McGinn: Loss of T.J. Lang just business as usual

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - The Green Bay Packers are positioned right where they always are, flush with space beneath the salary cap and among the NFL’s leaders in carryover from the previous season.

With $22.377 million of current cap room, 10th most in the league, the Packers are poised to re-sign a player or two in 2017 and exit the year with another hefty amount to roll over into 2018.

Under general manager Ted Thompson and vice president Russ Ball, his chief financial adviser, the Packers operate with the same conservative approach year after year. The coming season will be Thompson’s 13th straight with a franchise quarterback, and under his tight fiscal practices, the Packers have played in one Super Bowl, winning in February 2011.

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Look at the consistency of carryovers by the Packers in recent years: $5.28 million in 2012, $7.01M in ’13, $9.82M in ’14, $7.79M in ’15, $6.95M in ’16 and $7.99M this year.

Those totals have seen the Packers rank 18th, 12th, sixth, seventh, 11th and 10th in the NFL in cap money rolled over.

“Having that same amount basically rolled over every year is not coincidence,” an NFL general manager said. “That’s a plan.”

On one hand, such fiscal conservatism could be viewed as good business. On the other hand, it could be said that management has failed the coaches, players and fans by not buying that extra player or two necessary to win another championship.

Thompson’s cautious agenda clearly has won over Ball, who joined the team in 2008 from a negotiating post in New Orleans.

Over the years, officers of the Packers corporation and others involved in finance have said somewhat facetiously that they had to save money for a rainy day. Having covered annual stockholders meetings almost 40 years ago, back when net profit was in six figures, there was merit in that approach.

Today, it should fall on deaf ears.

This is a corporation that has reported a net profit of $189.14 million over the last five fiscal years. A year ago, the bottom line was a record $48.94 million.

With money, money and more money floating in from everywhere, the Packers’ so-called “preservation” fund had swelled to $275 million one year ago.

Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy and Thompson have said cash flow has never been an issue in Green Bay. It’s so unlike some other NFL franchises with owners dealing with debt service and at times robbing their football teams to fund other businesses.

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Last year, valued the Packers at almost $2 billion, ninth highest among the 32 teams.

The team’s remarkable financial health was one reason why it was remarkable to learn that one of the driving principles in football decisions made by Thompson and Ball is money. Not cap savings, either. Saving for that proverbial rainy day.

They’re concerned that the NFL’s revenue-sharing system regarding network television and other endeavors might one day end, perhaps in the not-too-distant future. And, I’m told, if they can do their fair share and save some money in the football operation by coming in under budget, then so much the better.

The Packers ask the faithful to spend at their Pro Shop because it will help the team win on the field. Every year now they raise ticket prices, and a common refrain among their increasingly strapped fan base is that it’s the cost of doing business.

In return, all fans hope for is that the stewards of the organization are doing whatever they can to help a team quarterbacked by Aaron Rodgers bring back another Lombardi Trophy to the NFL’s smallest city.

Even if ratings show further decline and the league changes the way it televises games, the Packers still would benefit from a possible pay-per-view system. The Packers rank as one of the league’s glamour franchises, and their immense fan base across the world would pay to watch and follow them for years and years to come.

In the unlikely event that the NFL goes to hell in a handbasket, that oversaturation or doomsday point would be a long time off. Certainly, a franchise as resourceful and beloved as the one in Green Bay would have time to adjust and plan accordingly.

Meanwhile, that $275 million reserve fund should give the corporation considerable confidence that its pockets are plenty deep enough to survive for decades and decades to come.

To a degree, Thompson and Ball almost always have been tight with a buck. They low-ball their own players in the early going, usually only getting around to making a serious offer at the 11th hour, and have done excellent work extracting so-called “hometown” deals from their players.

But management’s growing reputation in the league for being cheap has hurt the Packers’ image within the locker room and in the court of public opinion.

How not one but two Pro Bowl guards, Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang, were allowed to depart the Packers in less than seven months strikes at the sometimes absurd nature of the team’s financial practices.

Last August, the Packers weren’t just fortified inside. Rodgers had two mini-tanks crouched in front of him plus a capable backup in the barrel-chested Lane Taylor. Add Corey Linsley and JC Tretter to the mix and it’s likely no team in the league had a better interior.

