Ask Antonio Freeman about the play that sums up his 1999 season,
and he flops sharply back in his chair, as if absorbing the blow
yet again. Week 11, at home against Detroit: Freeman looks back
for a pass down the left sideline, just as Lions safety Mark
Carrier nails him with a vicious helmet-to-helmet shot. The hit
momentarily knocks the Green Bay wideout unconscious. Then, as
he's taken off the field, Freeman--in the midst of his worst
season as a starter--is booed. Glancing into the stands,
however, he is stunned to find that his legion of critics has
grown by one. There, hurling invective with the best of them, is
his brother, Clarence.
"I couldn't believe that--my own brother," says the sixth-year
wideout, wincing at the memory. "At first I was offended. To
leave the game with a concussion, and now my own brother's
doubting me. I'd heard it all year long, but not from someone I
Clarence later apologized for getting caught up in the heat of
the moment; but for Antonio the incident was the low point of
last season's collapse. Green Bay would finish 8-8 and miss the
playoffs for the first time since 1992. While the targets were
many, no Packer took more arrows than Freeman. Compared with a
stellar 1998 season his year certainly showed a drop-off, but his
numbers were still decent; however, after signing a seven-year,
$42 million contract during camp (following a two-week holdout),
decent wouldn't do. It didn't help that when Freeman finally
reported, he did so in woeful shape. "I heard it from everyone,
that the money had made me soft," he says. "I see why it was
said, now. I'd raised the bar and I came up short."
Now he's intent on clearing that bar. He reported to camp at a
trim 198 pounds, down 10 from last season. Discussions during
minicamp in March with new coach Mike Sherman, in which the two
talked about an increased role for Freeman, had the former Pro
Bowl wideout looking happy and focused during workouts. "I told
Antonio I needed him to lead this team," says Sherman. "He's been
a delight." Adds Freeman, "Getting off to the right start was
important. I mean, just look at our team's start last year."
To wit: Quarterback Brett Favre severely sprained his right thumb
in the preseason, an injury that never healed. Despite throwing
for 4,091 yards, Favre had more interceptions (23) than scoring
passes (22). Former All-Pro tight end Mark Chmura, Favre's
favorite target, missed the last 14 games after suffering a
severe neck injury. Meanwhile new coach Ray Rhodes overhauled the
offense, emphasizing more long routes and far fewer slants and
quick outs--which happen to be Freeman's specialties. Worse,
Rhodes moved Freeman from split end to flanker, where success
depends more upon quick separation from the cornerback and speed
to evade strongside double teams.
For Freeman--never the fleetest of foot and long susceptible to
cornerback jams--the move was disastrous, especially after a groin
injury in Week 6 that worsened as the season wore on. He finished
with just three 100-yard receiving games. "Why make me a deep
threat when that's not my game?" Freeman says. "Our offense got
too basic, and maybe Brett felt like he had to do too much. I
started to think that maybe the Packer magic was gone."
Hoping to revive the magic, general manager Ron Wolf fired
Rhodes, whom Wolf correctly believed had lost the team. He
replaced him with Sherman, a reserved Mike Holmgren protege
brought in to restore order and remake Favre. Sherman
reintroduced the West Coast schemes so successful in Green Bay
during the mid-'90s and, in addition to reaching out to Freeman,
has shown a willingness to bark at Favre after a poorly thrown
pass in practice. Alas, in the midst of a superb camp, Favre had
to shut things down when he developed tendinitis in his right
elbow. He's being rested for the opener.
Making things tougher, Freeman and fellow wideout Bill
Schroeder, whose emergence in '99 was as close to pleasant as
last year got, must overcome a couple of big losses. Deep threat
Corey Bradford will miss at least the first month after breaking
his left leg in an Aug. 13 exhibition game. Chmura was released
by the team in June after his arrest for an alleged sexual
assault on a 17-year-old girl at a party in April. Rookie tight
end Bubba Franks, the 14th pick in the draft out of Miami,
looked impressive at times in camp but will have to improve as a
run blocker. He'll also have to gain Favre's trust. "Mark was
Brett's security blanket," says Freeman. "For now, the wide
receivers have to take that on."
If they do, the Packers can contend for a wild card. "Until we go
deep into the playoffs, I know we'll still have our critics, and
deservedly so," Freeman says. "And until I'm on my way back to
Hawaii, I'll still have mine, too."
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO ON THE REBOUND After a year in which he was fat and unhappy, a trimmer Freeman has vowed to get his game back on its feet.
COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG
Sept. 3 N.Y. JETS
10 at Buffalo
24 at Arizona
Oct. 1 CHICAGO
8 at Detroit
15 SAN FRANCISCO
22 Open date
29 at Miami
Nov. 6 MINNESOTA (Mon.)
12 at Tampa Bay
27 at Carolina (Mon.)
Dec. 3 at Chicago
17 at Minnesota
24 TAMPA BAY
1999 Record 8-8 (tied for 3rd in NFC Central)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 21/7/9; defense 22/18/19
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 10
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .523
Games against playoff teams: 9
PLAYER TO WATCH
As his fingers furiously tap on his kneecaps and his legs bounce
rapidly to an unheard beat, you'd swear Antuan Edwards is
nervous. "No, I'm just ready to play, that's all," the
nickelback says sheepishly. "I've been ready." That's not
surprising. After Green Bay made him the 25th selection in the
1999 draft out of Clemson, preseason surgery on his right big
toe slowed his progress; he lost a starting corner spot to
fellow rookie Mike McKenzie. This season a now-healthy Edwards
will see significant time at both cornerback and safety. "I know
I can be a starter here," he says, "if I just get a chance."
With the secondary sorely lacking both depth and playmakers,
Edwards's chance is now.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Mike Sherman
First season with Packers (0-0 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Brett Favre 8 595 att. 341 comp. 57.3% 4,091 yds.
22 TDs 23 int. 74.7 rtg.
RB Dorsey Levens 26 279 att. 1,034 yds. 3.7 avg. 71 rec.
573 yds. 8.1 avg. 10 TDs
RB Ahman Green 169 26 att. 120 yds. 4.6 avg. 0 rec.
0 yds. no avg. 0 TDs
FB William Henderson 280 7 att. 29 yds. 4.1 avg. 30 rec.
203 yds. 6.8 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Antonio Freeman 33 74 rec. 1,074 yds. 6 TDs
WR Bill Schroeder 53 74 rec. 1,051 yds. 5 TDs
WR Corey Bradford 180 37 rec. 637 yds. 5 TDs
TE Bubba Franks (R) 86 45 rec. 565 yds. 5 TDs
K Ryan Longwell 175 38/38 XPs 25/30 FGs 113 pts.
PR Darren Sharper[**] 334 7 ret. 4.6 avg. 0 TDs
KR Ahman Green 169 36 ret. 22.7 avg. 0 TDs
LT Mike Wahle 6'6" 306 lbs. 16 games 13 starts
LG Ross Verba 6'4" 308 lbs. 11 games 10 starts
C Frank Winters 6'3" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Marco Rivera 6'4" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Earl Dotson 6'4" 310 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
LE Vonnie Holliday 66 tackles 6 sacks
LT Russell Maryland 51 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
RT Santana Dotson 35 tackles 2 1/2 sacks
RE John Thierry 38 tackles 7 sacks
OLB Na'il Diggs (R) 94 tackles 6 sacks
MLB Bernardo Harris 107 tackles 0 sacks
OLB Brian Williams 68 tackles 2 sacks
CB Mike McKenzie 65 tackles 6 int.
SS LeRoy Butler 67 tackles 2 int.
FS Darren Sharper 113 tackles 3 int.
CB Tyrone Williams 65 tackles 4 int.
P Josh Bidwell[*] 51 punts 46.0 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 139)
[*]1998 college statistics [**]1997 statistics
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Packers
"From what I hear, Mike Sherman has come in with the right idea.
He realizes you have to manage Brett Favre in order to win. You
can't get so enamored of his talent that you let him freelance
and be the maverick he wants to be. If Favre is on, he still
scares me more than any player in the league. He'll need to do a
lot on his own. Dorsey Levens gets hurt too much. Their left
tackle, Mike Wahle, works hard but isn't quick enough to handle
the edge rushers in that division. And the right tackle, Earl
Dotson, always seems to be hobbled. You can beat that line.... On
defense they'll enter the season with Vonnie Holliday and John
Thierry as the ends, which is very weak. Holliday ought to be a
tackle. I don't know where the pass rush is going to come
from.... I never thought I'd say this, but the strength of the
defense might be at corner, with Tyrone Williams, Mike McKenzie
and Antuan Edwards. I like Williams's cover ability. LeRoy Butler
is slowing down, and I don't trust Darren Sharper. [Vikings
wideout] Randy Moss will beat him two or three times. Bank on it."