A Green Bay Packers defense that played magnificently in Monday night's season-opening triumph at Carolina got significantly better today, when cornerback Mike McKenzie joined the team, ending his holdout.
McKenzie's agent, Drew Rosenhaus, had informed Packers officials Tuesday that McKenzie was on his way. McKenzie and Rosenhaus met this morning with Coach Mike Sherman and McKenzie practiced this afternoon. Sherman had said he would welcome McKenzie, but the team would not rework his contract, and McKenzie and Rosenhaus didn't seem to be seeking that at this point.
_____ NFL Team Rankings _____ The NFL Insider will rank teams each Wednesday afternoon during the season.
• 1. Patriots (1-0): With 16 straight wins, are two shy of the unofficial NFL record.
• 2. Eagles (1-0): Offense is finally explosive, but prized rookie G Shawn Andrews has been added to expanding list of those with season-ending injuries alongside DE N.D. Kalu and RB Correll Buckhalter.
• 3. Titans (1-0): RB Chris Brown looks like the real deal.
• 4. Colts (0-1): Played the Patriots tough, but that isn't enough any more. Schedule doesn't get any easier from here with Titans up next, then Packers.
• 5. Seahawks (1-0): Have one road win under belt, and get a chance this week to match last season's road win total of two.
• 6. Packers (1-0): Looked terrific Monday night against Panthers, and now CB Mike McKenzie returns from holdout.
• 7. Vikings (1-0): Big early-season test Monday night at Philly after decisive victory over Cowboys.
• 8. Broncos (1-0): Quentin Griffin steps right in for traded RB Clinton Portis.
• 9. Redskins (1-0): Joe Gibbs looking at 2-0 in return; road games at Giants Stadium weren't always kind to him in his first go-around, but these aren't your father's (or Bill Parcells's) Giants.
• 10. Chiefs (0-1): That defense isn't fixed yet, is it?
• 11. Panthers (0-1): Losing WR Steve Smith changes the whole outlook.
• 12. Rams (1-0): Opening win over Cardinals was less than decisive.
• 13. Ravens (0-1): Early returns on QB Kyle Boller were not promising.
• 14. Cowboys (0-1): Is RB Eddie George done?
• 15. Jets (1-0): RB Curtis Martin looked young again in 196-yard rushing performance in opener.
• 16. Jaguars (1-0): Second-year QB Byron Leftwich didn't play well, but he made the big throw when it counted.
• 17. Steelers (1-0): RB Jerome Bettis has one of the most productive 1-yard rushing days ever, with three TDs.
• 18. Lions (1-0): First road win since 2000 costs them WR Charles Rogers.
• 19. Bengals (0-1): QB Carson Palmer had his moments, but they need to bolster the run defense.
• 20. Falcons (1-0): A team that fancies itself a playoff contender shouldn't have to struggle to beat the 49ers, even on the road.
• 21. Saints (0-1): The total package appears to be far, far less than the sum of the parts. Again.
• 22. Browns (1-0): Beat the Ravens easily at home, but now must take the show on road to Dallas.
• 23. Raiders (0-1): WR Jerry Rice is being phased out. Could QB Rich Gannon be next?
• 24. Bills (0-1): New coach Mike Mularkey, brought in for his offensive wizardry, gets 10 points in the opener.
• 25. Buccaneers (0-1): WR corps is depleted with Joey Galloway and Joe Jurevicius hurt and Keenan McCardell holding out.
• 26. Texans (0-1): The road to respectability doesn't include home losses to the Chargers.
• 27. Chargers (1-0): It's only one game, folks. Stay ready, Philip Rivers.
• 28. Cardinals (0-1): Played the Rams tough; now must hope that the Pats wilt in the heat.
• 29. Bears (0-1): Someone needs to have a long, long talk with WR David Terrell and tell him that one good game does not give you the right to act like Terrell Owens.
• 30. Dolphins (0-1): Must count on RB Lamar Gordon to be the savior.
• 31. 49ers (0-1): GM Terry Donahue gets a contract extension for putting together this team?
• 32. Giants (0-1): Maybe Coach Tom Coughlin can start games five minutes early, before opponents show up.
Published Sept. 15
"Mike McKenzie is back here to play for the Packers, and that's where we are right now,'' Sherman said at a news briefing today. "We take it one day at a time, as I've said to you before. If you hold grudges in this business, or in life, it's hard to move forward. I totally believe you live in the present. We'll deal with tomorrow tomorrow. What was yesterday was yesterday. That's old news.''
