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Packers Prepare To Open Training Camp, Defend Division Title


The Green Bay Packers have won more games in the past two years...two dozen...than any other team in the National Football League.

Beyond that considerable accomplishment, they also forged the NFL's only perfect (8-0) home record in 2002, a season the Green and Gold jointly punctuated by capturing the first championship of the new NFC North Division and a second consecutive playoff berth.

In so doing, they likewise matched 2001's 12-4 record - a win total bettered by only three other teams in the club's 82-year NFL annals - and became only the second team in the organization's distinguished history to win 12 (or more) games in back-to-back seasons.

Substantial achievements by any standard, but short, nevertheless, of Mike Sherman's consistently lofty expectations. The Packers' demanding general manager and head coach thinks only in terms of the ultimate...Super Bowls.

Sherman, who has posted more victories in his first three seasons (33) than any of his Packers predecessors - including team founder Curly Lambeau and the legendary Vince Lombardi - points to Green Bay's towering tradition and the "responsibilities" it automatically imposes upon the man in charge of on-field operations as his basic motivation.

"Every day I come to work, I drive down Lombardi Avenue and come into Lambeau Field knowing that many years ago, obviously, one of my predecessors was the best of all time doing what I'm trying to do," he said. "And, because of what he's accomplished, he has set a standard for all of us in the Green Bay organization to be the very best we can be all the time."

Having said that, Sherman is convinced his athletes are primed to continue that tradition in the season at hand - the Packers' 83rd in the NFL - with a team that "will hit the field running" in defense of its division title.

"I feel good that we have the key components for a successful football team," he asserted in his annual overview, proceeding to detail his reasoning. "We have an excellent quarterback, quality receivers and a good rushing attack. We rushed the ball better last year than Packers have in the last 17 years, so I'm excited about the opportunity to do better than that.

"On defense, with the addition of some of our draft picks and with the returning players and a couple of free agents, I feel we will be good defensively. We have been exceptional in creating takeaways, making sacks and in third-down efficiency. And I expect more of the same. We have to improve our run defense...and we will."

Beginning Tuesday, July 22, with the start of the team's annual full squad, two-a-day practice agenda, Sherman and his staff will launch the process of melding these elements into a contender for the 2003 season.

It, in turn, will open for the Green and Gold with a historic flourish Sunday, Sept. 7, when the Packers debut against their neighborhood rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, in the "rededication" of fully redeveloped Lambeau Field, culminating a three-year, $295 million project.

Officially, however, the Packers will open camp Friday, July 18, when rookies and injured players report to St. Norbert College, the team's training base since 1958. The newcomers will practice Saturday afternoon, July 19, and twice on Sunday, July 20 - the day Packers veterans are scheduled to report. There will be no practices on Monday, July 21, which will be devoted to physical testing for all players prior to the beginning of two-a-days the following morning.

Sherman, whose glittering 21-3 home-field record is the NFL's best over the past three years, predicates his optimistic outlook upon a number of factors, chief among them a major upgrade in team speed, traceable in some measure to the first-round selection of Oregon State linebacker Nick Barnett - the owner of 4.6 "swift" in the '40' - in this year's NFL draft.

"I think we're a faster team today than we were a year ago," he said, noting, "We lose some experience at some positions but we have some talent and youthful enthusiasm at those positions as well.

"We drafted with the premise that we wanted to become a faster football team and hopefully that will be the case. Faster doesn't necessarily mean better so we still have to coach these players and get them playing up to their abilities. And, hopefully, their speed, athleticism and skill level will help make them - and us - better."

It is, Sherman readily acknowledged, a younger team.

"We are a young football team - there's no question about that," he said. "But we have experience at some of the critical positions on the football team. Our offensive line has good experience - they're not an old offensive line. They're pretty much in their prime, so I feel good about them.

"Our running backs are back intact and have the experience as well. Our receivers have a year under their belt as a collective group and hopefully will grow and be able to produce even more this season.

