With 20 of his 22 starters returning from the 2003 season, Packers GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman is pleased with the continuity that will come with the carry-over. He is also extremely happy with one of his two new starters, both for his contributions on the field, and for the way in which he carries himself.
Mark Roman, who signed with the club as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason, will be lining up at strong safety alongside Darren Sharper when the Packers take the field in Charlotte Monday night. Sherman said Wednesday that he will be more comfortable with this safety tandem than any he's fielded in the past few seasons.
Sherman also said that he admires what Roman brings to the team with his attitude, and has been impressed with him since meeting the defensive back when he was a prep star.
"He has a football demeanor about him where he's talking about football 24/7 and certainly on the sidelines during the game," Sherman said. "During practice, he is all football. I remember him when I was a college coach and he was a running back and defensive back at New Iberia High School in Louisiana. He was everything - he did it all. He was that way back then. He loves football. He loves playing football, he loves talking about football. And he brings that to our defense."
The coach is not only pleased with the intangibles that Roman will bring to the defense, but he sees the team being able to be more aggressive with his skills added to the secondary.
"He has great range. You see that just seeing him make a play on the ball out here in practice. His range is better than what we're use to having back there. With some of the pressures that we're having, bringing the corners with some frequency, or some of the outside pressures, he's able to cover some ground."
Hawthorne Gets The Starting Nod
Sherman put to rest the last remaining question mark in the Packers starting line-up Wednesday, naming fifth-year man Michael Hawthorne as the starter at left cornerback for Monday night. Sherman stressed that rookie Ahmad Carroll, who opened the preseason finale, will start in the dime package, and will also get playing time in the base defense.
Neither cornerback was fazed upon hearing the news in the locker room, as both are focused on their preparations to go up against the Panthers' strong receiving corps.
"I've gone against those guys before, coming from the NFC South," said Hawthorne, speaking of his time with the New Orleans Saints. "I went against them twice a year. (Muhsin) Muhammad is a big, physical receiver. Everyone knows that Steve Smith might be small in stature, but he's got a big heart. They've also got a great running back to go along with the quarterback that I played with down in New Orleans, so there's a little brotherly love."
Hawthorne will go to his memory bank to prepare to face Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, a passer he saw a lot of in practice when both were Saints.
"I used to practice against him everyday in New Orleans," Hawthorne said. "He always had the talent, but never really got a chance to showcase it. He showed everybody last year that he can play football at this level."
Carroll says he will be ready to step in, whenever his chance to step on the field is.
"It doesn't make a difference," said the rookie. "When my number's called, I've got to show that I'm ready to play. Whether it be in dime, special teams, or whatever. Wherever my coaches need me, that's what I'm going to do. I've got to be focused and ready to play."
Time For Special Teams To Be Special
In a game that features two of last year's four NFC division champions, every little thing is magnified. The field position battle will be extremely important in Monday night's clash against the Panthers, and Carolina's special teams unit was one of the best in the NFL in 2003.
Sherman knows that his squad has got to improve upon their showing from the four preseason games. One player who the coach is leaning on to step up is punt returner Antonio Chatman.
"Field position certainly is a critical variable in regard to offenses moving the ball down the field and defenses stopping people," Sherman said. "I do believe that Chatman can do a better job on his punt returns. Last year, he was very secure in his decision-making, I don't feel that it's been great this year, but we're going to have extra emphasis on that this week in practice."
The two-man battle to claim the punting duties still has not been resolved. Bryan Barker, a 15-year veteran, and rookie B.J. Sander will continue to audition for the opening night role through this week of practices. Sherman said that the two will get equal time to make a case for himself.
"They're both going to work extremely hard this week in getting their reps off to the side," said Sherman. "Within the structure of our practice, and within the structure of our punt coverage team, we'll probably split it up 50-50 to start the week.
"It's not like we're going to be taking snaps away from one to the other. It's a little different procedure than it is with other positions. We'll go through this week and play it one day at a time."
Delhomme The One That Got Away?
Before he led the Panthers to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII, Carolina QB Jake Delhomme was a prized back-up with the New Orleans Saints. As a restricted free agent following the 2001 season, the Louisiana native was brought into Green Bay in the oft-spoken-about search for Brett Favre's successor, and he impressed Packer boss Mike Sherman in his visit.
"I thought we hit it off pretty well," Sherman said of their meeting. "But certainly not enough for him to come at the price we were talking about, or the situation. He wanted to start somewhere. He's not unlike Brett Favre in some ways. A country kid, he's just a very engaging young man. He's very confident. Someone you could see being an excellent leader."
Sherman said that he saw a little of the spark the rest of the NFL became familiar with during last year's postseason two years previous, but he didn't expect Delhomme's rise to glory to hit so quickly.
"I can't say that I saw him to be in the Super Bowl, and play as well as he did," Sherman said. "I don't know that I would have projected that for him this past season, but I thought that he was a rising star in the National Football League. Given the opportunity, because of the intangible qualities that he displayed -- he hadn't played a whole lot as you know -- after meeting him, talking to him, seeing how engaging he is and how teammates could possibly rally around him -- which is not unlike our quarterback -- I thought he would be successful."
Delhomme said that he enjoyed his trip up to Green Bay too, but he's glad his career has taken the path it has.
"I had a great visit there. Reggie McKenzie picked me up at the airport and there was still snow on the ground in April, which was different for me, coming from south Louisiana. I really enjoyed myself there, and I thought it would be a wonderful place to play. You can kind of tell the mystique about the place when you get to Lambeau Field. I wanted a chance to compete for a starting job, and that's what I was able to get here in Carolina."
Lambeau's Green To Remain Grass
The Packers held their first practice on the new FieldTurf playing surface at Ray Nitschke Field Wednesday afternoon. Although the team loves the surface, and will be on the artificial surface for all of their practices this season (the field in the Don Hutson Center is also FieldTurf), don't look for any change to the Kentucky bluegrass inside Lambeau Field.
"I think that at Lambeau Field, natural grass is here for quite some time," Sherman said. "I don't envision (FieldTurf being installed there). I can imagine the kind of letters we'd receive if we put an artificial surface down on Lambeau Field."
Sherman feels that the new ground at the practice facility could play a role in the team's success, though, particularly later in the season.
"It certainly is a quality surface, and we love practicing and playing on it because it actually is more forgiving than natural grass or the ground. It's very soft and it's good for the players' legs. I think it keeps us alive through the season, especially in comparison to the hard surface we used to practice on."