Rosenhaus told the Packers on Tuesday that McKenzie still would like to be traded, but the club shows no inclination toward accommodating that request and McKenzie apparently has decided that he doesn't want to miss any more paychecks.
The Packers had hoped that McKenzie would report to work last Wednesday. But he didn't, and he forfeited one-seventeenth of his $2.75 million salary for this season -- or $161,764.71 -- by missing the opener.
The Packers didn't blink in their contract stare-down with McKenzie, and won. McKenzie had threatened to sit out the entire season rather than play for the Packers. He hired Rosenhaus, his fifth agent in five years, to attempt to get him traded. Instead, he surrendered.
The Packers will have to determine what sort of shape McKenzie is in to figure out when he will be able to play. A team generally receives a two-week roster exemption for a player after a lengthy holdout. The Packers reportedly were fining McKenzie $5,000 in training camp for each day of his holdout, but clubs usually waive such fines when players agree to end holdouts.
"He looked like he had been training and he's in shape,'' Sherman said today. "That's a positive thing. We're just going to push the envelope in that area to try to get him ready as soon as possible. We'll take it day by day, however. It's a new defense. There's a lot of learning involved in the defense and obviously he hasn't been playing football, which is a little bit of a different type shape than training with a trainer.''
McKenzie is in the third season of a five-year, $17.1-million deal signed in 2002. The contract pays him salaries of $3.43 million in 2005 and $4.1 million in 2006. He wanted more, and he apparently was upset at how the team had treated him.
The Packers had some conversations with other teams when McKenzie asked to be traded. The New Orleans Saints seemed particularly interested. But Green Bay was asking for at least a first-round draft choice and perhaps another pick in return, and no deal was completed.
The Packers signed another cornerback, Al Harris, to a five-year, $19-million contract extension just before the season that included about $7 million in bonus money. The leverage in the McKenzie standoff shifted considerably when the Packers defense performed brilliantly in Monday night's 24-14 win over the Panthers, the defending NFC champions. New defensive coordinator Bob Slowik blitzed regularly, and the Packers harassed Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme and shut down tailback Stephen Davis.
Harris kept Carolina's standout wide receiver, Steve Smith, from being a major factor in the game before Smith broke his leg late in the fourth quarter. Fill-in starter Michael Hawthorne played well, even with the Panthers appearing to target him, and first-round draft choice Ahmad Carroll -- selected as a possible replacement for McKenzie -- looked good as the nickel cornerback. The Packers seemed perfectly content to play the entire season without McKenzie, if necessary.
Still, McKenzie is one of the NFC's top cornerbacks, and the Packers clearly are a better team with him than without him. Harris often shadowed Smith on both sides of the field Monday. But with McKenzie playing opposite Harris, the Packers usually keep each cornerback on a particular side of the field and don't fret too much about the matchups because they're confident in the abilities of both players.
Monday's performance pushed the memory of fourth-and-26 a bit further into the background. That, of course, is the predicament that the Philadelphia Eagles overcame en route to their game-tying field goal at the end of regulation in their overtime playoff victory over the Packers last season. The failure cost Slowik's predecessor, Ed Donatell, his job.
It may be early, but these Packers look formidable if the defense does its part. They have one of the game's best runners in tailback Ahman Green. They have become a run-first team and maybe, just maybe, the Green-led Packers can give quarterback Brett Favre one more Super Bowl title before he retires the way the Terrell Davis-led Denver Broncos gave John Elway a couple of Super Bowl championships before he exited the sport. Favre has dangerous wide receivers at his disposal when he must throw, and the Green Bay offensive line manhandled Carolina's vaunted defensive line Monday.
And today, the Packers are better than they were Monday.
Bucs Stand Pat on McCardell
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are taking the same approach with holdout wide receiver Keenan McCardell that the Packers took with McKenzie, staunchly refusing to trade or release McCardell or renegotiate his contract.
The Buccaneers' play on the field hasn't given them the same leverage as the Packers' performance Monday gave them with McKenzie. Tampa Bay's offense sputtered Sunday in a loss at Washington and Joey Galloway tore his groin muscle, joining fellow wideout Joe Jurevicius on the shelf. But the Buccaneers say that won't affect their dealings with McCardell. If that stance doesn't change, McCardell will face the same decision that McKenzie did -- show up and get paid something, or stay home and get nothing.
