After the firing of Bob Sanders and the hiring of Dom Capers, this offseason has produced little to nothing to get Packers fans excited about the upcoming season.
The Packers are coming off a 6-10 season, just their second losing season in 17 years, and fans are wondering if the downturn is a sign of things to come or simply a mirage.
The Packers have singed just one free agent from another team this offseason, safety Anthony Smith (formerly of the Steelers), saw one free agent, Colin Cole, leave (to Seattle), and have re-signed three other players. Four holdovers – Tramon Williams, Atari Bigby, John Kuhn, and Ruvell Martin – were tendered qualifying offers Feb. 26.
Mark Tauscher, arguably the Packers' top free agent, remains unsigned. The nine-year veteran has been a starter in Green Bay his entire career, but a season-ending knee injury late last season leaves his contract situation up in the air, potentially creating a huge void at right tackle.
With many of the NFL's top free agents this offseason staying put or signing quickly for exorbitant amounts of money (i.e. Albert Haynesworth with the Redskins), the remaining market left little attractive to the Packers. As has usually been the case, general manager Ted Thompson has stuck to his philosophy of being cautious through free agency and not overspending. Instead, he seems to be setting up to sign some of his own core players to long-term deals in the year ahead.
The Packers are the only losing team from a year ago not to sign an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Thompson has been as quiet this offseason as any since taking over the Packers' football operations in 2005. Only twice since the implementation of the modern free agency system (1993) have the Packers gone an entire offseason without signing an unrestricted free agent from another team.
Why the Packers decided on March 16 to match the Tennessee Titans' offer for Bush, a restricted free agent, is the biggest head-scratcher. Bush has been an energetic special teams player for three years in Green Bay, though a blunder covering a punt in the NFC championship game two years ago might be his most notable Packers moment. Bush failed to fall on a fumble late in the fourth quarter against the Giants that could have sent the Packers to the Super Bowl.
Defensively, when Bush has gotten his chance at cornerback, he has all but been a disaster. Flashes he has shown in the preseason have not carried over to the regular season.
Because of Bush's athleticism, there have been reports that he may switch to safety this coming season. So why did the Packers sign Smith a week before matching the Titans' offer for Bush? At perhaps one of the team's strongest positions?
Surely, Smith was brought in to help with the Packers' transition to a 3-4 defensive scheme. But with Pro Bowler Nick Collins, Bigby and Aaron Rouse at safety, the Packers are mistaken if they think either Bush or Smith can make their defense better. And even if Bush continues to perform well on special teams, the three-year, $4.5 million contract offer seemed unnecessary to match.
The Packers could have better used that money to re-sign Cole, a four-year backup who has only made plays from his defensive tackle spot when given opportunities. Cole could have held his own as a backup nose tackle in a 3-4 defense among a Packers front seven that many believe will be the big concern. The Packers insist they have much of the personnel in place to rush the passer and stop the run, but putting faith in players like Montgomery, and others, there is at least some debate. These are the same players that crumbled down the stretch last season.
Though Montgomery improved a season ago and started eight games, the lack of interest he received from other teams in the open market says enough. Sure, the Packers need bodies along their defensive line, but the angular 6-foot-5, 273-pound Montgomery appears ill-suited for defensive end or outside linebacker in a 3-4. That leaves him without a position, or at best, part of some subpackages installed by Capers.
Though it should come as no surprise that Thompson has been unable to land a big fish, or any fish for that matter, re-upping with special teams performers and backup players adds little gusto to a 6-10 team that says it will be better in 2009. Changing the defensive staff was a good start, but the fire has fizzled since then. How many days until the draft?
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org