THE GAME: With the faithful's high expectations swirling about them, the Green Bay Packers subject their own lofty hopes to competitive exposure for the first time Saturday night (August 10) when they launch their 2002 preseason schedule on the road.
Appropriately, it will find Mike Sherman's forces facing a substantial test in their debut, an invasion of Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium to take on last year's NFC Eastern Division champions, the Eagles.
Kickoff is set for 6:35, CDT (Wisconsin time).
More than 60,000 tickets have been sold for the contest, which will see ex-Packers coaching aide Andy Reid hosting his former team for the first time since taking over as the Birds' head coach in 1999.
Although this one will not count in the standings, Sherman will be in a position to mount a 2-and-0 record against Saturday's coaching opponent, having registered the first victory of his NFL head-coaching career at the Eagles' expense - a 6-3 decision - in Week Three of the 2000 season (September 17).
THE TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Saturday night's preseason opener will be televised over the state-wide Packers television network: WBAY-TV (Channel 2), the originating station; WISN-TV (Channel 12, Milwaukee); WISC-TV (Channel 3, Madison); WSAW-TV (Channel 7, Wausau); and WKBT-TV (Channel 8, La Crosse). It also will be aired "live" in Michigan's Upper Peninsula via Charter Communications in Escanaba and Marquette.
Chris Roth, WBAY-TV sports director, will call the play-by-play and Fox Sports Network analyst and former Packers lineman Bill Maas, new to the Packers network booth this year, will provide the analysis. Andy Kendeigh of Milwaukee's WISN-TV will report from the field.
The game also will be aired over the Packer Radio Network, with Milwaukee's WTMJ, the flagship station, beginning its 74th season of broadcasting Green Bay's games. Wayne Larrivee and Larry McCarren jointly begin their fourth season at the network microphones, Larrivee handling the play-by-play and McCarren, who as a player started more games than any other center in Packers history, providing the analysis and commentary.
The Packer Radio Network encompasses 72 stations in five states - Upper Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa and North Dakota in addition to Wisconsin.
IT'S BEEN A LONG, LONG TIME: For the Packers, Saturday night's matchup will mark their first preseason visit to the Philadelphia area since 1945, when Harry Truman was occupying the White House. On that occasion, September 13 of '45, they played before a huge crowd of 90,218 fans in Philly's Municipal Stadium - the largest throng ever to see the Green and Gold play a preseason game against an NFL opponent - while bowing to the Eagles, 28-21.
Overall, it was - and remains - the second-largest crowd to sit in on a Packers preseason contest in the team's history. Two weeks earlier (August 30, 1945), they had, as reigning champions of the NFL, defeated the College All-Stars at Chicago's Soldier Field, 19-7, before 92,753 witnesses. Thus, combined with the 90,218 who sat in on their game against the Eagles a fortnight later, it meant that the Packers had played in front of 182,971 fans in back-to-back games.
The Green and Gold's only other previous and bona fide preseason meeting with the Eagles, curiously enough, drew only 10,000 fans - to Milwaukee's State Fair Park on September 7, 1941, a day on which Green Bay prevailed, 28-21.
For the record, two years later - on September 11, 1943 - the Packers played a preseason game against the Phil-Pitt Steagles, representing a one-year merger of the Eagles and Steelers, in Pittsburgh. The Packers emerged from that one with a 28-10 victory.
From the historical perspective, Saturday night's contest will mark the Packers' final visit to Philly's Veterans Stadium. "The Vet," which opened in 1971, will be replaced in 2003 by a shiny new venue, Lincoln Financial Field, a 66,000-seat structure currently under construction.
THE SERIES: The Packers own a substantial lead in their regular-season rivalry with the Eagles, having won 22 games while losing only 9 over the 68-year history of the series.
The Birds, however, have had a little better of it in recent seasons, posting five victories in their last nine meetings - the most recent a 10-9 decision in the City of Brotherly Love in 1997.
The series was launched in 1933, the year Philadelphia was awarded an NFL franchise under the ownership of Bert Bell, later to become the league's commissioner. The Packers swept a home-and-home series that year, winning their very first meeting, 35-9 at Green Bay (October 29) and then posting a 10-0 shutout in their rematch in Philadelphia (December 3).
In postseason play, however, the Eagles can point with pride to a victory in the only such meeting between Saturday night's principals, having shaded the Packers, 17-13, in the 1960 NFL championship game in Philadelphia's Franklin Field.
THE HEAD COACHES: In just two years' time, thoroughgoing Mike Sherman has positioned himself among the most successful head coaches in Packers history. Possessor of a 21-11 regular season record as Green Bay's field leader, he has matched Vince Lombardi's won-lost record for his first 32 games as Green Bay's head coach and general manager and, in the process, become only the fourth head coach in team annals to own a winning career record. The others: team founder E.L. "Curly" Lambeau, Lombardi and Mike Holmgren.
A head coach for the first time at any level, Sherman debuted in 2000 by leading the Packers to a 9-7 record, finished off with a sweep of the Packers' four NFC Central Division rivals, a rare accomplishment.
