Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy didn’t like the premise of my question.
Seated at the NFC coaches’ breakfast last week in Orlando during the annual NFL owners meeting, I wondered why the Packers decided to let wide receiver James Jones walk away in unrestricted free agency to sign with the Oakland Raiders.
My assumption was the Packers were ready to move on from Jones, who turned 30 this week and signed a deal with the Raiders that will essentially pay him the same money he was making in Green Bay.
It seemed logical the Packers were ready for a change to a younger, cheaper No. 3 receiver behind Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.
But McCarthy offered a different take on Jones’ departure.
“I don’t agree with the content of your question,” McCarthy said. “I think any time you get into these free agent situations, especially with your own players, what they’ve made in the past, really the philosophy of paying forward, I would think that’s mostly what everybody does.
“So unfortunately it didn’t work out with James. James was a player that I always felt was one of our core players. I think his opportunity to go back home in a sense is a good thing for him personally.”
Jones is a California Bay Area native and his return seems like a natural fit. The Raiders gave him a three-year contract averaging $3.33 million per year, which was almost identical to the $3.2 million salary he was earning with the Packers.
“I wouldn’t say we were looking to move on from him,” McCarthy added. “It’s the business part of it. There’s going to be one or two individuals every year if you’re doing your job right, your roster is built the right way, you’re bringing a young class in, there are players that are going to move on. Unfortunately Evan (Dietrich-Smith) and James were the two this year.”
There is no reason to doubt McCarthy’s sincerity. If it was up to him, he’d want to keep most of his starters or key contributors every year. While not spectacular in his seven seasons with the Packers, Jones was extremely reliable and provided a stable locker room presence. His playmaking skills and team-oriented attitude will be missed.
But the cold, hard fact is the Packers can’t pay everyone. Loyalty goes out the window when it comes to the salary cap. In the end, the NFL is a business and difficult decisions must be made.
This is where I will agree to disagree with McCarthy, who no doubt loved Jones’ contributions over the years. But neither he nor general manager Ted Thompson loved Jones enough to keep him in Green Bay.
Priorities must be set, and if Jones was really too good to lose, the Packers would have found a way to re-sign him. Instead, they made what appears to be a prudent decision about their future at wide receiver.
The money the Packers saved by not re-signing Jones can go toward the more important goal of keeping Cobb and Nelson. Both of their contracts expire at the end of this season and, in order to give quarterback Aaron Rodgers sufficient firepower, Cobb and Nelson must be retained.
In the meantime, the Packers feel confident enough that young and ascending Jarrett Boykin will fill the void left by Jones, and more depth can be added in the draft.
Call it the circle of life that takes place every offseason: The Packers divide their free agents into two lists, one containing must-sign players they cannot afford to lose, and another with those they can live without.
The Packers moved heaven and earth to keep Sam Shields, whose name was on top of the first list. The Packers made Shields one of the highest-paid cornerbacks in the league with a $9 million average salary because they badly needed a cover man on what they hope is an improved defense.
Dietrich-Smith was on the other list because the Packers determined their high-powered offense could function without him. McCarthy had nothing but good things to say about Dietrich-Smith last week, and I’m convinced he meant every word.
But in their heart of hearts, the Packers firmly believe they can do better at center, whether it’s with the unproven JC Tretter or someone else.
McCarthy may not agree, but free agency usually tells us everything we need to know about the Packers’ true feelings about their players.
Thompson has allowed several starters to walk away in free agency in recent years, including receiver Greg Jennings, linebacker Erik Walden, center Scott Wells, guard Daryn Colledge, defensive end Cullen Jenkins and linebacker Aaron Kampman.
The Packers normally are in tune with the value of their own free agents, although in the cases of Jenkins and Wells they miscalculated how much they would be missed.
Some unrestricted free agents on the Packers’ less-urgent list eventually return to Green Bay, as long as they agree to play for the right price. Quarterback Matt Flynn and fullback John Kuhn currently fall into that category.
No head coach worth his salt, least of all McCarthy, likes to see players who shed blood, sweat and tears for him leave in free agency.
But for as much as McCarthy appreciated their contributions, Jones and Dietrich-Smith were the latest expendable commodities. It’s a harsh reality that not every player can stick around, and it’s usually the Packers organization that makes the final call.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause