Pack is back and maybe better Complacency, conceit missing in Green Bay

July 25, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers lost return specialist Desmond Howard to free agency this year and replaced him with Qadry Ismail.

They lost veteran defensive end Sean Jones to retirement and added the stability of linebacker Seth Joyner, a 12-year vet himself.

They lost wide receiver Andre Rison to salary cap economics and effectively filled the void with Robert Brooks, who was the team's best receiver until a severe knee injury last October short-circuited his season.

The more the Packers subtracted this off-season, the more they enhanced their position as the team to beat in the NFL this season.

While the Dallas Cowboys revamp a defense depleted by free agency, and the San Francisco 49ers try to resuscitate their hiccup of a running game, the defending Super Bowl champs merely reloaded.

Not only did the Packers bring in Ismail and Joyner and bring back Brooks, they subbed backup quarterback Steve Bono for Jim McMahon, and kept defensive mainstays Gilbert Brown and Wayne Simmons, both free agents, from defecting.

On paper, at least, this was a pretty good off-season in Green Bay.

"This is a family team," said flanker Antonio Freeman, the Baltimore product who made a big splash last season as a second-year receiver. "It's unbelievable to be around these guys. You hear so many stories about marquee guys on other teams having attitudes, having their noses in the air.

"You don't find that in Reggie White, Robert Brooks and Brett Favre. These guys are down to earth; they're there for you. I think that's the unique thing about this team. There's no attitude, there's no finger-pointing. It's like one big happy family."

There's also no complacency, if the early reports are accurate.

"I wouldn't think so," said general manager Ron Wolf, whose careful pruning of the roster kept the Packers' work ethic alive and well. "We're into the mix right away. Five of our first seven games, and six of the first nine, are [NFC Central] division games. There's no reason for us to become complacent. And Mike [Holmgren, the coach] will do a heck of a job in that regard."

Favre, who is expected to become the league's highest-paid player today with a new seven-year contract worth nearly $49 million, concurs.

"A lot of it has to do with what Ron has done through the draft and free agency, picking guys he knows," Favre said. "It all leads back to one thing -- teamwork. We enjoy being on this team, and playing and winning."

For anyone who thinks the Packers will feel the loss of three receivers -- tight end Keith Jackson, who retired, and wide receivers Rison and Howard -- there is this rejoinder from Favre:

"This is the best camp we've had so far as an offensive group. This is the first time since I've been here we'll have to cut a lot of good players. That's an unfortunate thing, but it's still a good thing."

Because the Packers won't expose Brooks' reconstructed knee to contact for another couple of weeks, Terry Mickens will start at split end when Green Bay launches the preseason tomorrow night at Lambeau Field against the Miami Dolphins.

That scenario puts Freeman, who played at Poly, into a different light on offense. In three seasons, he has become the Packers' main receiver. With that comes the special attention that defenses give -- double coverage.

"That's what I expect," Freeman said. "Even our defense is double-covering me right now. The first week of practice, it was so frustrating. The coaches could see it on my face. Coach Holmgren said that's what I was going to face all year, so I've got to get accustomed to it."

Freeman overcame more adversity than double coverage a year ago. He fractured his left forearm in the Packers' eighth game, but missed only four weeks. He came back to lead the team in receptions with 56, nine of them touchdowns.

His crowning moment, though, came in Super Bowl XXXI, when his 81-yard touchdown catch-and-run wiped out a 14-10 deficit against the New England Patriots. That was the longest reception in Super Bowl history, and marked Freeman as one of the game's up-and-coming stars.

"It propelled my career and my life," said Freeman, 25. "It changed a great deal. I still sit back and think about it sometimes. I just thank God for the situation he put me in. I think I made the best of all the opportunities I was given."

Freeman has even taken it on himself to counsel the Packers' young receivers, another sign of togetherness on a team that dotes on it.

"It's not a secret to me to see why they're so successful," said Joyner, who also played with the Philadelphia Eagles and Arizona Cardinals. "I see how they treat one another, how they hang out with one another."

Complacency has yet to rear its head in Green Bay.

"The guys are hungry," Freeman said. "That's all they talk about. We've got the two-time MVP back there [in Favre] and our defense is unbelievably solid. We feel like we can do it again."

The rest of the NFL is forewarned.

Pub Date: 7/25/97

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