And, despite assuming the additional and imposing responsibilities of executive vice president and general manager following Ron Wolf's retirement, he escorted the Green and Gold to an impressive 12-4 record in 2001, marking only the seventh time in the club's 81-year history that a Green Bay team has won as many as 12 games in a season.
The 46-year-old New Englander enhanced that substantial achievement by leading the Packers into the postseason, where they forged a 25-15 triumph over the San Francisco 49ers in a wild card playoff before falling to the Super Bowl-bound St. Louis Rams on the road, 45-17.
Sherman, the first man to shoulder his tri-cornered role since Lambeau last functioned in those capacities in 1949, has brought multiple credentials to his responsibilities. They include a Super Bowl following the 1997 season, during which he was a member of the Holmgren staff that led the Packers into Super Bowl XXXII against the Denver Broncos at San Diego.
It was to be the first of three consecutive years in the playoffs for the Central Connecticut State University alumnus, who returned to the postseason with the Packers in 1998 and as the offensive coordinator on Holmgren's Seattle Seahawks staff in 1999.
The Massachusetts-born mentor, now in his 25th year in his profession, launched his coaching career at Stamford, Conn., High School in 1978. He went on to coach in the college ranks for 16 years - including a year as offensive coordinator at Holy Cross and terms as offensive line coach at such highly esteemed programs as UCLA and Texas A&M.
The Eagles' Andy Reid , who has been an NFL head coach a year longer than Sherman, also has had impressive success in the role. Since taking over in 1999, leaving the Packers to succeed Ray Rhodes at the "Vet," he has turned the Birds into one of the league's elite teams, last season leading Philadelphia to its first NFC East Division title since 1988.
Reid's Eagles also reached the NFC Championship game for the first time since 1980 and tied the club's all-time record for postseason victories with three, joining Greasy Neale and Dick Vermeil.
After posting a 5-11 mark in his first season, Reid led the Eagles to the greatest turnaround in their history, finishing second in the NFC in 2000 with an 11-5 record and earning a berth in the NFC Divisional playoffs. In recognition of these efforts, Reid was named coach of the year by The Sporting News, the Maxwell Football Club and Football Digest.
While on the Packers' staff (1992-98), he helped Green Bay reach the playoffs six consecutive times. In his 10-year NFL career, he thus has made the playoffs eight times - the last two years with the Eagles.
NOTABLE PACKERS-EAGLES CONNECTIONS:
NFL ties: The Eagles' Dorsey Levens ranks fourth on the Packers' all-time rushing list with 3,937 yards...Andy Reid (1992-98) is one of six current NFL head coaches who spent time in Green Bay before taking their posts...Sean Landeta (1998), who set a Green Bay single-season record for net punting average, 37.1 yards on 65 punts, and Jeff Thomason (1995-99) are also former Packers...Doug Pederson started nine games for the Eagles in 1999.
College teammates: Antuan Edwards (Green Bay) and Brian Dawkins (Philadelphia) at Clemson (1995); Edwards served as Dawkins' primary replacement when he left for the NFL...Correll Buckhalter (Philadelphia) and the Packers' Ahman Green and Steve Warren at Nebraska...Derrick Burgess (Philadelphia) and Nate Wayne (Green Bay) at Mississippi...Brandon Whiting (Philadelphia) and Ryan Longwell (Green Bay) at Cal...Darwin Walker (Philadelphia) and Chad Clifton (Green Bay) at Tennessee...Cecil Martin (Philadelphia) and the Packers' Mark Tauscher and Bill Ferrario at Wisconsin.
Other connections: Philly CB Troy Vincent was All-America at the University of Wisconsin...Eagles WR Todd Pinkston played at Southern Mississippi, alma mater of Brett Favre...Philly QB Tim Hasselbeck's brother, Matt, is a former Green Bay back-up quarterback...Eagles QB Koy Detmer's brother, Ty, is also a former Green Bay back-up quarterback...Philly offensive coordinator Brad Childress coached at Wisconsin (1991-98), tutoring Darrell Bevell, now the Packers' offensive assistant...Eagles receivers coach David Culley and Packers' GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman were on the same Texas A&M staff from 1991-93.
THE 'UNVEILING:' In addition to being the Packers' preseason baptismal, Saturday night's contest also will be highlighted by the initial in-game exposure of their three major offseason acquisitions - wide receiver Terry Glenn, defensive end Joe Johnson and linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
It also will mark the awaited debut of Javon Walker, the Packers' first round selection in the 2002 draft, whose practice field performance already has titillated Green Bay's omnipresent railbirds with his impressive combination of size, speed and hands.
Glenn, author of a 90-catch season while with the New England Patriots, and fellow wideouts Walker and second-year pro Robert Ferguson are being counted upon to upgrade the passing game - with the considerable assistance of quarterback Brett Favre - following the expedited departure of Antonio Freeman, Bill Schroeder and Corey Bradford in the offseason.
Elsewhere on offense, the quest for depth at running back is expected to be launched, with at least a half-dozen possibilities figuring in the competition, including the returning Rondell Mealey and Herbert "Whisper" Goodman and new additions Najeh Davenport, a fourth-round selection in this year's draft, Ki-Jana Carter a seven-year professional, Jason Brookins, a 6-foot, 240-pound former Baltimore Raven, and free agent Tony Fisher of Notre Dame.