McCardell said over the weekend he would refund a portion of his signing bonus if Tampa Bay would release him and added that he'd prefer to play for Baltimore, Kansas City or Chicago.
Saints Avoiding Ivan
With Hurricane Ivan threatening New Orleans, perhaps as soon as Thursday, the Saints have moved to San Antonio and plan to practice there today through Friday. They are scheduled to play San Francisco at home Sunday.
The NFL rescheduled the Titans-Dolphins game in Miami last weekend, from Sunday to Saturday, when Ivan appeared headed toward the Miami area on Sunday or Monday.
Niners Committed To Donahue
The 49ers very well might be one of the NFL's worst teams this season, and they are in salary cap jail. But they are committed to General Manager Terry Donahue, signing him Tuesday to a four-year contract extension that runs through 2009. His deal was to expire next offseason.
Donahue oversaw what many people around the league regarded as a very strong draft by the 49ers in April. But he maintains that he is not responsible for the club's current salary-cap issues, and that is debatable. The 49ers have about $28 million in "dead money" (cap space devoted to players no longer on the roster) on this season's $80.582-million salary cap, and about $18 million of it comes from getting rid of quarterback Jeff Garcia, wide receiver Terrell Owens and running back Garrison Hearst this past offseason. . . .
The Minnesota Vikings seemed intent on signing one veteran cornerback Tuesday, when they brought in free agents Terrance Shaw and Ralph Brown for workouts. Shaw appeared to be the front-runner. But the Vikings liked both players and ended up signing both. Minnesota had two young cornerbacks, Rhett Nelson and Rushen Jones, backing up starters Antoine Winfield and Brian Williams after Ken Irvin suffered a torn Achilles tendon in warmups before Sunday's victory over Dallas. . . .
Kicker Aaron Elling was released by Tennessee on Tuesday when the Titans signed veteran Gary Anderson, the NFL's career scoring leader, to replace the injured Joe Nedney for a second season in a row. For Elling, it was the second time he was cut in a short span, having just been dumped by the Vikings. But he likely will return to the Vikings this week as a kickoff specialist.
Elling missed a 33-yard field goal attempt in Saturday's win at Miami but connected on a 22-yarder and thrived as an emergency fill-in for punter Craig Hentrich, averaging 45.3 yards on his six punts. He is the AFC's fifth-leading punter this week. His net average of 40.2 yards (punt yardage minus return yardage) ranks fourth in the conference. But Hentrich's sore back is improving and the Titans hope he is ready to handle punting, kickoffs and long field goals for the Titans while Anderson takes over the primary field goal duties. If Hentrich can't kick off this week, Tennessee could sign former Kansas City punter Jason Baker for those duties. He is scheduled to work out for the Titans today.
Anderson, 45, made 27 of 31 field goal attempts for Tennessee last season.
Pats to Arizona Early
New England Coach Bill Belichick is planning to take the Patriots to Arizona a day or two early so that players can adjust to the heat before they play the Cardinals on Sunday. The forecast calls for the temperature to be over 100 degrees Friday and Saturday in Phoenix, then dip to a high of 95 Sunday. . . .
The Patriots hope to have cornerback Ty Law in the lineup Sunday after he was hobbled by a strained hamstring during Thursday night's triumph over Indianapolis in the NFL's season-opening game. Law played through an ankle injury last season, but there's an outside chance that Belichick could force him to sit out a game at some point to get fully healthy this time around. . . . Seattle is readying Maurice Morris for a possible start at tailback Sunday at Tampa Bay if Shaun Alexander is sidelined by his bruised knee. . . .
Tailback Lamar Gordon likely will make his first start for the Dolphins on Sunday night at Cincinnati. Miami obtained Gordon in a trade with St. Louis to be the starter as soon as possible and the team's other tailbacks, Travis Minor and Sammy Morris, have ankle injuries. . . . Packers nose tackle Grady Jackson could miss a month or two after dislocating kneecap during the Carolina game. . . . The Jets re-signed guard Brent Smith, a starter last season who was released last week and returns as a backup.
Teams Honoring Tillman This Weekend
All NFL players will wear a sticker beating the number 40 this weekend to honor Pat Tillman, the former Cardinals safety who was killed in combat in Afghanistan in April as a member of the U.S. Army Rangers. Cardinals players are wearing such decals all season.