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Mike Reiss | Football notes

A confident Pack mentality

They expect Rodgers to snap right into place

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / June 22, 2008

Joe Philbin scans the "needs improvement" checklist for his Packers offense and begins at the top. Better production on third down . . . more punch in the red zone . . . a more consistent rushing attack.

Most telling, it turns out, is what isn't on Philbin's list.

There is no immediate mention of quarterback, no talk of how the Packers will manage without Brett Favre, who retired after 16 unforgettable seasons in Green Bay.

Philbin, entering his second season as Packers offensive coordinator, is not slighting one of the game's all-time competitors. Far from it. His thoughts reflect more of a vote of confidence for fourth-year man Aaron Rodgers, who faces the challenge of following up Favre's remarkable iron-man streak of 253 regular-season starts.

Can Rodgers get it done?

It just might be the top question in the NFL entering the 2008 season.

Philbin, a Longmeadow native, returned to his Bay State roots when touching on the promise he has seen from Rodgers.

"It's sort of like when you went to watch Roger Clemens pitch in the late '80s, you knew he could throw the ball - and this guy can, too," Philbin said. "That's probably the first thing that excites you about him, and that's a great place to start.

"I think people are going to be impressed with his arm strength and accuracy. Ultimately, at some point in time, in a tight situation, or a tight coverage, you're going to have to put the ball in the right spot, at the right time, with the right velocity. I think he has the qualities to get that done."

To this point, however, Rodgers hasn't had much of a chance to showcase his arm in the NFL, a result of playing behind Favre for the past three seasons and also sustaining foot and hamstring injuries. He has 59 pass attempts over seven regular-season games, hardly any of them coming in pressure situations.

Naturally, the pressure is already on to see if Rodgers can fill the void, but Philbin and the coaching staff have been proceeding as if it's business as usual.

"A lot has been made of the pressure that is on him to perform and produce," said Philbin, "but my response would be that if you asked every coordinator on every team in the league, I think they'd say similar things about what they're looking for in their quarterback.

"They're looking for a guy to make good decisions, they're looking for a guy to manage the game well, they're looking for a guy who has good leadership and the guys can rally behind, and they're looking for a guy who can make some plays.

"So in that regard, I don't know if Aaron is in any different position as anybody else, because I think good teams, winning teams, have quarterbacks that do that. Certainly our expectations are that he is going to do some of those things."

Realizing he is now in a position of leadership, the 24-year-old Rodgers has invited teammates to his house on Wednesday nights to promote unity. He has also given his cellphone number to rookie quarterbacks Brian Brohm (second round) and Matt Flynn (seventh round), because he remembered all the questions he had as a rookie in 2005, when he was projected as a possible No. 1 overall pick but slipped to No. 24.

Like any successful team, the Packers - who don't currently have a veteran backup - will attempt to be diverse enough so that not all of the burden falls on the quarterback.

In the surprising Ryan Grant, the club appears to have found a decisive, physical, one-cut runner who nicely fits their zone-based scheme. The receiving corps is especially deep, with third-year man Greg Jennings a rising star and dependable veteran Donald Driver one of the game's steadiest performers. The offensive line has been solid in protection, and with some improvements on the interior could be a top unit. Donald Lee elevates to the No. 1 tight end role, leading a young group that Philbin is counting on for promising development.

But for now, if you talk about the Packers, it seems most everyone puts the attention squarely on one spot: quarterback.

"There might be some growing pains along the way, that's quite possible," said Philbin. "He doesn't have the experience of a 15-year veteran, and the only way you can get that is by going out and playing.

"But as far as the pressure of who he is replacing, that's not something we're focused on. We're focused on how our quarterback needs to play well in this system for this team to be productive on offense, and we have the confidence he can do that."

When the tag is a drag

When NFL owners and the Players Association begin working toward a new collective bargaining agreement in the coming years, one thing the NFLPA should insist upon is that the franchise tag can't be used on the same player two years in a row.

The case of Titans defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth brings this situation to light.

Haynesworth has been designated the franchise player and has remained away from the team in hopes of getting a long-term contract. However, the sides aren't close, so Haynesworth is now saying he'll report if the Titans guarantee they won't use the tag on him next year as well, thus ensuring he'll be an unrestricted free agent. But the Titans, at least publicly, are reluctant to give up such leverage.

Perhaps there is a compromise in the works, similar to New England's agreement with Asante Samuel in 2007 when the club agreed not to tag Samuel if he played at least 60 percent of the defensive snaps, or if the team won 12 games.

But if the Titans aren't willing to meet somewhere in the middle, it just isn't right.

The spirit of the franchise tag is that teams have a way to retain their stars while working toward a long-term deal. July 15 is the deadline for franchise players to strike a long-term deal, but that doesn't mean the sides can't continue discussions throughout the year.

If the Titans can't agree on the parameters of a long-term contract with Haynesworth between now and next March, the Pro Bowl defensive tackle - entering his seventh season in Tennessee - deserves to be an unrestricted free agent.

New Englander has toed the line in Baltimore

Offensive lineman Mike Flynn entered the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens in 1997, and the sum of his signing bonus was hard to miss: $0.

"I was just happy for the free hat and T-shirt," he cracked. "I remember calling my buddies back home at home, thinking, 'This is the coolest thing.' "

It was big-time stuff for a kid who grew up in Agawam, suited up at Springfield Cathedral High School, and played at the University of Maine. Flynn was just hoping to make it through an NFL minicamp.

A center/guard, he ended up playing 11 seasons, all with the Ravens, which is a remarkable accomplishment considering his small-school roots. His résumé includes 134 regular-season games, with 115 starts, and a highlight being 2000, when he went wire-to-wire in the Ravens' Super Bowl championship season.

