Packers eager to see what Green can do
Sunday, September 23, 2001
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

of the Journal Sentinel staff

Green Bay - You'll be hard-pressed to hear anyone around the Green Bay Packers talking about Ahman Green's greatness in the present tense.

They would rather focus on the future.

"This guy can be as good as he wants to be," quarterback Brett Favre said.

"He can be one of the best ones (if) he stays healthy and maintains focus day in and day out," running-backs coach Sylvester Croom said.

"He's just coming into his own. He's not like any other guys you can think about," former general manager Ron Wolf said.

These kinds of comments aren't unusual even as Green, 24, puts up numbers that ought to bring him praise right now. He led the Packers in rushing (1,175 yards) and receiving (73 catches) last year and came into Week 2 this season leading the National Football League in rushing (157) and total yards (177).

But those around him just can't stop thinking about the player he could become. What they see now is a work in progress. They're waiting to see the finished product.

"I don't know what's going to happen," Green said last week. "I go out there every game to get better. Every play I touch the ball, every time I protect Brett, that's what I'm trying to do - get better.

"But it takes awhile. It takes awhile to get better. But eventually it happens. But you can't really say when it's going to happen."

As amazing as Green's two long touchdowns runs were two weeks ago against Detroit (31 and 83 yards), they were still functions of his superior athletic ability. In both instances, he used his deceptive power to break tackles and his uncanny speed to get to the end zone.

All of this occurred even though he missed the Packers' final three exhibition games with a groin pull. He had one week of practice to prepare for the season opener and then took over the game as though he were in midseason form.

Still, Green was not as good as he could have been. He fumbled after taking a hit to the jaw in the second quarter and dropped two passes in the flat that could have resulted in significant gains. His per-carry average dropped from 16.6 in the first half to 2.7 in the second.

"He's still learning a lot about himself and his game," Croom said. "He still has a lot to learn, a lot of getting better to do. The thing we're trying to impress on him is how good he can be."

Green's biggest difficulty has been holding on to the football. In his career, he has dropped 13 of the 106 passes thrown his way. Last year, he dropped 10 passes and was out of position for many others.

Considering that teammate Dorsey Levens went through one season dropping just one of the 84 passes thrown his way, the bar is set high for Green. The Packers think Green can be better than Levens because he has speed that other backs just dream about.

"I get on Ahman in a joking way about his hands, but he leads the team in receiving easily last year if he catches a third of what he dropped," Favre said. "He might have had 100 catches. That's amazing for a guy who is supposed to not have any hands.

"That's not a knock on him. If he can put that together, the hands part, catching the football - we know he can run - he can be as good as anyone in this league."

Speed & power
What makes Green such an appetizing weapon in the offense is his rare combination of speed and power. At 6 feet and 217 pounds, Green can outlift just about any running back his size and many who are bigger.

He first discovered the strength in his powerful legs when he was playing youth football in southern California. When he carried three 12-year-olds on his back for 10 yards during a game, he realized he had an asset.

When he moved with his family back to Omaha, Neb., where he was born, his high school had a powerlifting team, and soon Green was squatting almost 500 pounds and competing against lifters who weighed 50 or 60 pounds more than he.

It took Green just three years to establish himself as the University of Nebraska's second-time leading career rusher, and in the winter of his junior year he declared himself eligible for the draft at the tender age of 20.

"I was always fascinated by his speed," Wolf said. "He was timed in unbelievable speeds. I was at his school workout. His times were unreal."

Green ran the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds at the scouting combine in Indianapolis, but when he was clocked at his school workout, times ranged between 4.2 and 4.32. In addition, he had a 381/2-inch vertical leap.

"I've always had strength in my legs," Green said. "People really couldn't tell it because I would wear baggy pants. Then I'd play football, and they would see."

Rushed into offense
When the Packers acquired Green in a trade with Seattle for cornerback Fred Vinson, they envisioned him serving as an apprentice behind Levens and gradually developing into their starter. But when Levens had knee problems, Green stepped in and took over.

His first season was rocky, especially when it came to the intricacies of the West Coast offense. In Seattle, coach Mike Holmgren had given up on him as anything but a short-yardage back because of his fumbling problem, and Green's development had suffered.

By the end of last year, he developed more patience and started to make a living out of cutback plays that often result in off-balance players trying to make arm tackles. He insists that you can't tackle him too low because of his leg strength and you can't tackle him too high because he'll spin off you.

"If you go too low, you'll get hit by one of my thighs, or I might step on you," Green said.

One longtime NFL observer said, ideally, you want to go high on Green so he has to protect the ball. He said until he learns to handle the ball the way Levens does and expose less of his body to defenders, he will have trouble holding on to the ball.

Croom said he was satisfied that Green runs with the proper pad level when he hits the hole and generally doesn't stand upright until he hits the open field. But he said he was still in his infancy in the West Coast offense and won't improve until he gets a better understanding of the game.

Time to learn
"That's part of the process, understanding the speed of this game, and understanding the blocking schemes and patterns, and how the steps are, and how he fits into the scheme of the play," said Croom, who served as Barry Sanders' offensive coordinator in Detroit for four seasons.

"It's not just take the ball and run. You have to understand the defense and the blocking schemes and anticipation prior to the snap based on what you studied on the tape, and how individuals play as you go through the league. All of that is a part of it."

The physical part, all agree, is already there.

When asked for comparisons, Wolf and Favre both pointed to Bo Jackson. They agree that Green is not the supreme athlete Jackson was, but they said his combination of power and speed almost put him there.

"Bo Jackson is in a class by himself," said Wolf, who was with the Raiders when Jackson was a running back there. "He's similar in strength and speed. But Jackson never became a student of the game. He couldn't (because of his baseball career)."

Green can become a student of the game. He has one of the best teachers around in Levens. Favre said Levens was as complete a player as he had ever been around and the best pass-catching back he had seen.

If Green can become anywhere close to the practitioner Levens is in this offense, Favre said he thought the sky was the limit.

"He can be like Marshall Faulk," Favre said. "Marshall Faulk doesn't have the power or the burst that he has. Marshall Faulk is as complete a player as I've ever seen. You can line him up at X receiver and he can be better than your X.

"Ahman might not be able to do that. But what we're asking of him, if he can do that and take it to another level and stay healthy. . . ."

Then the future will be his.

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