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Mike Vandermause column: Packers have learned from Driver mistake

Feb. 19, 2013
 
Green Bay Packers Donald Driver celebrates a first down during the second quarter against Atlanta Falcons Saturday, Aug. 19, 2006, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI. Post-Crescent photo by Dan Powers.
Green Bay Packers Donald Driver celebrates a first down during the second quarter against Atlanta Falcons Saturday, Aug. 19, 2006, at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, WI. Post-Crescent photo by Dan Powers.
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Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will never admit it, but they made a mistake by keeping receiver Donald Driver one season too long.

Driver was immensely popular among fans, and maybe the Packersí brain trust didnít have the fortitude to cut ties with such a revered player.

The decision to keep the 37-year-old Driver in 2012 goes against everything Thompson and McCarthy stand for in Green Bay. Normally, they firmly adhere to a draft-and-develop philosophy. The clear path to NFL success is to make personnel decisions based on merit, not sentiment.

But Thompson and McCarthy seemingly caved to Driverís ďDancing With the StarsĒ success last spring. That national fame made Driver an iconic figure in Wisconsin, and maybe the Packers simply didnít have the heart to enrage their fan base.

After making the wise but unpopular decision to trade Brett Favre in 2008, itís possible Thompson and McCarthy didnít want to deal with another public relations nightmare.

They chose instead to bury Driver on the depth chart. The Packersí all-time leading receiver caught just eight passes all season, and although the receiving corps endured a rash of injuries, Driver played sparingly.

It would have been better to develop a younger receiver by giving him Driverís snaps. The Packers also would have been able to carry roughly $2 million in extra salary cap space into this season had they released Driver in 2012 and replaced him with someone making the minimum salary.

It would be in the Packersí best interest if Thompson and McCarthy vow to never again make a roster decision based on emotion or a playerís popularity or past performance.

Itís possible they already have done that, judging from the difficult but necessary moves the Packers have made since the season ended.

Thompson and McCarthy essentially told Driver, who turned 38 earlier this month, that they wouldnít bring him back for a 15th season.

They called 36-year-old defensive back Charles Woodson into the office last week and thanked him for his remarkable service to the Packers over the past seven years, but said they no longer needed him.

They released 37-year-old center Jeff Saturday this week after benching him with two games remaining during the regular season.

They presumably have decided to pass on giving receiver Greg Jennings, who will turn 30 in September, a new contract and will allow him to seek employment elsewhere in unrestricted free agency.

The Packers clearly are ridding themselves of some over-priced, aging players who have seen better days, and itís possible Thompson and McCarthy arenít finished with their housecleaning.

There is no guarantee linebacker A.J. Hawk, who will turn 30 at the end of next season, will be brought back. And the same goes for a pair of 30-year-old backfield dinosaurs, Ryan Grant and Cedric Benson.

Itís possible that when the 2013 season begins, the Packers will have just two players on their roster age 30 or older: fullback John Kuhn (30) and defensive lineman Ryan Pickett (33).

Letting go of veteran players isnít easy, but itís a way of life for successful NFL teams. With few exceptions, older is not better.

A large contingent of Packers fans seem to grasp that. In a non-scientific poll of nearly 4,000 PackersNews.com readers conducted by Press-Gazette Media over the weekend, 73 percent of respondents agreed with the Packersí decision to release Woodson.

Fans loved Woodsonís considerable contributions to the team, but they also know that time stops for no one.

When the Packers traded Favre, one of the most popular players in franchise history, it caused a civil war among fans, and Thompson and McCarthy received harsh and unwarranted criticism.

In retrospect, all but the most ardent Favre fans know it was the correct decision, and the Packersí Super Bowl crown two years ago proved it.

Why Thompson and McCarthy went against their better judgment in the handling of Driver last season is puzzling. Whatís important is they appear to have learned from the error of their ways.

ó mvandermause@greenbaypressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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