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RUNNING ON EMPTY?

by Jerry Gilbert

Before the 2005 season began, it appeared that the Green Bay Packers were in good shape at running back. Ahman Green was a returning Pro Bowl honoree, and Najeh Davenport had proven to be a quality back-up. Tony Fisher was not seen as a potential starter, but he has proven to be an excellent third down back and special team performer. The problems seemed to be all in the future. All three backs will be free agents after 2005. Who should be the priority to sign?

That seemed to be a major question as the season began, but some answers have emerged. For four games Najeh Davenport did not seem up to the task as a full time back. In game five he was a star, until his season ending injury. The conclusion has to be that Najeh Davenport has shown neither the consistency nor durability to be a full time starter. On the other hand, his injury will probably make him more valuable to Green Bay than to any other team. Davenport will likely sign a one-year deal hoping to prove in 2006 that he can be a starting back somewhere. Assuming that he returns next year at 100% (a supportable assumption for a runner with a broken ankle), Davenport will provide depth at the position, but not the answer.

Ahman Green is a puzzle. Sometimes he appears to be hitting that wall that veteran running backs tend to find. He fails as much as he succeeds in short yardage situations, and he is not the touchdown machine he was a few years ago. The breakaway runs have also been less frequent the last two seasons. Perhaps it is the way plays are called, but Green is seldom used in the passing game. A few years ago, he was Green Bays leading receiver, now he is an infrequent target.

Other times Ahman Green seems to be as fast and effective as ever. Sunday against Minnesota, running behind an offensive line that appears to be establishing some momentum, Green will have a very good chance to silence his critics and delight his Fantasy Football owners. However, it will take at least most of the season to determine whether Green Bay management will want to invest millions more on an aging Running back who still could lose a step at any time.

Given the reality of impending free agency, it is surprising that neither Mike Sherman nor Ted Thompson have taken any serious steps to bring in a running back of the future. Veteran backs such as Travis Henry and Antowain Smith were available last off season, and others such as Ricky Williams may be on the block next year. Each draft also has produced a stable of interesting runners even in the later rounds, but the Packers have not taken the bait.

Instead, they have brought in a series of unknown free agents who have taken turns becoming injured. One of the most promising was Gramblings Walter Williams. He started one game last year and ran well before being carried off the field. This season, after Green was injured, Williams looked to be a likely candidate for a roster spot, but no call was made.

The first backs to get a good look during the 2005 preseason were Chris Robertson 6-1 230 Houston and Chaz Williams 5-9 210 Georgia Southern. Both were injured in preseason. Williams is currently on Injured Reserve. A college quarterback, Williams showed enough as a runner in training camp that he might be given another shot next season. However, his potential is to be no more than a situational replacement.

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