MINIMIZING DISTRACTIONS6by Jerry Gilbert
The actions and of the Green Bay Packer executives and coaches in recent days have all pointed to a strategy of working diligently to minimize distractions from the work to be conducted on the fields and classrooms of Training Camp. Leading up to Packer Training Camp 2006, off-field issues have understandably dominated Media stories and discussions among fans because there were no on-field issues available. It is now clear that Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy will do their best to prevent or minimize such distractions in the future.
Distraction number one is Number 4. Whether it is his tendency to free lance and throw needless interceptions on the field or his unprecedented claim that he could keep the team waiting for months while he determined whether he would honor an existing contract, Packer Quarterback Brett Favre could be an enormous distraction. McCarthy will have none of that. He insists that he is fine with Favre and Favre is fine with his teammates, and given the unique and forgiving world of a pro football locker room, the coach is probably right. Brett Favre is still a talented quarterback, and the team will be happy to go to war with him. It will again become an issue only if his on field play resembles last year more than his MVP caliber seasons of the recent past.
The second major source of distraction centers around veteran cornerbacks Al Harris and Charles Woodson. Harris is an underpaid star of the defense, who reportedly skipped the voluntary practices to register his displeasure with his contract. Woodson is an aging free agent who signed a bigger contract with Green Bay than many experts thought he deserved, and then promptly dissed his new team by skipping voluntary practices. Once again, both the players and the coaches are telling us that there are no problems and on field play is all there is to discuss. Harris told reporters after the first day of training camp that many employees may be unhappy with their level of pay but they still show up for work at all required times and do their best. For him, the time to discuss salary is over for now, and he will talk about it again when it is appropriate to do so.
Charles Woodson simply told reporters that, for years he has gotten ready for training camp on his own primarily by running in the Houston heat, and he thinks he is in superior shape because he did not cramp up as other players did on the first day of training camp. Another factor is that Woodson is an aging veteran, and there is a long tradition in the league that some veterans will keep their time performing position drills to the minimum required by the contract. In the old days experienced journalists would see a hold out by an offensive tackle and comment that the financial issues would evaporate as soon as the 2 a day drills were over. Times have changed, but some players will never volunteer for extra practice time.
Ask the coaches and general manager, and they will tell you that they have no issues with the holdouts by their top cornerbacks. The positive spin is that back up players were given additional repetitions, and now that the starters are back, they will step in without missing a beat. As with their quarterback, the off field issues are now history.
A third off field issue with the potential to cause real problems is the signing of draft choices. It has become an unfortunate tradition that first round picks such as Javon Walker and Nick Barnett were not in camp from the beginning. This year's first pick, A.J. Hawk has agreed to a deal which, according to the Journal Sentinel, makes him one of the top 10 most highly paid linebackers in the NFL before he plays a down. Hawk is figured to miss only the first evening practice in contrast to other top picks of the past, who missed a week or more. To accomplish this, the Packers may arguably have paid too much. On the other hand, holdouts have a tendency to sustain injuries, and Hawk is already penciled in as a starter. To avoid present and future distractions, Ted Thompson did what he had to do to get Hawk into Training Camp. All the other rookies and free agents have also signed contracts for this season. There should not be any no-shows creating a distraction.
Another class of distractions involves a veteran who has played okay, but who could be replaced by a younger more athletic player. Grady Jackson, despite some heroics on short yardage, was a player who was often in the training room or wheezing on the sidelines. In addition, he frequently whined about being underpaid for his occasional stellar performances. Thompson and company let Jackson go and brought in Ryan Pickens and Kendrick Allen to fill the need. Time will tell if they contribute as much, but the distraction is gone. Mark Roman is another former starter who has been a steady but unspectacular performer since he came to Green Bay. He expressed outrage when Ted Thompson signed former Seattle backup safety Marquand Manual to a lucrative contract. Roman and his opinions about his value are gone. Viewed objectively, letting Roman go right now may turn out to be a bad move. Manual, due to an injury, has had very little practice time in the Green Bay defense and not even one down at full speed. Should he falter, it might be nice to have a veteran starter on the roster. However, consistent with the motive to shed distractions, Thompson has accepted that risk.
With a new coaching staff, it is quite common to see assistant coaches and marginal veteran players moved out so that the new staff can primarily work with the top returning veterans supported by newer players they have chosen. Thus, such performers as Grey Ruegamer, Na'il Diggs, Paris Lenon and Antonio Chatman were not part of the group invited to compete for roster spots this season. Cleaning out players accustomed to the former coaching staff is another way to combat distractions.
None of this means that this team will necessarily be successful in 2006. On the other hand, minimizing outside distractions is usually a step in the right direction for an organization.