Today, it almost defies belief to see the Packers with Taylor as the No. 1 guard, the menagerie of Don Barclay, Kyle Murphy and Lucas Patrick supposedly in line at right guard and no suitable player behind Linsley.

This should have been an all-defense draft for the Packers minus a running back. Even though the guard position is one of the thinnest in the draft, the Packers now might feel compelled to select from it to address the void left by their decision not to re-sign Lang.

The Sitton affair was bungled from the start. No trade. No final season. No compensatory pick. After cutting their best lineman Sept. 3, the Packers were fortunate Taylor played at what he called a higher level than in the past.

There was no doubt, however, that Taylor still was only the team’s fifth-best offensive lineman just as Sitton was doing his customary outstanding work in Chicago.

Last summer, Ball informed Sitton and Lang that the team planned to sign a younger offensive lineman (tackle David Bakhtiari) before them. Sitton didn’t even try to conceal his disgust and anger, coach Mike McCarthy reached the point that he was done with the player and the decision was made to terminate.

At that point, Thompson and Ball should have been proactive, gone to one of their best and most popular players and signed Lang to a new deal.

On the contrary, Lang never heard one word from management until after undergoing hip-impingement surgery Jan. 27. Eventually, the Packers made an embarrassingly low offer laden with injury clauses protecting the club. As expected, Lang was more than a little offended.

Remember, this was a player who played when he wasn’t healthy much of last season and put out some bad tape that didn’t help his market value.

Many times there’s a gray area between when a player plays and when he doesn’t. Lang played but wasn’t rewarded by management, a fact some of his former teammates won’t forget.

Acting in extreme good faith, Lang volunteered to let the Packers’ medical staff examine his hip March 6 in Green Bay, three days before the start of the free-agent signing period. Just like clockwork, the Packers then made an offer averaging close to $8 million (had it been extended during the season, Lang would have accepted).

Detroit, which is home for Lang, and Seattle each made offers comparable to Green Bay’s. After visiting Detroit and Seattle, Lang gave all three teams a chance to increase their offer.

Having drawn a line, the Packers didn’t respond and lost the player to the Lions, who paid an average of $9.5 million on a three-year basis with $19.5M guaranteed.

Lang had been talking to James Campen, his position coach for all eight seasons, throughout the process. You’ll be subjected to all that “next man up” happy talk for months to come. The truth is that the Packers’ coaches were incensed, and no doubt some of the players were, too.

What about the hip, you say, and the fact Lang turns 30 in September?

Of course there are no guarantees in pro football, and his age is risky. But at least now the hip is fixed, and Lang won’t be dealing with the misery he did just to play each Sunday. Maybe he’ll have a new lease on his football life.

The MRIs for most veteran offensive linemen look terrible. Still, some guys just play on regardless. The Lions bet that Lang, who has missed only five of 107 games in six years as a starter, is one of them.

OK, but shouldn’t management be putting away every last nickel for the re-signing of Rodgers, who heaven forbid has just three years remaining on a contract averaging $22 million?

Well, if the new right guard can’t protect Rodgers, he might not be around that much longer, anyway.

The only answer is to take advantage of a great quarterback’s prime years by putting together the best possible team in an effort to win it all.

If Lang gets hurt, whether it was in Green Bay or Detroit, so be it. The sting on the ever-increasing salary cap, which has leaped $44 million in the last four years, really wouldn’t be that severe. There’s no fault in trying with a leader, a tough guy and a superb player like Lang.

As it turned out, Thompson and Ball can be proud of themselves for having held the line for the good of the company.

The executives that populate the stage at the team’s annual stockholders meeting in July can report another record profit, provide updates on the latest moneymaker, the nearby Titletown District, and inform the crowd there’s no team or story in sports that can measure up to the Packers.

The fans, basking in the sun and the splendor of Lambeau Field, will stand and cheer, as they always do.

As another season swings underway, Thompson and Ball will be telling themselves they’re prepared to pull the trigger on an unexpected mega-trade or signing all the while knowing deep down they’ve become almost fundamentally indisposed to aggressive player spending and acquisition.

No matter how you cut it, losing both Josh Sitton and T.J. Lang was an unpardonable sin. But that’s just the way they handle business in Green Bay.

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