Ted Thompson’s decision to cut Josh Sitton was the kind of ruthless personnel move that would have made Vince Lombardi proud.
Thompson doesn’t always operate this way, but the Green Bay Packers general manager on Saturday followed the model of the five-time NFL champion Lombardi by parting with a seemingly key player at or near age 30.
It’s a personnel philosophy Lombardi learned from one of the first great general managers in NHL history and that serves the dual purpose of keeping the team young and the players on their toes.
Sitton’s teammates weren’t any less shocked than you and I were when we heard Sitton was going to get cut. Now they’re all reminded that everyone, with the possible exception of a premier quarterback, is expendable. That’s a powerful message.
So while the stunning news outraged many a Packers fan, on inspection it makes sense and is more than defensible, based on Sitton’s age, contract and recent play.
Let’s start by looking at Lombardi. Fans who read and hear about the legendary coach who preached love don’t realize that Lombardi was proactive and ruthless in ridding his team of players, even stars. He thought the biggest obstacle to staying on top was holding onto players too long.
The oral histories on Packers.com include a two-part interview with Pat Peppler, who was Lombardi’s personnel director from 1963 to ’69. In it, Peppler said Lombardi once spoke of his admiration for Jack Adams, the coach and/or general manager of the Red Wings from 1927 through 1962 who was nicknamed “Trader Jack.”
“(Adams) was famous because he was always getting rid of his older players while they still had some value and replacing them with younger players,” Peppler said. “That was what Vince had in mind.”
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Maybe the most famous example of Lombardi’s philosophy was his trade of future Pro Football Hall of Fame center Jim Ringo in 1964. Ringo had been offensive captain for Lombardi's first two championship teams and was first-team All-Pro six of seven seasons (and second team the other) starting in 1957. Yet after Ringo’s All-Pro season in 1963 at age 32, Lombardi traded him to the Philadelphia Eagles.
The apocryphal story, which Lombardi perpetuated for his own purposes, was that Ringo earned Lombardi's scorn by bringing an agent to his contract negotiations. After meeting the agent, Lombardi supposedly stepped out of the room. When he returned a few minutes later he told the agent he’d now be negotiating with the Philadelphia Eagles because his client had just been traded.
But Peppler's oral history as well as the definitive Lombardi biography, “When Pride Still Mattered,” by David Maraniss, debunk the myth. There was no agent, Peppler handled contract negotiations, and Lombardi in fact had detected a slip in Ringo’s play even though the center had been All-Pro.
Furthermore, Lombardi didn’t have a replacement on hand. Yet he made the trade.
“He’d have to use his left tackle (i.e., Bob Skoronski) at center until an untested rookie (i.e., Ken Bowman) came along,” Maraniss wrote.
That move was hardly isolated.
Bill Quinlan was a starting defensive end on Lombardi’s 1961 and ’62 championship teams but was traded at age 30 before the ’63 season. Linebacker Dan Currie was All-Pro in 1961, ’62 and ’63 but traded at age 30 in ’64;
Lombardi begged safety Bobby Dillon to play in 1959 but then benched him and let him retire after that season without a fight. Cornerback Jesse Whittenton started in the Pro Bowl in 1963, yet Lombardi phased him out at age 30 in ’64, and Whittenton retired after the season. Lombardi also benched Hall of Fame halfback Paul Hornung at age 30 in 1966 and allowed Hall of Fame fullback Jim Taylor to sign with New Orleans in 1967 at age 31.
And Lombardi ran off or benched four other players age 32 or older during the team’s championship run from 1965 through ‘67: defensive tackle Dave Hanner, safety Hank Gremminger, receiver Max McGee and guard Fuzzy Thurston.
Which brings us back to Sitton. He was a Packers fixture at guard since 2009 and second-team All-Pro the last three seasons. He’d also been battling chronic back issues, turned 30 in June and was in the last year of an expensive contract ($6.55 million in salary and weekly roster bonuses).
I can’t say that I noticed decline in Sitton’s play, though multiple NFL sources have told me in the last day that he had slipped some over the last year. One agent whose firm represents a Packers offensive lineman said he assumed Sitton refused a pay cut, so Thompson cut him. But that doesn’t appear to be the case.
An NFL source with ties to the Packers told me that in the team’s eyes Sitton had become haughty and uncommunicative. That jibes with a report by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Silverstein that the Packers were unwilling to talk contract extension with Sitton and instead placed left tackle David Bakhtiari and center JC Tretter ahead of him on their contract-extension priority list.
Clearly, Thompson thought a problem was festering in his locker room, and Sitton’s age and bad back left him expendable even coming off a second-team All-Pro season.
Sitton by all appearances was respected in the locker room and the dominant personality on the offensive line. You never know for sure what teammates think but this probably has not gone over well with his cohorts, especially on the offensive line.
But in the end, that doesn’t matter. This move was about getting younger and reminding the players they’re all replaceable. If Josh Sitton can get cut, anyone can. Working while constantly fearing for your job isn’t fun, but it’s an effective motivator, especially in the NFL, where the stakes (i.e., salaries) are high and the careers short.
Thompson doesn’t always operate this way. For instance, he stuck with the aging Donald Driver for too long. By the end of the 2011 season Driver was an afterthought to opposing defenses, which the New York Giants exploited in their playoff upset of a Packers team that was 15-1.
On the other hand, Thompson was pre-emptive in parting with the great Charles Woodson, who almost surely will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2021. Thompson cut Woodson after the 2012 season, and it was the right move.
Many see Woodson’s 10 interceptions for Oakland from 2013-15 and the Packers’ poor safety play in 2013, and brand that move a mistake. But Woodson in his later 30s was running on fumes and brainpower; his tackling and overall coverage had slipped significantly.
Thompson’s mistake wasn’t cutting Woodson, it was going a full season before finding an adequate replacement (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix).
So the question today is whether Thompson’s left guard in 2016 will be good enough now that Sitton is gone. The most likely option appears to be plugging in fourth-year pro Lane Taylor at left guard, though he had a decidedly uneven preseason. Another option is moving Bryan Bulaga to guard and starting second-round pick Jason Spriggs at right tackle. We'll see how this goes.
Sitton was scooped up quickly, agreeing to a three-year, $21.5 million deal with the rival Chicago Bears on Sunday that initial reports said included $10 million guaranteed, though the contract details that will come out in the next few days might tell a slightly different story. Thompson couldn't trade him because as soon as he shopped Sitton, teams knew he would be cut. Sitton also won’t have a contract history with his new team, so there won’t be that animosity.
But that doesn’t mean cutting him was a mistake. Packers fans should find it encouraging that Thompson is showing Lombardi-like ruthlessness in pursuit of a title.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.