McGinn: Packers blew it with Sitton gambit

Only one group of people were more shocked when the Green Bay Packers cut one of their five or six best players. That would be the team’s top brass as the failure of their actions began to sink in.

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Ted Thompson traded left guard Josh Sitton to the Chicago Bears.

GREEN BAY - All the coaches at the podium and all the players in the locker room said all the right things last week.

Deep down, however, just about everyone in the organization knows they blew it with Josh Sitton.

Only one group of people were more shocked than the fans a week ago Saturday when the Green Bay Packers cut one of their five or six best players.

That would be general manager Ted Thompson, coach Mike McCarthy, vice president of football administration Russ Ball and director of football operations Eliot Wolf as the failure of their actions began to sink in.

When the Packers finally decided Saturday morning to make a concerted effort to trade Sitton, their decision-makers were over-the-top confident they would locate a trade partner willing to deal a third- or fourth-round pick for the distinguished guard before the 3 p.m. deadline to meet the 53-man roster limit.

It was a gross miscalculation, one of the worst the Packers have been guilty of in many, many years.

Instead of acquiring value for a football player like Sitton, those with knowledge of the situation said the front office was apoplectic to have gained nothing. Then they compounded their horrific day as the deadline bore down on them by making the worst decision of all: Instead of bringing back Sitton, they actually released him.

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The Packers have opened regular seasons in the past under less-than-ideal, even chaotic, circumstances.

Sterling Sharpe’s 11th-hour negotiating stunt the day before the first game in 1994 comes to mind. So does the resignation of defensive line coach Fred vonAppen four days before the opener in ’80 over coach Bart Starr’s decision not to impose a harsher penalty on defensive end Ezra Johnson for eating a hot dog in the bench area during the exhibition finale.

Yet, from a purely football standpoint, this has to rank at or near the top.

One day, Josh Sitton stands as a pillar of one of the NFL’s better offensive lines and best offenses. The next day, he’s starting for the Chicago Bears, and the Packers are left holding the bag.

Personnel people across the league had many reactions last week, many of which were incredulity. In my conversations, they just couldn’t believe the Packers let a player of Sitton’s caliber out the door, especially when the player replacing him was Lane Taylor.

“I’d be holding on to my britches,” an NFL personnel director said. “He (Taylor) is going to battle but I don’t know if he has the athleticism to hold up in there. Maybe he’s got enough bumpers (linemates) to help him. That’s scary.”

McCarthy took issue with those who pointed out Taylor’s three penalties in Kansas City. Left unsaid was the pattern of average-to-poor performance by Taylor in all four exhibition games. It prompted one scout to say after Game 3, “He’s the poorest player in their second five.”

You could name half of the 22-man starting lineup where a more suitable replacement could be found than Taylor is for Sitton at left guard.

The Packers know better than anyone else Taylor’s strengths (bulk, strength, physicality) and weaknesses (feet, bend, speed). Day after day coaches dissect it all. These coaches also know capable guards don’t exactly grow on trees.

But this isn’t about Taylor, a gutty free agent who made himself into a viable player in his third season and now is determined to make a name for himself in his fourth.

It’s about how it came to be that the Packers couldn’t find a place to keep Sitton as they enter a season in which oddsmakers late last week established them as the Super Bowl favorite.

According to sources, the Packers notified Sitton in mid-August that talks regarding a possible contract extension would be put on the back burner. Sitton, 30, would have to wait while deals were enacted for tackle David Bakhtiari, 25, and center JC Tretter, 25, and possibly guard T.J. Lang, who is to turn 29 on Sept. 20.

All four players, along with running back Eddie Lacy and several other starters, are to play under contracts set to expire at season’s end.

Sitton, in an interview with the Journal Sentinel’s Tom Silverstein a few hours after his release, repeatedly denied being involved in any type of disruptive behavior.

“I was prepared to play the season,” Sitton said. “I never said anything. I have no ill feeling, whatsoever. They were just comfortable going with who they have, I guess. They like who they’ve got and saving some money.”

Sitton is a larger-than-life character from Florida’s Panhandle. As one of the team’s more outspoken players, he undoubtedly said things that rankled McCarthy and Thompson.

In November, Sitton said on USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's "Clubhouse Live" show, “I think that our offense has become way too predictable. Teams know exactly what we’re going to do every week.”

There’s no doubt Sitton had to be angry, at least initially, about the team’s decision not to extend him now. But if Sitton had attempted to talk or act his way out of town by becoming a disruptive, disinterested jerk in the meeting and locker rooms, I couldn’t uncover evidence of it.

Sitton always was professional in his dealings with me. He was a football player, through and through.

