Packers’ general manager Ted Thompson has one hell of a hard job. His decisions are viewed and analyzed by millions who take them personally. Even calls that are objectively easy, like not re-signing Donald Driver, can gather storm clouds in the form of angry Green Bay fans. It often takes years before his moves are given due credit.
Such is likely the case once again with Charles Woodson’s release.
Many cried foul in the wake of the Woodson news. A 15-year veteran, seven with the Packers, Woodson was widely acknowledged as the “heart” of Green Bay’s defense. The common themes amongst the angst-ridden were Packers GM Ted Thompson’s “insensitivity,” “disloyalty,” and “stupidity.” If the only opinions that mattered were those of the fans, Thompson would be joining Woodson on his way out of Green Bay.
But those opinions – formed largely through emotion and sentimentality – don’t matter. The only opinions that mean anything are those of Thompson and his assistants.
Thompson operates like a mathematician. He crunches numbers, projects production, and makes the personnel decisions. And more often than not, Thompson has made the right calls: calls that fans, so often emotional and sentimental, can’t understand. What those fans fail to understand is that in order for a GM to be successful, he needs to approach decisions as a detached third party. That may feel wrong to fans, but success is built through proper perspective.
When Thompson analyzed Woodson, he weighed the production the Packers would receive versus the $10 million cost. He then looked at the replacement options. With the emergence of slot corner Casey Hayward and safeties Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings, the decision was simple.
Woodson’s release, along with the pending departure of Greg Jennings, is part of a big picture approach to team building. Few would argue that there isn’t a drop off from those veterans to their inexperienced successors, but these moves aren’t made in a vacuum.
Thompson knows this isn’t a decision between Woodson and McMillian. It’s a decision between Woodson and B.J. Raji, or Woodson and Matthews, or any of the other players in need of a contract extension. Because Thompson is so skilled as a talent evaluator, there are just too many good players to keep on one roster. At that point, the best move for the Packers is to retain the younger players who can contribute for longer. Woodson fell on the wrong side of that equation.
If you find yourself questioning this approach, just think back to the Mike Sherman era. Sherman was aggressive in free agency and ignored age in doing so. In 2001, Sherman signed Joe Johnson, a 30-year-old defensive end with 21 sacks over the previous two seasons. Johnson received a six year, $33 million contract, much of which was guaranteed. In return, the Packers received only 11 games played.
The biggest disappointment wasn’t how ineffective or unavailable Johnson was, but rather how much valuable cap space the contract ate up. By deferring much of Johnson’s signing bonus, Sherman guaranteed that the Packers would lose valuable assets in the years to come. That debt was paid following the 2004 season when the Packers lacked the cap room to re-sign All-Pro guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera.
Those twin losses effectively ended the Mike Sherman era as well as the Packers’ early 2000s run as contenders. Without Wahle and Rivera, the offense changed overnight. Favre, sacked only 12 times in 2004, was dropped behind the line 24 times the following year. Not coincidentally, his interception total rose to a league high 29. Green Bay wouldn’t have a winning record again until 2007.
Would Woodson have gone the way of Joe Johnson had he been retained? Likely not, but that doesn’t alter the cap ramifications of such a move. Woodson’s return would have meant departure for someone important, if not this year than next.
And it’s not only the big names that could be leaving. Sam Shields, Brad Jones, Bryan Bulaga, James Jones, Morgan Burnett, and Desmond Bishop are among those whose contracts expire over the next two years. At 36, Woodson doesn’t have the value to Green Bay as those players.
Fans may view Thompson’s decision on Woodson as inglorious, but choosing long-term championship contention over sentimentality is anything but.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Lombardiave.com. He has previously written for Hail to the Orange, College Hoops Net, Mocking the Draft, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JBHirschhorn.