GREEN BAY – It would go too far to categorize the Green Bay Packers’ whirlwind free-agent shopping spree as an act of desperation.
Make no mistake, the Packers are a desperate team.
They have had back-to-back losing seasons, they have a 39-year-old head coach who has been an offensive coordinator for one season and they have a defense that was old and broken down in key places.
Normally, the Packers would take advantage of one of the deepest drafts in a long time and count on their coaches to get more than can be expected out of the rookies.
But this team doesn’t have time on its hands.
Another losing season would mean they’d match the worst stretch of football since Forrest Gregg (1986-87) and Lindy Infante (1988) combined for three straight sub-.500 seasons.
That was three decades ago, meaning there are several generations of Packers fans who find it unfathomable to miss the playoffs, let alone have a losing season. Failing two years in a row is unheard of.
And so it just can’t go on. Not with so much invested into quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Lambeau Field and the Titletown District.
Attendance remained steady during the dismal days of the ‘70s and ‘80s, but Lambeau Field had 30,000 fewer seats to fill, didn’t have 168 luxury suites and 3,000 club seats to sell and wasn’t surrounded by a project financed in part by a $100 million loan from the NFL.
These are things the business side of the Packers must worry about.
President Mark Murphy wasted no time in dispatching coach Mike McCarthy in December when it was evident the Packers weren’t going to make the playoffs and probably weren’t going to have a winning season.
Murphy and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam were the only two bosses to fire their head coaches in midseason.
So, you can say, if you want, the Packers’ decision to spend a combined $56 million in signing bonuses on free agents Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner was just part of Gutekunst’s shift away from the Ted Thompson general manager mode.
You can even say it was done to catch up the Packers to the rest of the NFC North, which since last offseason has added to its rosters Kirk Cousins (Minnesota), Khalil Mack (Chicago) and Trey Flowers (Detroit) — at a massive cost.
But you can also imagine Murphy in a room telling Gutekunst and negotiator Russ Ball how much new coach Matt LaFleur — Murphy’s first hire since moving into the role of the football operation’s overseer — needs to be supported and the cash is there to do it.
Part of what leads you to believe that is true is that two of the four free agents said the offers they received from the Packers made their decisions easy. They were on board Monday, the first day teams are permitted to negotiate with agents on contract details, and didn’t consider any other offers.
Edge rusher Za’Darius Smith signed a deal that put him among the highest-paid players at his position and guaranteed him $20 million at signing. You could almost say it was $24 million guaranteed because he has a $4 million roster bonus due in March that the Packers will pay unless Smith suffers a career-ending injury.
“Back on the first day of free agency, my agent called me and was like, ‘Z, wake up, man,’” Smith said Thursday in the Packers’ locker room. "He called me and said, ‘Z, you know what? You ready to be a Green Bay Packer?’ I said, ‘Man, we’re going to Green Bay?’ He said, ‘Yeah. I’m going to tell you the deal.’”
Safety Adrian Amos had a similar experience.
“Green Bay basically let it be known that they wanted me and they wanted me here,” Amos said. “So, I don’t feel like it was a big, long, drawn-out process. I just feel like they came on in the forefront.”
Gutekunst and Ball probably had to bite down hard on a piece of lead to pay Turner, a career backup who played in nine games in ’16 and ’17, a signing bonus of $9 million. Center Corey Linsley, a far better player and 70-game starter, received $8 million on a three-year extension last season.
Turner indicated the Packers had competition for his services, so it might explain why they had to spend so much. But rather than drop out, they raised the ante and now have a new combination guard-tackle on their roster.
In previous years, the Packers would have waited until Turner’s demands lowered. If they lost him, that was because the money they were offering him was in line with what they believed he was worth.
Preston Smith’s deal cost the Packers a $16 million signing bonus and all but guarantees him $20 million given he, like Za’Darius Smith, has a $4 million roster bonus due in March.
There’s no question the Packers had competition for him, but they felt the price was right even after backing up the Brinks truck to Za’Darius Smith’s door.
"I felt like if we could get an edge rusher, that would certainly help our team,” Gutekunst said. “So obviously, there’s a number of them in this year’s free-agent class, so we kind of had them stacked like we did and we went through and we were just kind of fortunate that we were able to get both of them.”
Fortunate isn’t the right word. Aggressive is.
Probably as aggressive as the Packers have been in pursuing free agents since Ron Wolf signed Reggie White in 1993. The franchise’s other big free agent, Charles Woodson, was signed after most the teams in the league passed on him, so it was not a heavy pursuit.
When asked if he Murphy had given him carte blanche to spend on free agents, Gutekunst said no. He didn’t deny that Murphy was thrilled with the signings and he said he hoped a byproduct of the signings was injecting some excitement inside 1265 Lombardi Ave.
“The cap itself is restrictive in some ways,” Gutekunst said of having no limitations. “I think Russ did a great job in the negotiation phases of acquiring these players as we went through.
“But I think Mark was really excited to see who we signed and everybody’s really excited. It’s a good day.”
Gutekunst has proved to be a good judge of talent and Ball manages the cap impeccably, but both know the risk of investing so heavily in someone else’s players. They won’t be able to spend like this every year and if this class bombs out, they’ll find themselves with cap limitations this club has not seen before.
The organization needed a shot in the arm and it got one. We’ll find out later this year if it’s sustainable.