W. Keith Roerdink
Taking Winters spot on the roster is Grey Ruegamer. At 6-foot-4, 310 pounds, he's an inch taller and five pounds heavier than Winters. But more important to the teams‘ decision, Ruegamer's a center-guard swing man who's 12 years younger. The former Patriot did nothing particularly outstanding during the preseason, but he performed adequately at both positions according to Coach-GM Mike Sherman, and made no mental mistakes despite taking more reps than any other lineman.
At 39-years old, Winters was the team's elder statesmen and a gritty professor of the trenches to the teams younger lineman. The Hoboken, N.J. native arrived in Green Bay via Plan B on St. Patrick's Day, 1992 and spent so many years with the Packers that nobody remembered what Plan A was. His signing came just 35 days after then-GM Ron Wolf traded a first round pick to Atlanta for Brett Favre (and what do we always say whenever ‘The Trade' is mentioned? Thank you, Atlanta) and spent most of the next decade delivering snaps to No. 4 and watching his back.
Favre, of course, can't be thrilled with this decision. Sure, he'll say all the right things when he finally talks about it. That‘s what he does. But Favre just lost his best friend on the team, his roommate on the road and one of the "Three Amigos," the unofficial title given to Favre, Winters and former tight end Mark Chmura during their Super Bowl years.
With Winters release, you can also remove certain descriptive adjectives from your Packer football vocabulary. There are no more ‘War Horses,' or ‘Grizzled Veterans,' no ‘Old Men' or ‘Old School Players.' You may joke about Favre being old enough to be some rookies' dad, but Winters actually could've been.
This decision surely wasn't easy for Sherman. In fact, it was probably the hardest call he's had to make as coach and general manager. Yes, Winters play had slipped. But had it declined that much from the player that started 10 games just a year ago? On a team that rushed for more yards than the 1996 group that brought home the Lombardi Trophy? Are you sure, Coach?
"I wrestled with it all last night and even today," Sherman said of Winters' Aug. 31 release. "I'm sure he sees things differently and wished they were different. But Frank's a real pro and understands the business."
Sherman wouldn't concede that Winters had been outplayed at center, only that Ruegamer offered more versatility while Winters remained one-dimensional. But on that topic, I give you long-snapper Rob Davis. As good as Davis has been with the Packers, the former defensive tackle is about as one dimensional as you can get. The last time he played defense in a game, Britney Spears was still in the Mickey Mouse Club. Winters was primarily a long snapper his first five years in the league and could probably have resumed those duties again full time, along with backing up at center.
Before Winters was even called at his Kansas City home with news of his release, the Packers were pondering their options to replace injured Pro Bowl right guard Marco Rivera in the starting lineup against the Vikings. They could go with Ruegamer, or they could move tackle Mark Tauscher to guard and insert Kevin Barry at tackle.
Recent history says it won't be the last time this season that the team shuffles its deck to fill in for an injured lineman.
Over the last couple years, that's where Winters' value was truly felt. He may have given way to Mike Flanagan as the starting center in 2001, but he was always ready to step in at a moments notice, as he proved last season when injuries forced Flanagan to slide to tackle. With 141 regular season starts under his belt, not to mention a Pro Bowl appearance, Super Bowl title, and one of the best all-time nicknames -- "Bag of Doughnuts" -- (which came from a bit by comedian Dom Irrera) Winters was an assignment-sure security blanket. But unlike Linus from the Peanuts cartoon, the Packers finally outgrew him.
Perhaps it's just the circle of life for an NFL lineman. In 1992, Winters was a 28-year old back-up who arrived on the scene and filled in for injured starters James Campen at center and Rich Moran at guard (remember them?) before locking up a starting job. Now it's time for the 27-year old Ruegamer to show if he's up to the task.
Three days after his release, Winters was still looking for work. After going through training camp, his services are definitely for hire. But here's hoping the Packers keep Winters phone number close at hand and his No. 52 jersey cleaned and pressed somewhere in the equipment room. Just in case.
(Editor's note: W. Keith Roerdink is a freelance writer from Wausau, Wis. and longtime contributor to the Packer Report. Check out his weekly Hot Read column each Thursday.)