"Obviously, the quarterback position speaks for itself when you have experience like we have at that position. There's nobody with more experience, and more good experience than Brett Favre has had over the years."

Turning to the defense, Sherman admitted, "We're certainly younger on the other side of the ball, but we do have some key players with Darren Sharper and Mike McKenzie returning in our secondary as veteran starters.

"And then, up front, we also have the experience of Gilbert Brown and Cletidus Hunt, who hopefully is coming into his own. Right now, Joe Johnson is coming off an injury and I have high expectations of him...I see Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila as an even more dominating player this year than last. I fully expect that from him."

Although openly optimistic about what lies ahead for him and his team, Sherman acknowledges that assembling a competitive club in the NFL at this point in time is a vastly different process than it used to be.

"In this day and age in the National Football League, every team is a work in progress," he observed, alluding to the current modus operandi under the salary cap and free agency. "You try to improve your football team every single year while experiencing about 35 or 40 percent transition. That's the case for just about every team in the National Football League these days. The state of the league is that there's a lot of movement. What you have to do is hang on to the core players that you want to keep on your team while allowing the new players a chance to assimilate at a fast pace with your present team and put them in the best situation you can, so they can contribute early."

Another key element in the overall process, inevitably, is the injury factor - one that found Sherman having to deal with starters being forced from the lineup a total of 71 games and losing three starters along the way - offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher and defensive end Joe Johnson.

Understandably hoping for better physical fortune in the season ahead, Sherman noted, "We definitely had our share of injuries in the course of last season. And, hopefully, we've paid our toll and we can have a season much like the '01 season when they only had 24 games missed by starters.

"As I've said in the past, injuries are as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling. It's how you handle injuries that really defines you. We will never make excuses for injuries because they are a part of the game. Our fans do not care about hearing about injuries...all they care about is winning."

From the overall perspective, Sherman approached the new season with four key personnel concerns:

  • The receiver corps, with the youthful and largely inexperienced Robert Ferguson and Javon Walker being counted upon to join Donald Driver as the team's primary wideouts;
  • The linebacker corps, following the departure of veterans Hardy Nickerson and Nate Wayne;
  • The safety position, where injuries hampered initial starter Antuan Edwards and rookie replacement Marques Anderson tailed off in the last half of the season; and
  • The return game, a disappointment throughout last season.

Addressing the receiver situation, Sherman said, "They (Ferguson and Walker) are still two very young receivers. But they are very talented. And Karsten Bailey is competing in that group as well. They're young receivers but they have great size and strength and they seem to be faster this year even than last year. They're more decisive and I believe they're more cued into our quarterback, which is most critical.

"Donald Driver has done a fantastic job leading that group, and he'll continue to do that, while the other two young pups (Ferguson and Walker) emerge and come into their own...But we still need others - Karsten Bailey being one - in that group to step forward."

Turning to the linebacking corps, Sherman said, "I look at that position much like I looked at the receiver position a year ago. We wanted to do our best to upgrade and re-tool that position. And I think we have addressed that in free agency with the acquisition of Hannibal Navies, who's assuming the 'Buck' linebacker - the strong linebacker position...Moving Na'il Diggs into more of a playmaking position at the 'Will,' and then drafting in the first round, Nick Barnett, who I think will step in and be a viable candidate at some point to be our 'Mike' linebacker. I'm also very impressed with our backups as they have stepped forward in the mini-camps and have shown their abilities as well.

"We are putting Diggs into a position where he has a chance to make more plays. He can be an excellent blitzer coming from that open side as opposed to the tight end side. Also, he's just a little bit closer to the quarterback. He has great range, and I think we will see that while he's playing the 'Will' linebacker position. He still has a lot to learn about that position, however.

"I think, collectively, it's going to be a fast group You really don't know how much until you start playing the games on how physical they are, and that's as much a part of it as being fast. So we'll have to wait and see."

