Originally created 08/29/98

Deficient ground game puts burden on Favre



GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers are off to their best start in 32 years, no thanks to a banged-up backfield so decimated that St. Louis Rams rejects Lawrence Phillips and Craig "Ironhead" Heyward have auditioned.

Coach Mike Holmgren and general manager Ron Wolf insist they'll stick with what they've got, unless -- or until -- another back goes down.

Pro Bowl selection Dorsey Levens is out until December with leg and ankle injuries and speedy Travis Jervey is recovering from a pulled hamstring, so the Packers are relying on Raymont Harris, who's still recovering from a broken leg himself.

With a grounded running game that ranks ahead of only Tennessee, Green Bay has had to sweat it out three straight weeks as its top-ranked defense extinguished last-minute comebacks.

The Packers went back to their roots Sunday at Carolina, with Brett Favre throwing for 388 yards and five touchdowns.

The burden even fell to Favre for the Packers to finally crack 100 yards rushing. It took his 17-yard scramble to reach 109 as Harris averaged just 2.9 yards on 28 carries.

"We're a passing team first," Favre said. "Bottom line, I keep saying, is winning the game, no matter how you do it."

But how long can the passing game carry this offense?

"As long as No. 4 is healthy," split end Antonio Freeman said in reference to Favre.

The reigning three-time MVP had the third-best passing yardage day of his career even though flanker Robert Brooks left in the third quarter after taking a shot to his head.

"He's the best quarterback that ever played the game," Brooks insisted. "If anybody can dispute that for any quarterback, old school or new school, you're crazy. You see it if you just watch the guy play."

"He's worth all the money, all the hype," fullback William Henderson said. "I just hope I can continue playing with him for a while because the dude, he makes you feel good. He knows how to pick you up when things go awry."

Still, the Packers couldn't exhale until Kerry Collins' last-second pass into the end zone was batted away, giving Green Bay a 37-30 escape and its first 4-0 start since 1966.

Used to be the Packers running game got better as the game wore on, but without Levens punishing defenders, Green Bay just can't run out the clock.

They also failed twice on fourth-and-inches.

"That hasn't happened to us in a long time," Holmgren said. "It is inexcusable. It can't happen. And I would like answers on why it happened."

Start with Levens being out and Jervey deactivated and Harris still isn't comfortable with the offense.

"Raymont, the more he carries the ball, the more he's involved in our running game, the more he'll recognize things and recognize our blocking schemes," Holmgren said. "So, we'll stick with it."

Jervey said he will practice Thursday, after a two days off Holmgren gave his tired team.

"I think he has a chance to play" Monday night against Minnesota, Holmgren said. "But hamstrings, you know they're funny deals. I would hope he'd be able to practice some and give us some more depth at running back."

If not, the Packers might have to sign Phillips or Heyward.

Holmgren said there are salary cap considerations and, in the case of the trouble-prone Phillips, concerns over team chemistry to be addressed.

"But Ron has always said this and I've always said this, if we can find a player, a given player, that will help us be a better football team, we have never not done that," Holmgren said. "But we have to sure that is the situation."

Heyward was released by St. Louis earlier this month after he had ballooned to almost pounds. He's reportedly down to 260.

"I saw him this morning, said, `Hello,' he looks to be in great shape," Holmgren said. "Shoot, he looked little to me."

Phillips was in town last week.

"We had a good visit," Holmgren said. "Now, does that mean we're going to sign him? No. At this point, we have to wait and see, see where Travis is, see what the salary cap ramifications are, all that stuff."