The question for the Green Bay Packers was never should they try to sign Steven Jackson, but rather how much should they bid?
That didn’t stop hoards of fans from attacking Packers GM Ted Thompson when his proven free agency approach led to the former-St. Louis Rams running back signing with Atlanta. Some have even gone as far as to demand Thompson’s ousting. Granted, most fans are smarter than that, but it just goes to show you how quickly people forget a championship run followed by two straight division crowns.
Thankfully, the Packers’ organization doesn’t operate at the whim of the fans. Neither does Ted Thompson. During this free agency period, the Packers GM has approached former-Packer Cullen Jenkins and the aforementioned Jackson expressing interest. In both cases Thompson gauged the players’ level of reciprocal interest and gave both his price.
Thompson doesn’t look to sign players, he looks to acquire value. There’s no better way to build a team in the salary cap era. In Jenkins’ case, the New York Giants expressed greater desire (and overpaid accordingly). Jackson’s situation was a little more complicated. Several times since opting out of his contract with St. Louis, Jackson expressed considerable interest in coming to Green Bay. The Packers initially didn’t share the enthusiasm.
That changed this week, and blogosphere was abuzz over the potential marriage. The Packers are widely considered to be deficient at running back, and Jackson fits Green Bay’s zone-blocking scheme. But this is the NFL, and personnel decisions are not so simple.
This is where some fans disconnect with reality. The Packers need to preserve cap space to extend Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews. Thus, any deal with a free agent like Jackson must not cut into those funds. Even if Jackson returns to his 2010 form, unlikely as that is, he’s not worth the trouble if it means Green Bay losing its star quarterback or premier pass rusher. Despite this, the irrational segment of the fanbase wants to send Thompson to the guillotine.
While Thompson will never speak publicly about what transpired with Jackson, it’s easy to read the tea leaves. Jackson wanted (and received from the Falcons) a long-term commitment. The Packers, seeing Jackson’s age and the abuse he’s taken over nine seasons, didn’t want to commit for more than a season or two.
The result was Jackson making Green Bay his backup plan, and that’s OK. Thompson’s approach prevents Green Bay from falling into salary cap hell. Look no further than the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens both had to purge many of their best players just to get under the salary cap. In a few years, this offseason’s big spenders Seattle and Miami will have to do the same thing. It’s hard to win championships when you find yourself cutting your best players, something the Packers under Thompson very rarely had to do. When Green Bay does release a big contract early, it’s a case like Charles Woodson; a player who can no longer play at a high enough level.
Bringing this back to Jackson, it’s easy to see why Thompson balked at a three-year deal. Jackson’s productivity has dropped every year since 2009. Over that span, he led the NFC in carries with 1,171. That figure doesn’t even account for his catches out of the backfield, which add on another 177 touches. The combination of these hits has demonstratively worn Jackson down. Despite playing in all 16 games last year, he barely surpassed the 1,000-yard mark while averaging only 4.1 yards a carry. That’s hardly an elite back, let alone one worthy of a three-year contract after age 30.
Don’t agree? Let’s compare those numbers to a similar player who Packers fans are familiar with: Ahman Green.
During his prime, Green was a powerful runner who also displayed great hands out of the backfield. His 1,883 rushing yards in 2003 and 594 receiving yards in 2001 are both team records. Green played well through his first seven season, but then the accumulated carries began to wear him down. His final full season in Green Bay, the then 29-year-old Green rushed for only 1,059 yards and 5 touchdowns. That season was eerily similar in many respects to Jackson’s final year with St. Louis. After that season, Green never rushed for more than 300 yards in a season again.
Now, that doesn’t mean Jackson will rush for less than 300 yards this year, but he won’t be the elite player most fans expect him to be. In all likelihood, 2013 will be Jackson’s last shot at a 1,000-yard season. Yet Atlanta will be paying him starter’s money for two additional years. It won’t be a surprise if Jackson doesn’t survive to the end of that contract. When that happens, there’ll be a lot of people who conveniently forget that they trashed Ted Thompson for not signing Jackson this offseason.
Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Lombardi Ave. He has previously written for Hail to the Orange, College Hoops Net, Mocking the Draft, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JBHirschhorn.