Touching upon the safety position, Sherman prefaced his appraisal by observing, "If the mini-camps were any indication, it looks like we're headed in the right direction. Again, we have to be able to make it through the preseason and be able to handle any injuries that may occur.

"The defensive backs are usually faced with the greatest attrition rate during the course of the season. So we have to be able to handle that part of it, but I'm very encouraged by the development of our safeties and the progress they have made in the offseason."

In assessing the return game, the Packers' 48-year-old field leader said, "That in itself has been a work in progress for two years. Ever since we lost Allen Rossum, we've done our very best to try to acquire the best return guys we could, but so far it hasn't worked out in our favor. This part of our team is a point of concern for me and has been for the last year...and will continue to be until we find comfort with somebody back there. I do believe we have the people back there that can catch the ball, make good decisions and hopefully make someone miss in the process - and get us the field position we so desperately lacked last year in the return game...whether it be punt return or kick return.

Revisiting the secondary, Sherman expressed satisfaction with the practice field performance of veteran Al Harris, acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles as the successor to Tyrone Williams at right cornerback.

"Tyrone Williams was an excellent cornerback for us - he didn't give up the big play and he did a good job of coverage, and he was there every week," Sherman acknowledged, adding by way of general comparison, "Al is a different type of player than Williams. He's more on the line of scrimmage type of player. He uses his hands - he's a little more physical. Whether Al is better than Ty remains to be seen. Ty has started a lot of football games and Al hasn't. But I'm encouraged by what Al has brought to us so far. I think he's going to be a physical corner...he has great instincts on what breaks the receivers are going to make...But to compare Harris to Williams at this stage, it's too early because we haven't played any games yet."

Elsewhere on defense, Sherman admitted Gilbert Brown's injury-diminished availability the past two years is something of a concern coming into the new season.

"Certainly when a player, particularly in the defensive line, turns 30 (Brown is 32), you have concerns at that position. His injuries have been worries for me. But he does give us a big body in there and I have a plan for how we're going to utilize his talents this season and, hopefully, it will be a plan that will keep him on the field - maybe more during the season but maybe less during the game."

Sherman acknowledged he has something of a luxury in another personnel area - the kicking game - where he is blessed with a high comfort level.

"Those guys (placekicker Ryan Longwell and punter Josh Bidwell) coming back this year and contributing certainly gives me some peace of mind with that part of our game as solid," he conceded, "although we will continue to impress on getting more yardage, whether it be a kickoff or a punt. And they've worked hard during this offseason to do just that - become stronger players."

On another pertinent personnel subject, Craig Nall's chances of becoming Favre's backup, Sherman said, "We'll have to see how training camp plays itself out. Doug Pederson has had two very good mini-camps, he's still very athletic, he has good feet, he makes good decisions.

And Craig Nall, certainly coming off the NFLEL (he emerged as the league's leading passer) did a nice job. So that will play itself out during the course of training camp."

From the coaching standpoint, Sherman expressed satisfaction with three newcomers to his staff since the end of the 2002 season - Mark Duffner (linebackers), John Bonamego (special teams) and Joe Philbin (offensive line assistant).

"Mark Duffner (replacing Bo Pelini, who resigned to become defensive coordinator at the University of Nebraska) has brought a lot of energy and passion to his position," he said, "and I believe the linebackers have benefited so far from their association with him. Obviously, it's a long season and Mark has to continue to develop these linebackers. He did an excellent job of developing young linebackers at Cincinnati when he started four rookies at one time.

"John Bonamego came aboard, obviously, with the retirement of Frank Novak and he's done a fine job and seems to be developing a great relationship with the players. He will be very demanding on them while, at the same time, he's able to give out compliments when justified, and I think he'll do an excellent job."

Addressing Philbin's addition, Sherman noted, "In this day and age in the National Football League, you need two line coaches. And Joe (who replaces Pat Ruel as Larry Beightol's assistant) will spend the bulk of his time working with the younger guys, getting them ready to go. He is an excellent teacher."

