Current Packer regime not quick to cut
GREEN BAY—If Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy had been so moved, they could have released fullback John Kuhn, safety Jerron McMillian or both from the Green Bay Packers’ roster last week and just about everyone probably would have understood.
Kuhn’s lack of poise and judgment leading to a fumble after a blocked punt in Baltimore was one of the team’s most egregious errors on special teams in years.
What might seem to be a chaotic moment to the casual observer shouldn’t be for a professional football player and special-teams veteran who has been schooled on what do in those situations over and over again, both in meetings and at practice.
McMillian committed not one but two blunders in the fourth quarter that almost lost the game.
After wandering out of position from his clearly defined deep-middle coverage and falling down on the 63-yard pass behind him on fourth and 21, he was the only one of 11 defenders that didn’t get the call from the sideline on the very next play and gave up an 18-yard touchdown pass.
Kuhn, one of the brightest minds on the team, isn’t paid for his athletic ability or speed. He is paid for being a leader and for being dependable, and if he can’t exercise that after a nine-year career one wonders what his value would be.
McMillian, a second-year pro, is paid not only to be physical but to never lose sight of down and distance, to keep his feet under him and to remain composed even when the opposing offense is rushing to the line.
In each case, there are no excuses.
The question is, did Kuhn and McMillian commit offenses that warranted being cut?
“We don’t operate like that,” McCarthy said last week. “I would classify that as an emotional decision, and I know in my life emotional decisions usually are not the best decisions.”
The Packers value the 31-year-old Kuhn as a pass blocker and reliable hand on special teams.
They view McMillian, a fourth-round draft choice in 2012 and their starting dime back for 1½ seasons, as a talented, tough player with a promising future even though he missed four tackles in the opener and has allowed three touchdown passes and was at least partially responsible for four passes worth 20 yards or more in the first five games.
“Does every coach worry about entitlement? Hell, yeah,” said McCarthy. “Entitlement is high in today’s society.
“At the end of the day, my responsibility is to control everybody’s job responsibility, and make sure it’s loud and clear. Availability and accountability for our players and coaches alike is at the top of my list.”
Thompson’s contract enables him to overrule McCarthy on roster composition. However, McCarthy said not once in 7½ years has the general manager ever had to stop him from knee-jerking a player out of town.
“I can honestly tell you it’s never been just one thing,” said McCarthy, recalling decisions to waive. “I think there’s a place for that. I’ve been in situations where the locker room and really everybody needs that, but I don’t think we’re at that place today.”
Several years ago, former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson recounted to me the story of the only time in his career that he ever released a player on the spur of the moment.
Dallas was at home against Chicago in what Johnson remembered as the meaningless regular-season finale in 1992. The Cowboys were ahead all the way and won easily, but rookie Curvin Richards, a fourth-round draft choice the year before and Emmitt Smith’s main backup, fumbled a couple times.
“Curvin was a fairly talented running back but had been late for meetings, etc.,” Johnson said. “It was a combination of things. But I was a real stickler as far as us protecting the ball. The players knew I was just livid about Curvin being lackadaisical with the football.”
So Johnson cut Richards in the locker room at Texas Stadium right after the game.
“I told them the next day in our meetings, ‘Guys, some of you like Curvin and maybe you’re a little bit upset,’” recalled Johnson. “I said, ‘Hey, that can’t be the attitude we’re going to have going into the playoffs.’ I just wanted to make a point.
“We did not have another fumble throughout the entire playoffs until Leon Lett picked the ball up at the end of the (Super Bowl) game and was running it and got it knocked out of his hand.
“Guys that make mistakes, you can’t live with it. It’s not how many great plays you make but how few bad plays you make that wins games. Some guys were talented, but if they turned the ball over they weren’t going to be playing for me.”
My 35-year stint covering the Packers began in the late 1970s, but from stories I’ve heard there’s no doubt Vince Lombardi sent a few players packing just to prove a point.
His former players, Bart Starr and Forrest Gregg, learned from Lombardi and could be impetuous when it came to trimming a roster, too.
Larry McCarren, the team’s center from 1974-’84, remembered Starr often reminding players that there were planes, buses and trains servicing Green Bay on a daily basis.
Perhaps my first brush with an unexpected release during a season came on a Friday after the fifth game of the 1983 season when free safety Maurice Harvey, a starter for 2½ years, got the ax.
Calling Harvey’s attitude “lousy,” Starr went on to say, “I don’t want to make ‘Mo’ a scapegoat. But we feel the least we expect from our people is a good, positive attitude. We just reached a point where we couldn’t continue.”
The Packers bombed the Buccaneers, 55-14, then released pass-rushing defensive end Casey Merrill a few days later. Nicknamed “Nightlife,” Merrill had fallen asleep during meetings and broke the 11 p.m. curfew Saturday night before the Tampa Bay game.
