order)

The league has informed the Packers that they will have the 16th pick in the first round of the NFL Draft in April.

The Packers tied at 8-8 with six other non-playoff teams and will draft fourth within that group of seven based on an even .500 strength of schedule. Packers' opponents finished with a 128-128 record in 2006. Three 8-8 teams had weaker strengths of schedule - St. Louis at .465, Carolina at .473 and Pittsburgh at .496 - and will draft 13th through 15th, respectively. Three teams had stronger schedules - Jacksonville at .531, Cincinnati at .535 and Tennessee at .570 - and will draft 17th through 19th, respectively.

The N.Y. Giants were the only 8-8 team to make the playoffs and therefore were not included in this tiebreaking scenario. The Giants' draft position will depend on their playoff finish, but will be no higher than 20th.

After the first round, the seven 8-8 non-playoff teams will rotate draft positions. In the second round, St. Louis will move from 13th down to the bottom of the group at 19th, with everyone else moving up one slot. That rotation will continue throughout the draft.

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