Someone posed a question on one of the forums this past week in regards to former Packer safety Anthony Smith--"Why did the Packers cut him to begin with?"
A good question, one that deserves a good answer. And, if we're lucky, it's one that might open a whole new can of worms in the process. At the time of final cutdowns, most of us were convinced (whether we agreed with the cut or not) that Smith was let go because of the concerns with his freelancing style in coverage and his potential as a locker room malcontent.
Neither argument held a lot of water, but for the most part, we accepted it. It's not often we cut a backup simply because of locker room concerns...how often does a backup actually impact the leadership of a team? If he is a good player and actually causes problems down the road, you jettison him. Think Chris Akins. No big salary or cap acceleration. Just send him on his way and be done with it.
But the rationale completely lost its punch when Ted Thompson placed a waiver claim on Smith a couple weeks ago, only to lose out to the Jaguars. Loosely translated, it not only communicates that the Packers want him back (and probably realize the mistake in cutting him to begin with), but that any "locker room cancer" issues were marginal, if not non-existent.
Which brings us to the question: why was Smith cut?
I'll tell you: because he wasn't going to be a strong special teams contributor, and the Packers decided to tip the balance of their roster towards special teams. In the end, it has bitten them in the butt more than once.
Last year, the Packers fielded one of the worst special teams units in team history. Make no mistake, there is a reason why Mike Stock's firing was announced one day before the rest of the coaching massacre. The special teams were miserable last year.
But, how do you change a special teams culture? If you look at the Kitchen Analogy, you have three areas you can try and affect: the coach (the cook), the scheme (the recipe), and the players (the ingredients).
Now, scheme changes will make far more of a difference on the offense or defense. When you think about it, there's really not a lot of schematic changes you can make on special teams. Oh, sure, you can switch up some assignments on the coverage or blocking teams, but it really comes down to the players executing those assignments, regardless of scheme. And how many ways can you line up to punt?
So, we will dismiss schemes. The recipe remains relatively unchanged.
The next decision that was made was eyebrow-raising then, and even more questionable in retrospect. Instead of bringing a coach from outside (like McCarthy bringing in Dom Capers), Shawn Slocum was promoted from assistant special teams coach to head special teams coach. Exactly what changes did we think he was going to bring to the team? Sure, he's younger and brought a lot of good lip service, but in the end, he's a product of the same system that was informally ranked 26th in the league last year.
So, let's assume that the scheme remains the same, and there is little change in the coaching, either. The cook was fired and replaced with the apprentice cook. That leaves one place left to improve from last year: the players.
What we saw on final cutdown day was a concerted effort to stock the roster with special teams players, at the cost of quality players who could line up on the other 80 plays a game on offense or defense. The cutting of Anthony Smith, who played in a 3-4 and brought some needed experience to the regular defense, was made in order to keep both the injured Aaron Rouse (which I tend to believe was a loyalty move over a smart move), Jarrett Bush, and the newly-acquired Derrick Martin. Martin and Bush were kept almost exclusively as special teams players, and thus far, their play on the field with the regular defense has resulted in some disastrous plays.
Martin gave up a huge touchdown in the first game against the Vikings, and Bush gave up a huge TD last week against the Bucs. Both were critical scores in critical games, and the worst part is they looked completely lost on those plays.
Rouse ended up being cut, and in addition to the futile effort to bring back Smith, the Packers signed Matt Giordano, who has struggled to get up to speed and was one of the key goats on Clifton Smith's 83-yard kick return last week...on special teams.
On offense, the Packers went with an jaw-dropping move to keep three fullbacks and only three halfbacks, sending promising project Tyrell Sutton packing for the Panthers. Most of us thought either John Kuhn or Korey Hall would be the ones leaving to make room for both Sutton and Quinn Johnson, but I think the Packers kept all three for one reason: they wanted Kuhn and Hall to play special teams.
Once again, this was at the cost of players who would be able to play down-in and down-out, and the fact that the Packers kept an injured Brandon Jackson and DeShawn Wynn (another loyalty move, if you ask me) led directly to the Packers having to sign Ahman Green off the street this year.
Meanwhile, in case you didn't notice, Tyrell Sutton is not only a backup running back for the Panthers, he actually filled in for them last week at fullback. “He's a guy that works hard and knew what he was doing,” Panthers coach John Fox said. “He looked to be dependable and reliable. I'm not saying he would ideally be our every-down fullback. I'm saying he was adequate [Sunday].”
The Packers decided to take a risk this season by stacking their roster with special teams players, and every one of those ST players who is a liability or a luxury on offense or defense weakened those squads by taking a spot from a player who could be contributing there.
And the worst part of it? The special teams have been worse this season than last year. According to FootballOutsiders, the Packers special teams rank a solid 32nd out of 32 teams so far this year, down from their previous end-of-the-season rank of 20th.
So, what good has it been to stock our team with special teams players? In retrospect, it seems like a gambit gone wrong. However, we have to admit when things are going wrong, we complain that the coaches aren't doing enough to address it. Here, McCarthy and Thompson attempted to remedy the special teams problems by keeping players on the roster specifically for non-starting purposes. In a way, you have to give them some acknowledgment for trying.
But that is where it stops, unfortunately. Not only has the special teams declined, but the regular offense and defense were left without some needed lethal bullets in the gun. Some good project players were left off the roster, and one, Jamon Meredith, was claimed by the Buffalo Bills to be ruined for good.
McCarthy and Thompson have to start believing they are snakebit right now...it seems nearly any roster move they make is blowing up in their face. Certainly, when you look at the injuries on the Packer roster, many of them are special teamers instead of starters.. Wil Blackmon, Jordy Nelson, Jermichael Finley, Brett Swain, Derrick Martin, Korey Hall, and Brandon Chillar are all guys who play special teams, and that impacts the effectiveness, too.
But, when you value your backups over your potential starters and quality backups, you set yourself up for failure, especially in a season like this. Hard lesson to be learned.