It didn’t take long into Ted Thompson’s reign as Green Bay Packers GM for the unwavering 52-year-old to firmly establish that football moves under his direction would be made without the cling of emotion, void of any sentimental feelings that could effect a given decision one way or the other.
Among Thompson’s first moves as GM in 2005 were the releasing of guard Mike Wahle and safety Darren Sharper and declining to re-sign guard Marco Rivera, three players that were stalwarts for Packers teams that had won consecutive NFC North titles from 2002-04. Despite their undisputed contributions, each was shown the door both because of age and Thompson’s need to manage the Packers’ out of control salary cap.
Wahle was 28 years old and had played in 103 straight games when Thompson released him, but the move saved over $11 million in cap space. Axing Sharper, a 29-year-old All-Pro safety, saved another $4.3 million. Rivera went on to sign a five-year, $20 million contract with the Cowboys after Thompson let him walk at the age of 32.
All three of the moves were spurred by the Packers’ cap situation as he entered the job. No matter how unpopular, each needed to be made to get Thompson back into his salary cap comfort zone.
And while a drastic makeover like 2005 hasn’t been seen since, similar decisions to the ones Thompson made in that offseason have. In the end, making those tough decisions are a big reason why the Packers’ salary cap has never again reached 2005 levels.
Over subsequent years, Thompson released veterans Na’il Diggs (80 career starts, saved $2.9 million) and Bubba Franks (Three-time Pro Bowler, saved over $4 million), traded away an unretired Brett Favre, and let Ahman Green (the Packers franchise leader in rushing yards) and Aaron Kampman (owner of 54 career sacks in Green Bay) walk in free agency.
In 2010, Thompson released cornerback Al Harris, who started seven straight seasons for the Packers but was 36 years old and struggling to come back from a catastrophic knee injury in ’09.
Starting to sound like a broken record? There was still more roster reshaping to do even after Thompson’s 2010-11 Packers reached the top of the NFL mountain.
In the offseason following last year’s win in Super Bowl XLV, Thompson cut linebackers Nick Barnett, Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chillar, gave 11-year veteran Mark Tauscher his first career pink slip and let free agents Daryn Colledge and Cullen Jenkins walk away in free agency without as much as the thought of a counter offer.
The three linebackers he cut combined for 163 starts during their careers in Green Bay, and Barnett finished his eight-year stint in Green Bay as the franchise’s second-leading tackler. Tauscher became a franchise pillar at right tackle after the Packers drafted him in the seventh round of the 2000 draft out of the University of Wisconsin. He was universally liked by fans, coaches and players. Colledge started 76 games along the offensive line over five seasons, and Jenkins was a home-grown, undrafted talent who had blossomed into a great player in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses.
Again, age and money came into play.
Cutting Barnett (30 years old, $5.9 million), Poppinga (31, $2.1 million), Chillar (28, $2.6 million) and Tauscher (33, $5.6 million) saved Thompson almost $18 million in cap room. Colledge, 30, went on to sign a five-year, $27 million deal with the Cardinals, and Jenkins, 30, signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Eagles. The Packers never made a serious attempt to re-sign either player.
Given Thompson’s history with these kind of players, there wasn’t a decision made last offseason that seemed like a difficult decision for the Packers GM.
So when we look ahead to the Packers’ roster in 2012 and attempt to pick out players who may end up being similar cap casualties, there’s no better place to start than the profile Thompson has so clearly given over his seven years.
The names are easy to find.
Donald Driver, 35, couldn’t have been more direct about his interest in continuing to play, but his $5 million salary for 2012 needs to be trimmed down considerably or he could be playing else where next season. Driver is the Packers’ all-time receptions and receiving yards leader and should be a shoo-in for the Packers Hall of Fame.
That said, no one should have reservations in saying that Thompson would cut Driver without thinking twice if Driver’s salary didn’t fit into Thompson’s salary cap plans for next year and years after.
Chad Clifton, who has anchored the left side of the Packers’ offensive line since 2000, suffered through an injury-plagued season and will soon turn 36 years old. While Clifton rehabbed his torn hamstring, second-year tackle Marshall Newhouse showed that the Packers offense can function without him. But the smoking gun here is that Thompson would save almost $6 million in releasing Clifton, which makes it a near certainty that he isn’t in Green Bay next season.
Veteran running back Ryan Grant has over 4,000 yards rushing and 25 touchdowns since Thompson traded for him before the 2007 season, but he’s a free agent. Howard Green, who’s hit on Ben Roethlisberger last February powered the Packers to a 14-0 lead, also fits Thompson’s mold of a free agent player who wouldn’t get much consideration for a return contract.
Thompson’s style certainly seems like a cruel way to go about your business, but in the brutal world of the NFL, there’s no room for sentimentals. Tough decisions are made daily. Bill Belichick released a player a night before the Super Bowl. It’s really quite simple: Feelings are for fans, not NFL decision-makers. Hold on to a veteran guy a year too long, and maybe you don’t have the cap available to re-sign one of your up-and-coming players.
That last scenario is a reality Thompson is looking to avoid right now.
Center Scott Wells, a veteran that Thompson will actually attempt to bring back, is a free agent. So is potential-filled Jermichael Finley and special teams captain Jarrett Bush. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, linebacker Clay Matthews and receiver Greg Jennings are each looking at expensive extensions in the near future.
Money for the salary cap doesn’t grow on trees. It takes a smart planner and even better manager to keep it under wraps. It also needs a leader that is willing to make decisions that go against conventional and sentimental thinking.
Thompson doesn’t always make the moves that fans want to see, and I’m sure cutting both Driver and Clifton would raise eyebrows. But it would absolutely follow Thompson’s way—a way that has been witnessed over and over during his time and Green Bay—and it has paid off more times than not.
Given that process, expect another veteran purge sometime this offseason. The names Driver, Clifton and Grant could very well be among those you do not see in Green Bay next season. Tough decisions to be sure, but not ones that Thompson hasn’t made before as general manager of the Green Bay Packers.——————
Zach Kruse is a 23-year-old sports journalist with a passion for the Green Bay Packers. He currently lives in Wisconsin and is working on his journalism degree, while also covering prep sports for The Dunn Co. News.
You can read more of Zach's Packers articles on AllGreenBayPackers.com.Follow @zachkruse2