Ahman's the man in Green Bay now
Sunday, December 9, 2001
By Len Pasquarelli
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Beyond having his name emblazoned on a wall at historic Lambeau Field, his image mounted in the team's Hall of Fame and his presence in a television commercial that airs during Green Bay Packers games, there are few tangible reminders of the decade that retired general manager Ron Wolf labored here resurrecting one of the NFL's most storied franchises.
But then you look at the offensive stat sheet following a game like the Green Bay 17-7 victory over the Chicago Bears on Sunday -- and note that the team's two touchdowns came on a Brett Favre pass and an Ahman Green run -- it is obvious that the Wolf fingerprint still remains a pretty significant element of a team he officially departed six months ago.
Never shy about using the barter system to upgrade the Green Bay roster and often avoided by some of his peers because of his well-documented shrewdness in trade negotiations, Wolf acquired both of the Packers' premier playmakers in swaps. And while the 1992 trade that brought Favre to the Packers is frequently cited as the biggest steal in NFL history -- a deal that in retrospect clearly was the football equivalent of the Brink's heist -- the 2000 acquisition of Green might not be far behind when it comes to the Wolf legacy here.
Once again on Sunday, in a game that nudged the Packers into the NFC Central lead by virtue of their two wins over the Bears in the past five weeks, the prominence of Green was evident. Both teams now own 9-3 marks, but the similar records belie the undeniable superiority of Green Bay. Green is a big reason for that advantage.
"What a playmaker, huh?" gushed Favre, nodding toward Green's locker. "There just aren't many guys like him around the league. He's a difference maker, that's for sure, and we saw that today. With everything he can do, he gives us a big advantage, and you want to get the ball to him."
Modesty prevented Favre from identifying himself as the biggest difference between the Packers and the Bears, as he once again outplayed Chicago counterpart Jim Miller and completed 15 of his 27 pass attempts for 207 yards. His point about Green, however, is well taken and was echoed even by some members of the Bears' defense.
Outside of St. Louis tailback Marshall Faulk, who inarguably comprises a subset of all-around tailbacks limited only to himself, there may be no more complete a player than Green. The fourth-year veteran rushed for 125 yards on 29 carries and caught two passes for 49 yards, his 174 total yards from scrimmage representing 49.4 percent of the Packers' offensive output.
"This is a great offense for me," Green acknowledged, "because it allows me to use my versatility to make plays. If I just do what I'm supposed to do in the offense, then I should put up those kind of yards. To get 150 or 200 yards in a game, that should be the norm, the way the offense works."
A famous frog once opined, in song no less, that it's not easy being green. Being Ahman Green, on the other hand, appears to be a relatively facile undertaking. The onetime caddy in Seattle for Ricky Watters, the indefatigable Green is now carrying a club of a different kind, having grown into the centerpiece of the Packers' attack.
It would be sacrilegious, of course, to suggest that anyone on the Green Bay roster supercedes the three-time most valuable player Favre in terms of indispensability. But with so much of the Green Bay offense based around his myriad skills -- and with the passing game sputtering at times, Favre has become a close second in terms of players coach Mike Sherman doesn't want to be without.
Counting the incomplete passes directed at him, Green either touched the ball or was the primary target on 34 of Green Bay's 65 offensive snaps in the key victory. One could do worse, as Favre pointed out, than to put the ball as often as possible in the hands of one of the most productive performers in the league. The team's offensive coaching brain trust apparently understands that, too, as Green is responsible for 37.9 percent of the Packers' net total yards through 12 games.
Green had 10 plays of more than five yards on Sunday, a half-dozen of them netting 10 yards or more, and that included a run of 29 yards and a 38-yard reception. His 12-yard touchdown run with three minutes remaining in the third quarter snapped a 7-7 tie. With the Monday night game still on the schedule, Green leads the NFL in all-purpose real estate with 1,612 yards.
That is just 122 yards shy of his 2000 total, when he was one of only two players in the league to lead his team in rushing and receptions. Green also became just the third back in Green Bay history to post consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons.
Not bad for a player acquired nearly as an afterthought -- imported basically to spell often injured Dorsey Levens -- and someone who had the reputation as a habitual fumbler. Green still puts the ball on the ground too often, but when one considers how far he has progressed and the pittance Green Bay paid the Seattle Seahawks to acquire him, there are some things with which you learn to live.
"If the guy has any warts, I haven't seen them in the two years I've been in the league," said Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who had a standout performance with 11 tackles, one sack, an interception and two passes defensed. "He's a really tough runner to defend because he starts one way and can end up somewhere else. And he's a lot stronger than he seems. He runs with a kind of deceptive (authority) and isn't afraid to take on a tackler. He might not look very fast on tape but, when he needs to be, he'll run around you. Today he spent a lot of time running right through us."
That typically isn't an easy task, given that the Bears' defense entered the game ranked No. 1 in the league against the rush, allowing a paltry 76.5 yards per game. But behind some bone-jarring blocks from underappreciated fullback William Henderson and a solid game from a line that had to shuffle at times because of an injury to right guard Marco Rivera, the former Nebraska star all but shredded the Chicago front seven.
For a player who rarely caught the ball in college and had just three receptions his first two seasons in the league, Green again proved to be a solid and patient receiver. Patience, in fact, was a notable virtue on his 12-yard touchdown run. He set up a block by left tackle Chad Clifton by waiting enough to permit wide receiver Bill Schroeder to come inside and deliver a seal-off block against Bears free safety Mike Brown before coasting around left end for the score.
"He's become a smart runner," Favre said of Green. "A lot of guys, they just take the ball and go, but it isn't speed that gains you the big yards in this league. I think he has figured that out. He's really good at reading blocks and allowing people to get out in front of him. There aren't a lot of guys you would take over him right now, that's for sure."
In one of his last major forays in shaping the Packers' roster before his exit, Wolf sent cornerback Fred Vinson to the Seahawks and former Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren in a straight-up deal. A second-round choice in the 1999 draft, a year in which Wolf selected cornerbacks with each of his first three picks, Vinson tragically never played a down in Seattle after tearing knee ligaments in consecutive seasons.
Waived by the Seahawks this spring, it is likely that Vinson will never play again, and a check this week with the league office confirmed the former Vanderbilt star has had no recent auditions. On the other hand, Green doesn't have to worry about auditions at this point in his career, since he is almost always on center stage now.
"You hear the term 'feature back' a lot, and I'm not exactly sure what it means, but I think that we have a guy who fits the mold," said left guard Mike Wahle. "You name it, Ahman does it."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com
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