A recent discussion on PackerChatters recently alluded to a three-year evaluation of the somewhat controversial dismissals made by Ted Thompson in his first year as general manager, and made the point that in retrospect, the decisions were actually fairly sound.
In addition, some mud was slung toward the "naysayers" who, at the time, apparently were decrying the moves as sending the Packers into a Groundhog Day of the 70's and 80's. While I certainly enjoy a mudbath as much as the next person, I thought it appropriate in these, the empty days of the offseason, to rehash a little of the old discussion and bring it up to code.
The players specifically mentioned as being the controversial dumps in the 2005 offseason were Darren Sharper, Mark Wahle, Marco Rivera, and Ryan Longwell. Certainly, these players were all longtime Packers and also well-connected with the former GM. Also alluded to were the later releases of Ahman Green and Corey Williams.
First of all, I have no problems admitting to having been a pretty harsh Thompson Critic, and frankly, I still don't fully buy into his philosophy of rebuilding. However, a 13-3 record goes a long way in turning a lot of folks into fervent (if not militant) believers, and certainly, even I give Thompson credit for helping bring this team into a quick turnaround from the crash-and-burn of 2005.
The problem with declaring that certain players were "good cuts" because they haven't amounted to much since is one-sided, and does miss the true point of what many of the more rational Thompson Critics said and continue to say today: the cutting of some high-priced players isn't the problem, it's what has been done to replace them properly.
This is where I think the Thompson's other shoe drops, and as we look at each cut, I don't want to focus on what that player's contributions might have been (or not been), but how he has addressed the hole that was left by that player's departure.
In most cases, regardless of who the GM was, many of these players' releases or trades were expected, and in some cases, somewhat of a relief. How Thompson has managed the positions since that time is what needs to be examined to provide a full picture and assessment.
Ryan Longwell: On a personal level, I was kind of glad to see Longwell go. While I don't approach Bill Parcels-levels of disdain for kickers, I do think that Longwell was a bit outspoken and whiny for a specialist. Over the years, he openly spoke against the moves that took away former holders Josh Bidwell and Matt Hasselback (as if only for his sake), but he had a penchant for passing the buck when it came to blame for a poor kick.
As his 2005 season muffed to a 74.1% FG percentage (and his finger-pointing at holder BJ Sander increased), I wasn't surprised to see Thompson pass on a franchise tag that would have cost $2.5 million, but given a contract offer that was, at best, low-ball.
The Vikings took Longwell and gave him a five-year, $10 million contract containing a $3 million signing bonus, and the Packers were left with Dave Rayner, a kickoff specialist from the Colts, to do the kicking duties in 2006. He started well, but finished with a 74.3% FG percentage that certainly was no better than what Longwell had done in 2005.
The fact that Longwell bettered his percentage to 84% with the Vikings isn't of consequence. Thompson attempted to replace Longwell with a guy who had been cut by another team, and the results were no better than they had been with the guy he let go. After that season, despite Rayner's popularity, he drafted Mason Crosby in the sixth round of the draft, who had a 79.5% kicking rookie year.
Crosby appears to be a fairly solid replacement, though his numbers and numerous league recognitions throughout his rookie season were certainly aided by the fact he kicked for a surprisingly high-octane offense (he attempted the most field goals in the league).
Final Verdict: Ryan Longwell
Position Addressed: Adequately. A season with a street free agent kicker doesn't make you think a plan was in place, but Crosby seems to fit the bill for now.
Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle: Marco Rivera was probably, of the two guards that were allowed to leave that offseason, the one that might have been the most affordable. "Might" is the key word, since the Cowboys offered him a $20 million contract with a $9 million signing bonus, all numbers that make a guy like Ted Thompson have a really constipated look on his face.
No, when that is the asking price, bidding Rivera adieu was a no-brainer, especially as that offseason saw a lot of particularly huge contracts going to free agent offensive linemen. We all knew that Rivera was starting to grind into old age, and that his further years would be limited. It is surprising that Jerry Jones didn't see that coming.
Mike Wahle, on the other hand, makes for much more interesting discussion. Like nearly everyone else, we all figured that Wahle was gone. We knew he was going to command top dollar in that season's free agent market ($27 million over 5 years, the most lucrative interior lineman contract ever to that point) and he was young (26) and on the rise. I certainly didn't expect in to be a Packer in 2006.
However, given the Packers now-eternal room under the salary cap, is a cap figure of, say, $6 million that ridiculous? Considering we are paying Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia a cap figure of over $7 million as a part-time pass rusher, sometimes that contract hit doesn't seem to be too hard to swallow. The Packers seemed able to handle Brett Favre's humungous cap hit for two more seasons, also, and had a 13-3 record to show for it.
But, there wasn't even an offer on the table from the Packers, and when both Wahle and Rivera left, Thompson decided to address the position purely (and almost solely) through the draft, taking Daryn Colledge, Jason Spitz, and Tony Moll that year and using Thompson's patented "competition" strategy to hope a winner would emerge.