While Flynn hasn't officially ruled out playing in 2008, he is focusing more than ever on post-career plans, specifically in media. He took part in the NFL's "Broadcast Boot Camp" - which is designed to help players transition to a potential career in the media - and has plans to be part of Ravens pregame and postgame broadcasts.

Growing up in New England and watching Larry Bird play his entire career with the Celtics, the 34-year-old Flynn takes pride in having played for just one organization.

Flynn wanted to join the Patriots coming out of Maine, and had discussions with the club about signing as a rookie free agent. But New England selected three linemen that year - Damon Denson, Ed Ellis, and Scott Rehberg - and Flynn felt more comfortable being reunited with his college coach, Kirk Ferentz, who had moved on to coach the Ravens' offensive line.

Flynn didn't make the roster his first camp and was briefly on the Jaguars' practice squad before returning to the Ravens a few weeks later.

He was a Baltimore guy the rest of the way, and while he never made a Pro Bowl, he was the type of unsung consistent performer every team needs to be successful.

Etc.

Tayloring a deal to fit properly
One of the Dolphins' major hurdles in trade talks regarding defensive end Jason Taylor is Taylor's claim that he's only going to play one more season. While the Packers have had internal discussions about Taylor - such a marriage makes sense on many levels - the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson would not part with a second-round draft choice for a player who will suit up for only one season. So allow us to offer a suggestion that could help facilitate a trade: If Taylor plays more than one season, the Dolphins get a 2010 second-round pick. If this year is indeed a one-and-done for Taylor, then the Dolphins get a 2009 third-rounder. The key would be including language in the deal that sets a specific date for Taylor to make the decision, while also protecting the Dolphins if Taylor initially plans to retire, then returns.

Bearing up
There is a crop of big-name free agent running backs available for needy teams - a group headlined by Travis Henry and Shaun Alexander - and the Bears would seemingly be first to pick up a shopping cart after releasing 2005 first-round pick Cedric Benson. But coach Lovie Smith indicated last week that Chicago has no plans to add a veteran running back at this time, which means rookie Matt Forté, a second-round choice out of Tulane, will enter training camp as the projected starter. While the Bears can always pick up a running back later - think Green Bay and Ryan Grant in 2007 - the lack of immediate action is also good news for local guy Matt Lawrence (UMass), a rookie free agent whose longer odds to make the roster just got a bit shorter.

First downs
Since becoming Bears general manager in 2002, Jerry Angelo has crafted a strong foundation for the club, focusing on a building-through-the-draft and rewarding-your-own-players philosophy. That was reinforced last week when the club inked 2004 first-round pick Tommie Harris to a reported four-year, $40 million contract extension. The defensive tackle, selected 14th overall out of Oklahoma, has easily been Angelo's best first-round choice. While Angelo has arguably found more gems than most in the mid- to later rounds - return man Devin Hester and linebacker Lance Briggs come to mind - his first-round résumé is actually quite spotty:

2002 - OT Marc Colombo (battled serious knee injury, now with Cowboys)

2003 - DE Michael Haynes (out of the NFL)

2003 - QB Rex Grossman (has struggled to hold starting job with the Bears)

2005 - RB Cedric Benson (out of the NFL)

2006 - Traded pick

2007 - TE Greg Olsen

2008 - OT Chris Williams

What happened in Vegas?
The good news is that Raiders receiver Javon Walker didn't suffer injuries serious enough to affect his playing career, but that's about the only good thing to come out of last week's incident in which Walker was apparently robbed, beaten, and left unconscious on a street in Las Vegas. Questions abound as to exactly what happened, and while the Raiders expressed support for Walker, they must be seething behind the scenes. After all, this is a player the team signed to a six-year, $55 million contract this offseason, with $16 million in guarantees. At the very least, Walker appeared to show poor judgment by spending Sunday night at a club, not leaving until 3:30 a.m. Now the Raiders' judgment in committing such riches to Walker is coming into question.

Late-breaking news
How can someone be 56 years old and be a rookie in the NFL? Just ask John Palermo, the Redskins' new defensive line coach. Palermo wasn't even pursuing the job; in fact, he was ready to step away from coaching after 31 seasons in the college ranks. But new Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache remembered him from the 1980s, when his son worked under Palermo at Notre Dame, and enticed him with the NFL opportunity. The Redskins have already given Palermo a familiar face to work with, trading for Erasmus James, whom Palermo coached at the University of Wisconsin.

Extra points
Former Lions running back Kevin Jones, who is recovering from ACL surgery, is scheduled to hold a workout for interested NFL clubs next Saturday. Jones, a first-round pick in 2004, paid a free agent visit to New England earlier in the offseason . . . Louisville receiver Harry Douglas, a third-round selection by the Falcons, has generated a buzz in Atlanta with some Deion Branch-like quickness while working out of the slot. As always, the true test will come when the pads are on and Douglas must work to get a clean break off the line of scrimmage . . . ESPN is sending 10-15 behind-the-scenes employees to Gillette Stadium tomorrow for a "stadium survey," as the Oct. 20 home game against the Broncos will be the network's first in Foxborough since it picked up "Monday Night Football" in 2005. The visit demonstrates how much advance planning is put into television broadcasts . . . After being let go by the Colts, former Boston College offensive lineman Pat Ross (2001-05) was claimed on waivers by the Panthers. BC connections might have helped Ross, as Carolina's offensive line coach, Dave Magazu, was the Eagles' line coach from 1999-2002.

Did you know?
The NFL is promoting Carl Cheffers and Al Riveron to referee, replacing the retiring Larry Nemmers and Gerald Austin. Riveron is the first referee of Hispanic descent in NFL history.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com

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