In the process of readying the Packers for the '03 campaign, the Packers' invariably positive major-domo said he had not detected any lingering fallout from the 'down' finish to the 2002 season - consecutive losses to the Jets in the regular-season finale and to the Falcons in the Packers' subsequent playoff appearance.

"They've pretty much put it behind them, as they should," Sherman said. "You learn from your mistakes but, at the same time, you have to move forward, and there's another season to be played. And, as disappointing as last year was at the end - we did not have a disappointing season.

"We had a very disappointing postseason, with our lone loss at home against the Atlanta Falcons - and that was devastating to say the least. But, for the most part, we had a very good season. We tied for the league lead in the number of wins...we won seven in a row and won all our home games. We need to finish better and we didn't get that done last year; and hopefully we'll have another opportunity this year to do it."

As for the task at hand, Sherman asserted, "I think every season that we've taken the field we're getting better.

"I feel like we're closer this year. I feel like I have a very strong staff that's going to take the field this year and coach the team as hard as it possibly can to get them ready to play this season. I think the team is committed more so than ever - not that we haven't been in the past - to doing everything we can do to make sure that we don't fail at the end of the season like we did last season. But, at the same time, realizing that winning 12 games in the National Football League is no small feat.

"I believe our players will hit the field running. We have a long preseason with a fifth preseason game which - with the youth we have - really will benefit us.

"We have a very arduous schedule," Sherman admitted, "but we're excited about it...We're excited about the opportunity to go onto Lambeau Field in that first game."

TV-RADIO COVERAGE: Three of the Packers' five preseason games - against the Atlanta Falcons (Saturday night, Aug. 9), against the Carolina Panthers (Saturday night, Aug. 23), and against the Tennessee Titans (Thursday night, Aug. 28), will be televised over an expanded, 8-station Packers Television Network by Green Bay's WFRV-TV and Milwaukee's WTMJ-TV throughout the state of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan.

In addition to WFRV-TV and WTMJ-TV, the games will be televised over WKOW/ABC, Madison, Wis.; WAOW/ABC, Wausau/Rhinelander, Wis.; WXOW/ABC, La Crosse, Wis.; WQOW/ABC, Eau Claire, Wis.; WYOW/ABC, Eagle River, Wis.; and WJMN/CBS, Marquette, Mich.

Kevin Harlan, a longtime CBS Network play-by-play "voice," will handle the play-by-play for all three telecasts, with former Packers and Chiefs defensive tackle Bill Maas providing the analysis and WTMJ-TV's Jessie Garcia reporting from the field. WFRV-TV's Larry McCarren will join the broadcasts for pre-game and halftime segments.

The Packers' other two preseason contests will be televised nationally, the first of which will find them opposing the Chiefs in the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio, Monday night, Aug. 4, with Al Michaels and John Madden sharing the ABC booth and Lisa Guerrero reporting from the field. The other, their preseason venture against the Cleveland Browns, Friday night, August 15, will be aired by CBS-TV.

ROSTER CUTDOWN DATES: Aug. 26 - Reduction to 65 players; Aug. 31 - Reduction to 53 players.; Sept. 1 - Teams may establish a Practice Squad of five players after 11 a.m., CDT.

COACHING AIDES: The Packers' coaching staff again will have the assistance of three NFL minority fellowship interns for the early portion of training camp. This year's interns are Richard Glover (defensive line coach) from New Mexico State, who will be working with Mark Duffner and the linebackers, Willard Scissum of Morehouse College (head coach), who will be helping Jeff Jagodzinski with the tight ends, and Bubba McDowell from Texas Southern and former All-Pro with the Houston Oilers, who will be working with special teams coach John Bonamego.

AUTOGRAPH SESSIONS: Fans again will be provided with the opportunity to secure autographs of Packers players and coaches during training camp. GM/Head Coach Mike Sherman has announced that autograph sessions will be held following the morning practice most days, beginning Tuesday, July 22.

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