On the other side of the football, Sherman and Defensive Coordinator Ed Donatell will be getting their first opportunity - under game conditions - to see how Johnson and Nickerson, both former Pro Bowlers, fill the veteran leadership void left by the recent retirement of safety LeRoy Butler.
In another area, special teams coach Frank Novak will begin his search for a kickoff returner to replace the departed Allen Rossum, now an Atlanta Falcon. Leading in-house candidates at this juncture - there also being the possibility of a free agent pickup during the preseason - include rookies Javon Walker, the possessor of 4.3 speed in the '40' and the 245-pound Najeh Davenport, first and fourth-round selections, respectively, in this year's draft.
Veteran Darrien Gordon, the NFC's punt return leader in 2001 as a member of the Falcons, also is a possibility here, although his career-long specialty has been the punt return, an assignment which has seen him compile an impressive 12.3-yard average over his 10 NFL seasons.
SCRIMMAGE RECAP: Mike Sherman wasn't exactly aglow after putting his athletes through an 81-play intrasquad scrimmage on Clarke Hinkle Field Saturday afternoon - before a throng estimated at 3,500 loyalists, the largest gathering of railbirds to date - but he also was not singing the blues.
Assessing the first significant contact of the week-old training camp, an exercise which produced 8 offensive touchdowns, he observed, "You would have liked to have seen the first offense go right down the field and score. That didn't happen this time, but we kind of made it tough on 'em a little bit.
"But I thought we accomplished some things in the red zone. Our two-minute offense, I thought, did a nice job.
"We had a chance to look at some of the younger players, which is really what I wanted to get done here and make some evaluations," Sherman continued. "We'll take a look at some tape, and we kind of created a scenario so we could do that."
Asked if any player had caught his eye during the scrimmage, the Packers' field leader replied, "I think (quarterback) Craig Nall continues to do a good job as a young man that we drafted, and seems to have a grasp of the offense.
"I thought Doug (Pederson) did a nice job, too, as did Brett (Favre). But Craig jumped out there. For a young guy to come in here and learn the offense, I think he's doing a nice job.
"Karsten Bailey (a third-year free agent wideout) made a nice catch," Sherman went on, adding, "Terry Glenn showed up in the red zone...Javon (Walker) had a touchdown., Ferguy (Robert Ferguson) had 1 touchdown...so I think it was spread around pretty good that way.
"We didn't run the ball that much with the first group," Sherman noted in this connection.. " We wanted to throw the ball just a little bit and that's what we tried to do."
During his stint, Nall completed 6 of 12 passes for 102 yards and 2 touchdowns. Favre, meanwhile, hit on 12 of 23 attempts for 139 yards and 3 TDs and Pederson on 11 of 15 throws for 108 yards and one score.
Goodman, just back from a productive season with the Scottish Claymores of the NFL Europe League, one which saw him lead the NFLEL in rushing, also emerged as the leading rusher on this occasion, gaining 33 yards in 8 carries, a 4.1-yard average. Rookie Tony Fisher of Notre Dame was next up with 27 yards in 9 attempts, followed by veteran Ahman Green with 21 yards in 4 carries.
Glenn and Walker were the most frequent targets in the passing game, each making four catches - Glenn for 60 yards and Walker for 49.
From the special teams perspective, Ryan Longwell had a perfect afternoon, making all three field goals he attempted, a pair of 38-yarders and a 26-yard effort.
Defensively, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila was the primary standout, posting 5 solo tackles, 4 of which were "sacks."
Linebacker Hardy Nickerson, the 36-year-oild "newcomer," actually was the numerical leader of the defense with 6 total tackles, 5 of them assisted stops. Five others - rookie linebackers Adrian Hollingshed and Marcus Wilkins - and defensive backs Mike McKenzie, Marques Anderson and Todd Franz - each weighed in with 4 tackles.
Sherman, asked during his post-scrimmage reviews whether Fisher "had made an impression" on him, had kind words for the young running back, observing, "I think he has. He certainly exhibits an element of toughness the way he plays. And he's a hard runner. He's catching on to the offense, doesn't make many mistakes - does what we ask him to do, so he's headed in the right direction."
Had he, Sherman was asked, accomplished everything he had hoped to?
"No, I wish we had scored all our touchdowns and shut everybody out at the same time," was the intentionally facetious reply, "so you're not going to be totally happy when you're playing against yourself.
"But, you know, we did some good things and some not-so-good things. But when you're going; with 2's against 1's (the second defense against the first offense, in this case), you're trying to eliminate injuries of 1's against 1's. But I do think the intensity level drops off just a little bit...and it shouldn't.
"As I told them, 'Hey, you've got to play up to your ability and not your opponents' ability - and we did that last year a couple times and I certainly don't want to practice that. So you play up to your ability all the time. And sometimes when you go 2's against 1's the competitive edge isn't there, but it should be - because paid professionals should always be putting forth their best."