Packers have everything in place but trophy polisher

On The NFL

August 22, 1999|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

If the Green Bay Packers were a technology stock, they'd be taking off the way so many companies have after going public.

When the Packers signed wide receiver Antonio Freeman to a seven-year $42 million deal, they put the last piece of the puzzle together for what should be as good a run as a team can have in the free-agency era.

Of their 10 best players, only one of them, linebacker Brian Williams, is signed for fewer than four years. He's signed for the next three. Of their 80-man roster, only 10 players will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the year. One will be restricted.

They've also got some intangibles. Their toughest hurdle, Denver, has to face the threepeat jinx. No team has ever won three straight Super Bowls, and most of the teams that have tried have been the victims of ill-timed misfortune. An injury here, a fumble there.

Even with John Elway, they probably wouldn't have put a threepeat on the board. And now he's retired.

The other intangibles include the fact that the Packers, who won the Super Bowl at the end of the 1996 season and lost to Denver in the finale the next year, have a lot to prove.

Coach Ray Rhodes, taking over for Mike Holmgren, who left for Seattle, wants to show he's a better coach than he appeared to be in Philadelphia. The players -- notably Brett Favre -- want to prove they can win without Holmgren.

Don't forget Favre. If you're going to win a Super Bowl in the free-agency era, you need a great quarterback.

A decade ago, a top-notch coach could build a Super Bowl team around an average quarterback. Bill Parcells won a Super Bowl with Jeff Hostetler after the 1990 season. Joe Gibbs did it with Mark Rypien the next year.

The last seven Super Bowls since then have been won by four quarterbacks -- Troy Aikman (three), Elway (two), Steve Young and Favre. All are likely to have their busts in the Hall of Fame after they retire.

As long as Favre stays healthy -- their backup after trading Rick Mirer is Matt Hasselbeck -- the Packers should be holding up the trophy named for their former coach, Vince Lombardi, in Atlanta in January.

One of the best?

Now that he's the highest-paid wide receiver in pro football, Freeman, who won his gamble by not signing last year, has bigger goals.

"When I walk off the field, I want to be known as one of the greatest players to ever play the game," he said.

To do that, he's got to step up.

He has put a lot of numbers on the board -- he holds or shares 13 Packer playoff records -- but he dropped the biggest pass of his career.

That was on the critical next-to-the-last play in the Super Bowl two years ago that might have cost the Packers a chance to send the game against Denver into overtime.

It's not remembered the way the Jackie Smith drop in Super Bowl XIII was because of all the controversy surrounding Holmgren's decision to give up the winning touchdown so he could get the ball back with more time left on the clock in an attempt to tie it.

But if Freeman, a graduate of Poly, wants to be remembered with players like Jerry Rice and Don Hutson, he can't afford another drop like that.

Fallen Leaf

The NFL holds a seminar each year for rookies to give them pointers on how to adjust to life in the NFL.

They might as well make San Diego quarterback Ryan Leaf a permanent guest. He still doesn't get it.

Only Leaf can stir up a controversy when he's sidelined with an injured shoulder. He got the week off to a bad start when he told USA Today he'd probably be leaving San Diego after next year when his contract voids.

"I just don't think the organization really wants me around," he said.

He forgets the Chargers invested an $11.25 million signing bonus in him. They'd like to get something for it.

He apparently doesn't understand the Chargers can keep him for a fourth year in 2001 as a restricted free agent by making him a tender offer for slightly more than $1 million.

Then, when he was heckled Thursday at practice, he couldn't resist going over to the heckler, a 32-year-old man who was screaming obscenities at him.

Leaf simply said to the man, who was annoying other fans, "What's wrong, man? What have I ever done to you?"

Charger personnel led him away, and that was the end of it. But he's better off ignoring hecklers. He just created one more incident.

Alarms

Two teams in the Ravens' division, the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars, had a few anxious moments last week.

Titans quarterback Steve McNair missed practice all last week with back spasms, although he's supposed to be back next week.

"We're not sounding the alarm with Steve. We're not concerned," coach Jeff Fisher said.

However, when the quarterback's not healthy, there's always a concern.

In Jacksonville, wide receiver Keenan McCardell went down at practice with what the Jaguars feared was a broken leg.

When notified was notified it was only a contusion, or deep bruise, of the lower leg, coach Tom Coughlin made the sign of the cross.

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