Said Starr: “If we feel we’re not getting total (commitment) from our players, we have an obligation and a responsibility to the remaining players to act accordingly.”
Cracked defensive coordinator John Meyer: “(Expletive), we can’t cut a guy every week.”
Three years later, free safety Tom Flynn, who led the league with nine interceptions in 1984, was cut one week after losing his starting job to Kenny Stills.
Mindful of his 1-6 record, Gregg said, “Sometimes when things aren’t going well you make some changes.”
In 1987, nose tackle Charles Martin played extremely well in the first two weeks. An admitted alcoholic, he got into a drunken brawl at a Green Bay nightclub after the second game and was dumped three days later.
In October 1990, running back Brent Fullwood, a Pro Bowl alternate in ‘89, became ill at halftime and stayed in the Soldier Field locker room during a 27-13 defeat. That night, he went out dancing back in Green Bay, and the next morning coach Lindy Infante informed vice president Tom Braatz that Fullwood “had” to go.
“Lindy told me he just didn’t want him on the team anymore,” club president Bob Harlan said. “I told him he had my full support.”
Braatz did what he could and, by Tuesday, acquired a seventh-round pick from Cleveland for a player that had been the fourth pick in the ‘87 draft.
“It was a fire sale, to be right up front with you,” said Braatz. “It’s against the good business of running a football team like that. Lindy knew how I felt. To do this properly…you give it time, you think about it. Sometimes things wear off.”
A year later, veteran tackle Scott Jones took himself out of the game after a dreadful first-quarter performance under sweltering sun in Miami. Infante sent him out the door 48 hours later.
In 1992, the first year with Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren in charge, the Packers decided to start Vinnie Clark over Lewis Billups after rookie cornerback Terrell Buckley finally signed. Billups, a solid player, went ballistic then and after Clark was torched a few days later in Atlanta.
On the flight home, the former Bengals starter yelled at the flight attendant, who began to cry and had to be comforted by Holmgren. At 2 a.m., Billups lost control of his Jeep Cherokee and struck some wires, causing a power failure on Green Bay’s west side.
Having cut Billups Monday at 2:30 p.m., Holmgren allowed that “it was probably best for both parties to do it this way.”
Last week, Wolf insisted he never cut a player out of spite or retribution. Maybe two or three times, said Wolf, he had to calm down Holmgren when he wanted to fire someone.
In his early years, Wolf had seen the Raiders dump players prematurely as did Lou Saban, the highly emotional coach of the Denver Broncos and Buffalo Bills.
“It does happen,” said Wolf. “People get upset, people cut people. In all instances when we did it, they had demonstrated they could not play and we had better people in mind to take their place.”
On closer inspection, Wolf said quarterback T.J. Rubley was the exception. Late in a 27-24 defeat at the Metrodome in 1995, the third-stringer threw back across the field for an interception after audibling from a sneak on third and a foot.
“He was cut on the plane ride back,” said Wolf. “It was a done deal. He lost the team.”
Regarding linebacker Seth Joyner as a better player than Wayne Simmons in October 1997 but fearing what the volatile Simmons might do if benched, Wolf dealt him to Kansas City for a fifth-round pick.
Special-teams dynamo Chris Akins challenged coach Mike Sherman, privately and publicly, in December 2001. He was jettisoned the morning after his inflammatory remarks appeared in the Journal Sentinel.
In 2004, cornerback Mike McKenzie ended a 46-day holdout in mid-September and then became such a cancer that Sherman granted his wish by trading him (to New Orleans) for a second-round choice.
Thompson’s first year, and Sherman’s last, included the November release of nickel back Joey Thomas right after a bad game in Cincinnati.
“This is the NFL — we already know the message,” linebacker Nick Barnett said then. “As soon as we got the new GM, he’s not playing around. If you’re not doing the job, he’ll release you.”
Ahmad Carroll, reduced to the role of nickel back in 2006, had a horrendous performance in Philadelphia and was cut by McCarthy on Tuesday, leaving anonymous Patrick Dendy to replace him.
“It wasn’t because of that (Eagles game),” McCarthy said last week. “That was something we just felt it was time.”
Safety Aaron Rouse was awful in a start against the Bengals in September 2009 and was gone three days later. Kick returner Jeremy Ross gave the Bengals a touchdown by fumbling a month ago and was gone the next day.
Counting the regular-season and playoff calendar only, Thompson has cut merely 27 players since taking over 8½ years ago, or 3.2 per season. Amazingly, the Packers never cut a soul in 2011.
Sherman, in four seasons as GM, cut 27 for an average of 6.8. In his nine years, Wolf axed 63 (7.0).
Green Bay is a kinder, gentler place under Thompson, a steady-as-she-goes manager with a wealth of patience and precious little outward emotion.
Partly because of it, Kuhn and McMillian will be lining up for another Sunday.
Bob McGinn covers the Packers for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.