The short version of the McKenzie "saga" in Green Bay started in 2004 during the off-season and developed into a sideshow through the beginning of the regular season. He made it known shortly after the 2003 season that he was not happy playing in Green Bay and showed his displeasure of the situation with a holdout. McKenzie eventually reported before a Week 2 game against the Bears, but gave no obvious signs of wanting to stay. As it turned out, the only reason he reported back to the Packers was for business considerations. He soon got his wish when head coach and general manager Mike Sherman traded him just two weeks later.
McKenzie's story became a focus of the media last year. Packers fans often vented about him, so it will make his return this week an interesting sidebar to the game. McKenzie commented on Wednesday what he thought the reception from the Green Bay fans would be like this Sunday.
"Truthfully, I don't have the slightest idea," he said. "I know those great fans down there are big Green Bay supporters, so I imagine I ought to be hearing some boos, but who truly knows."
During a teleconference with media at Lambeau Field, McKenzie said he did not want to rehash his exit from Green Bay and the not-so-public reasons why, saying it was a "past ordeal." Instead, he wanted to leave for a combination of personal and professional reasons which he never directly addressed.
McKenzie's departure has had a significant effect on what would happen to the future of the Packers. His situation then, though it may not appear specific to the struggles the Packers are having now, is a major reason the Packers are on their way to their worst record in over a decade with possibly more losing seasons ahead.
First and foremost, when it became known that McKenzie was unhappy in Green Bay and wanted out, the Packers took his threats seriously. They used the draft in April 2004 to not only bolster the depth in their secondary, but also to pinpoint possible replacements in the event common ground could not be found with McKenzie. They surprised draft "experts" when they used their first pick on cornerback Ahmad Carroll, a junior-entry from Arkansas, and their second-pick (a third-round selection) on little-known cornerback Joey Thomas from Montana State.
Soon after McKenzie was traded, Carroll was thrown into the fire as a rookie starter opposite Al Harris and struggled on a Packers' defense that could not stop anyone. Thomas saw little playing time as a backup and was in a development phase on and off the field as a player.
The struggles of Carroll and the Packers' defense prevented the team from advancing in the playoffs after a remarkable team turnaround in the regular season. Those struggles have continued this season as neither Carroll nor Thomas has been able to lock up a starting spot. As a result, one cornerback position has continued to be a sore spot for the Packers with no immediate answers. It was never that way when McKenzie solidified the position.
This past off-season, Sherman also lost his dual role as a general manager because of what happened with McKenzie. Packers' president Bob Harlan said as much at a press conference when he relieved Sherman of his GM duties. The move was made largely because Harlan and the Packers' organization thought handling the coaching duties and the off-the-field issues could be better done by separating both jobs. He pointed to the McKenzie situation which spilled over from training camp to the regular season. The Packers started 1-4 amidst Sherman trying to figure out what to do with McKenzie.
Sherman, it appeared, became so frustrated with McKenzie's situation that he traded him away to erase the distraction. Sherman even said on Wednesday that he regrets not being able to "get it worked out."
The Packers rebounded when McKenzie finally exited Green Bay and won the NFC North in remarkable fashion going 10-6. That feat, however, really overshadowed the underlying issues with the direction the team was headed. They were fortunate enough to feast on a poor division, winning five games against such opponents, and kicker Ryan Longwell saved the team with four wins on last-second field goals. Sure, the Packers showed character that resulted in wins post-McKenzie, but the team showed more signs of its true talent bowing out painfully to the Vikings at Lambeau Field in the first round of the playoffs. A major reason for the loss was the play of the secondary and mix-ups on defense.
Just five days after the debacle against the Vikings, the Packers named Ted Thompson their new general manager and a new era began. Sherman, though not outwardly happy with the decision, still said he was committed to working with Thompson and looked toward the future.
Thompson quickly exhibited his GM personality this off-season letting top veterans exit via free agency, not pursuing other free agents, and using the draft as a springboard to the future. Safety Darren Sharper and guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle left for other teams. A defensive coach, Jim Bates, became the Packers' top free agent signing. A draft that included first-round pick, quarterback Aaron Rodgers, did not necessarily address the immediate needs of the team. These decisions were somewhat different than those Sherman made as a GM. Sherman had a track record of retaining many of his big-name players facing free agency, and he used the draft to address more immediate needs.
As the 2005 Packers' were being built then, they became more of a team in transition than one trying to win a Super Bowl in Brett Favre's waning years. That has proven itself to be true to start this season and thus, it should be no surprise that the Packers have fallen on hard times – a slide that gradually began over a year ago with a disgruntled McKenzie.
McKenzie says he is happy with the Saints and has continued to play solidly, though not spectacularly of a Pro Bowl-caliber level over the past two years. The Packers should be happy to have his aloof personality out of their locker room, but they sure miss him on the field where his talents made the cornerback spot a non-issue.
Packers' fans will no doubt be zeroing in on McKenzie to see how he fares against Donald Driver and Co. on Sunday. When they do, they should not only gauge his ability, but also remember that his "saga" played as big a role in the Packers' downturn as anything.
Editor's note: Matt Tevsh lives in Green Bay and is entering his 10th season covering the Green Bay Packers for Packer Report and PackerReport.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.