The Green Bay Packers went into the weekend with what Mike McCarthy has called in the past the best offensive line of his tenure and came out of the weekend voluntarily making themselves worse for seemingly no good reason.
General Manager Ted Thompson decided to cut three-time Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton, one of the best guards in Packers history, who was still close to the top of his game with one year and a little more than $5 million remaining on his contract. It’s the most shocking transaction to happen in Green Bay since quarterback Brett Favre got traded to the New York Jets before the 2008 season. Sitton wasted no time in trying to stick it to the Packers — just as about every exiled Packer does for some reason– and signed a three-year, $21.5 million deal with the rival Chicago Bears. It’s kind of crazy how the Bears seemingly valued Sitton over four times as much as the Packers in terms of raw salary numbers, even though we know in NFL contracts that those don’t mean much.
When the news broke of Sitton’s release first hit the Twittersphere on Saturday afternoon I first thought that there had to be some kind of non-football related reason for this — such as an arrest or insubordination. I still feel there may be more to the story than we know and maybe that will come out eventually. Of course it will never come from Thompson — who has quite the gall to make this kind of move and not have a press conference to explain himself — as is customary for most general managers after rosters are announced. Now, McCarthy will be left to answer for a move he probably did not have a ton of say in. That’s not a great dynamic.
There’s no way that the Packers would get rid of Sitton just for the heck of it. It certainly did not have to do with his play on the field. Even with his back issues last season, Sitton still was first in Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking ratings. He performed up to par during the preseason and had lost weight to combat those back woes. Sacrificing top protection for your franchise player does not sound optimal. Another thing to surmise is will left tackle David Bakhtiari be the same player without Sitton next to him? Sitton helped clean up a lot of stuff and made Bakhtiari’s life a lot easier.
The scuttlebutt among some of the beat writers was that Sitton was upset about how the Packers were not prioritizing an extension for him as opposed to the younger linemen, which Sitton denied, but if it was true he probably would not have admitted it. Even if this was true, there is still no reason he could not have played out the final year of his deal. Sitton was one of the best leaders on the team and wants to win badly, so there is no doubt that once the season started he would have been playing all out — regardless of whether he was happy with his contract or not. Thompson is very concerned with locker room chemistry from his time playing in the NFL, so maybe he was concerned Sitton would cause trouble. The release could have the opposite effect of his intentions, with Sitton being very popular in the locker room and having many close friends who probably are not thrilled at the moment.
The strangest thing about Sitton’s release is that there was zero sign it was coming, which is another reason I’m still led to believe there is more we don’t know about. Something doesn’t add up. The Packers were never preparing for this with Sitton getting all the first-team guard reps in training camp. If they were, for example, planing on moving Bryan Bulaga inside and playing Jason Spriggs at right tackle they did not try it in camp. To make matters worse, Sitton’s most likely replacement, Lane Taylor, who signed a two-year, $4.15 million deal with $600,000 guaranteed in the offseason, had a poor training camp and played like he could have been cut if Josh Walker was healthy. Or if another certain guard was kept.
Another angle that makes the Sitton release look even worse is losing him for nothing instead of a likely third or fourth round compensation pick, which are picks Thompson covets. There was literally no good reason to voluntarily make yourself worse by not playing out the contract. The Packers still had over $9 million in cap space for an extension for Bakhtiari. T.J. Lang or J.C. Tretter. Thompson’s overall philosophy about keeping the team competitive every year is generally correct, but that doesn’t mean he got this one right. This season has to matter at some point.
Is losing Sitton a death blow to the Packers’ Super Bowl chances? Of course not. As much as getting rid of Sitton was the wrong move, he’s still only a guard, and guards are just not going to make or break your season. There is a reason you don’t usually see guards being picked in the top 10 in the NFL Draft. The Packers won the Super Bowl with Daryn Colledge at left guard and went 15-1 with Marshall Newhouse at left tackle. Green Bay still has four good offensive linemen as starters, which 90 percent of the NFL would sign up for — just look around the league at some of the pitiful offensive line play out there. Depth is a concern, however, with only two rookies and Don Barclay as backup. Barclay is the only backup with experience at center and guard. Offensive line depth was supposed to be a strength coming into the year, but Thompson turned a strength into a weakness.
What usually is a weekend with no surprises turned into a chaotic one for the Packers. Thompson’s bold move is the kind where if it doesn’t work it can have an impact on job security. How the offensive line plays out the rest of the year will be fascinating and is now one of the top stories to watch in the 2016 season.