Dougherty: Packers persevere without Sitton

Pete Dougherty
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - One game does not vindicate.

But even if Lane Taylor had played poorly and the Green Bay Packers had lost their 2016 opener, general manager Ted Thompson did what he had to do when he cut Josh Sitton last week.

As it turns out, Taylor was just fine against the Jacksonville Jaguars as the Packers’ new left guard. His coaches schemed plenty of help for him, but no matter, he held up well, including the occasional snaps when matched one-on-one against Malik Jackson, the Jaguars’ prize offseason free-agent signing who was a key player in Denver’s run to a Super Bowl win last year.

“No issues,” was how coach Mike McCarthy put the performance of his offensive line.

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That doesn’t mean there won’t be rough times ahead, especially in the next month as the rest of the linemen adapt to a player who doesn’t have Sitton’s experience and pass-protecting skills.

But did anyone else find it interesting that on the first fourth-and-one of the season, on the Packers’ first possession no less, McCarthy chose to run behind Taylor? Taylor and left tackle David Bakhtiari teamed up to spring Eddie Lacy for a nine-yard gain.

That play aside, and regardless of how things go in the short term, Thompson and McCarthy did what good teams must do to remain contenders through the years. They parted with an accomplished veteran when they saw signs of decline and felt like they’d gain more than they'd lose, regardless of what the outside world thinks.

In an earlier column, I described it as a move that would have made Vince Lombardi proud. If you didn’t find that persuasive, maybe this will: New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick did essentially the same thing with Logan Mankins only two years ago.

In 2014, Mankins was coming off his sixth season as either a first- or second-team All-Pro. At age 32 he finis.hed training camp as the Patriots’ starting left guard, but then after final cuts he refused a pay cut. So Belichick traded him to Tampa Bay for tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round draft pick.

I know what you’re thinking. At least Belichick got something for him, right?

Well, not really. Wright played regularly the first half of the season, but in the second half he became a deep backup. He played only 10 snaps the entire postseason. The draft pick wasn’t until 2015. So the Patriots essentially got nothing for Mankins in ’14.

On top of that, their offensive line played poorly early, and Belichick used six different combinations of interior linemen in the first seven games. The Patriots started the season 2-2, which triggered the inevitable hysterics from the crowd who had found the Mankins trade unfathomable.

And who won the Super Bowl in the 2014 season? Belichick’s Patriots. It didn’t matter that they lost an accomplished but aging guard, with negligible help in return.

Belichick did it for money — the Patriots saved about $6.5 million on their salary cap, and used that money the following offseason to help pay for contract extensions for younger players. But that’s irrelevant. Losing Mankins didn’t matter.

And that was the point with Sitton. I talked with an NFL source over the weekend who doesn’t work for the Packers or Sitton but was familiar with the dynamic that led to the left guard’s departure.

The source said Sitton at times was a fun and engaging presence, but he also was brash and highly opinionated. He openly disparaged personnel moves, coaching decisions and his teammates’ abilities in any and every setting at the Packers’ facilities, regardless of who was in earshot. He also could be argumentative in meetings and refused to do some blocking techniques and drills on the practice field.

The source said that while Sitton was at the top of his game, the Packers acquiesced. But as the 30-year-old’s play began to slip in the last year or so, in part because of his chronic back condition, the team felt less compelled to accommodate him. And when the coaching staff saw some of that behavior filtering to the younger linemen, the team parted ways.

Sure, you can criticize general manager Ted Thompson and McCarthy for not getting anything for him. They waited until final cuts to try to move him, and thus had little leverage to work a deal.

I still wonder if there was some final-straw incident that caused the seemingly 11th-hour decision, but no source I consulted even hinted at such a thing.

The Packers simply thought that after telling Sitton during camp that he wasn’t a priority for a contract extension while younger linemen were, they were fostering a poisonous atmosphere. So they made the move.

And Sunday’s game showed how easily under most circumstances teams can just move on. A week after Sitton’s stunning release, the Packers’ offense didn’t play well, but it was good enough. It put up 27 points and 294 yards. Aaron Rodgers was sacked once and hit two other times.

"I screwed them on that one (sack), otherwise we would have had zero sacks," Rodgers said. "I felt like I was past the line of scrimmage. The last thing you want to do is take a zero-yard run because that counts as a sack."

To this naked eye, this line didn’t look any different than last season with Sitton.

Now, that doesn’t mean tough times aren’t ahead. Taylor will have his struggles, maybe as early as next week in what figures to be a wild and deafening setting for the MinnesotaVikings’ regular-season debut in the new U.S. Bank Stadium. Things could get ugly there.

But the smart money still says that by December and January things will be much like they were Sunday. That is, you couldn’t tell the difference.

“I thought the protection was very good and I thought Lane played really well,” Rodgers said. “I'm happy. The line as a whole played great. (The pocket) seemed to be high and wide on the outside and middle was very firm. That’s just how you like it.”

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