As it has turned out, despite the addition of draft pick Adrian Barbre in 2007 and two more contenders this year, the production at guard has continued to be less than adequate, with none of the young players truly stepping forward and commanding a spot in the lineup, much less a spot on any Pro Bowl teams.
While veteran QB Favre compensated for poor line play with his superior pocket awareness and rush evasion skills, and coach Mike McCarthy kept in additional blockers and ran out of the shotgun repeatedly to give the quarterback more time, this is still not an interior line befitting a 13-3 team.
JS Online commented last February that as Wahle moved from Carolina to Seattle, the Packers would have had a very good chance to get Wahle's services back, as he was looking for a return to the WCO and a Super Bowl contending team. However, despite what appeared to be a willingness from Wahle and his agent to come back to Green Bay for a cheaper price than what he left for (and plenty of space in the cap), Wahle never got more than a passing phone call from the Packers. He signed with the Seahawks for a reasonable $20 million over 5 years with a tiny amount of signing bonus and guaranteed money.
So, in 2008, with a new young quarterback, the Packers will again be looking for two young players to emerge at the guard position. Hopefully.
Final Verdict: Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle
Position Addressed: Poorly. Veteran leadership, experience, and consistency have been missing from the guard position since 2005.
Darren Sharper: When brash, big-talking Darren Sharper left the team in 2005, he had certainly lost a step and was making fewer and fewer big plays. In fact, his play on the field (along with nearly every other player in 2005) had diminished. While, to a point, I questioned whether his decline was because of him or the team around him, I did understand that the salary cap hit he was going to sock us with (upwards of $8 million) was a heavy price to pay.
Thompson absorbed quite a bit of signing bonus acceleration that year ($2.6 million), but they got his high base salary off the books. They did try and renegotiate with him, but like many of the other players mentioned above, the effort was low-ball and seemingly half-hearted. He signed a four-year contract with the Vikings for $20 million and a $4 million signing bonus.
I didn't mind seeing him go, as I don't have a lot of respect for players who talk and talk but can't back it up on the field. True, he has gone on to have some success with the Vikings, though it is apparent he indeed has lost a step, and still can hurt you as often as he pulls off a home-run play.
However, and this is where I know there may be the most disagreement with me, I think this is the position that has been the most poorly handled since Sharper's departure. And, the problem lies in that Ted Thompson seems to truly believe that he has handled it.
Sharper was a true free safety, a guy cut from the mold of Eugene Robinson who was as much a safety as a quarterback for the defense. Since his departure, Thompson has continued to stock the safety position with players who fit the strong safety mold, the close-to-the-line run supporting big stiffies that have struggled in coverage.
Nick Collins, who played alongside Sharper in 2005, has struggled to regain the promise he had as a rookie that year. Some of the high hopes were distorted, in my opinion, as the Packers were rarely passed on that year...in fact, the number of passing plays against the Packers in 2005 were among the lowest in franchise history.
Since that time, Collins has struggled in his role and struggled in pass coverage, especially when asked to defend a player one-on-one at the line. Collins is generally a strong hitter, but despite starting the last three years, many fans and media types are quietly noting that second-year man Aaron Rouse may supplant Collins this year, despite being another prototypical strong safety.
Thompson brought in Marquand Manuel as a free agent to replace Sharper, and despite being an adequate run-supporter, was roundly booed out of town and considered one of Thompson poorest free-agent signings.
Thompson, again, has tried to address the position through the draft, taking Aaron Rouse in 2007 with a 3rd rounder. However, last year's starter opposite Collins was a street free agent named Atari Bigby, who despite showing some big-play ability in the latter part of the season, also showed some rather glaring gaffes in coverage throughout the season.
In this past draft, Thompson went so far as to not even draft a safety, leaving us to believe that he thinks that the collection of guys he has now (Collins, Bigby, Rouse, and Tyrone Culver) is good enough. This is where I disagree. Thompson seems to operate under the belief that the two safety positions are interchangeable, and that the players he has fit that system.
However, he has three players who are strong run-support strong safety guys that struggle in coverage and don't appear to have the vision that a free safety needs...something that Darren Sharper, for all his bravado and blown plays, did have.
With our two veteran corners another year older and another step slower, the safety position is going to end up being more and more vulnerable to blown coverages when needed to help over the top. A prototypical free safety, like rookie Kenny Phillips, drafted by the Giants a pick after Thompson traded out of the first round, could take the correct angles and keep the young Packer linebackers and aging corners in the right spots.
Final Verdict: Darren Sharper
Release: Pretty Much Expected
Position Addressed: Poorly. A stockpile of strong safeties trying to play both positions has left our safety position vulnerable as our corners age.
In conclusion, Thompson's cuts may not have been stupid moves, and in fact, were probably financially prudent business decisions. However, the strategy of having middling draftees and street free agents battle each other to try and compensate for the loss of talent (and the gain of salary cap space) is the other shoe that has to drop. In some cases, Thompson seems to have had an adequate plan to replace the loss of a departed veteran (Aaron Rodgers, Ryan Grant/Brandon Jackson, etc.). However, the failure of the replacements at a position to provide at least adequate production in the wake of such a departure has to be a part of the equation.