The Packers mentioned an interest in trading Sitton to at least one team about a week before the last cut. Their efforts didn’t begin in earnest, however, until about the time a team official phoned Saturday morning informing Sitton he’d be cut if a trade couldn’t be made.

Why the Packers notified Sitton at that point makes no sense. There were only a handful of teams with a void at guard and sufficient salary-cap room. When teams insist on operating discreetly, most of the time word doesn’t leak.

Anyway, Wolf would have led the Packers’ effort to find a taker. He’s said to be skilled in these maneuvers. Generally, Thompson doesn’t do the phone work.

New Orleans, according to a source, expressed interest. The Saints, cap-strapped because the new deal for Drew Brees had yet to be consummated, decided they couldn’t handle picking up Sitton’s one-year deal at $6.55 million. Plus, they already were without their fifth-round pick next year.

Reality began to set in as Wisconsin and LSU completed warmups out on Lambeau Field.

About then, someone should have summoned Sitton for a meeting with McCarthy. Then McCarthy should have told Sitton who’s the boss, told him he’s going to do it his way and told him let’s go win another Super Bowl ring and cash in together.

Leaders should never make decisions based on personality and out of fear. Leaders find ways to accommodate great players as long as those players love the game, which Sitton most assuredly does.

“He’d be a free agent next year so you’ll definitely get like a fourth-round compensatory pick,” one NFL executive said. “You just weather the storm. He’s got to go play.”

Shocked by their totally unexpected inability to make a trade, the ashen faces at the table had a better idea. Bye-bye, Sitton.

Yes, the extra cap space is nice, but that’s no reason for getting rid of a player like that. The Packers always are flush with cap space, anyway, and injuries often change the financial outlook. Besides, they’re well aware winning a championship with a team this talented has to trump everything else.

Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson walks the sideline during the team's Family Night practice Sunday, July 31, 2016 at Lambeau Field.

Sources said the decision was made due largely to management’s fear that Sitton, unwisely having been told of trade talks, would become incorrigible and threaten locker-room chemistry. If Bakhtiari and others actually did sign new deals, they feared it could get worse.

If Sitton were to become a malcontent, he’s not the kind of person that could have concealed it for long. Word probably would have gotten out, and then other teams might have considered him persona non grata for 2017. He couldn’t afford for that to happen.

I didn’t attend McCarthy’s press briefing but read his comments and talked to some who were there. My impression was McCarthy really believed he could make it work with the people he has.

In an interview with Thompson on Wednesday, he initially declined comment on Sitton. As the conversation began turning to another subject, he interjected: “I will say this. Josh Sitton is a heck of a football player and a good teammate. He’s one of the better picks I’ve ever made.”

He said it in a subdued, almost melancholy voice. I wondered if the full impact of the organizational decision that eliminated Sitton, the type of player nearest and dearest to his scouting heart, finally had hit home.

Note also Thompson’s use of the present tense regarding Sitton as player. The NFC scout that I quoted a week ago saying there was slippage in Sitton was the first ever to tell me that, and I have talked to about a dozen since late last season about Sitton.

Sitton has had back issues, and the team’s medical staff knows the details that we don’t. Unlike some players, he has been open about them. His back has never forced him to miss a game, and he has become more diligent in his offseason training.

Barring injury, Sitton probably would have about three Pro Bowl-level seasons left in him. He just knows how to kick butt and block people, whether it’s run or pass, and he is a student of the game.

If the Packers really did want to trade Sitton, they should have started seven months ago at the combine.

Make teams aware Sitton might be available. Attempt to get two or three clubs involved. Emphasize you won’t give him away. Use your leverage.

When the trading period opened March 9, try for that third- or fourth-round draft choice during the seven-week run-up to the draft, or on draft day itself. Use that selection or another to draft Sitton’s successor.

But, no, the Packers tried the old NFL ploy of waiting until the bitter end, when deals often get done. They expected a frenzy of interest for Sitton. This time, they waited too long. What a terrible blunder it turned out to be.

In the end, the organization never had a coherent plan. The Packers are in the business of winning football games, and whatever they tried to do reeked of incompetence.

With some of their fan base still either irate or unable to comprehend what happened, management could swing the narrative by signing Lang to an extension before kickoff Sunday in Jacksonville.

Across the league several top players, including guard David DeCastro of the Pittsburgh Steelers, received new deals in the past few days. The Packers need Lang now more than ever, and what a message of hope and unity it would send to the rank and file if a deserving player were rewarded.

Thompson couldn’t care less about PR, or isn’t one for making bold, preemptive strikes. The Packers have Aaron Rodgers, a captive audience, undying fan support and, on paper at least, the easiest schedule of any team in the league.

Maybe they will make the Super Bowl in Houston without Sitton. It would have been easier with him.

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