You don't have to tell me, I already know. I've heard the lines more than enough times over the years.
"It's a business."
"They've made more than enough money over the years. They're set for life."
"It's time to move on."
But as the sun sets on the careers of three beloved Packers players, I realize that even though time marches on and the lifespan of any professional football player is a compressed microcosm fans get to relive over and over again in their lifetime. I still don't have to like it when the time comes, nor do I have to gleefully celebrate how quickly those players are replaced not only on the field, but in the hearts and minds of the fans.
It's a realization of the callousness not only of the profession, but of the fans that follow them...perhaps the ultimate in the cold business world of supply-and-demand and trading low stocks for high, but combined with an emotional attachment that evaporates as soon as the player is no longer performing up to their previous standards.
Commodities never get this kind of love. Yet, we're always looking for the next best thing, and this is the pinnacle of "what have you done for me lately". As Ron Wolf once said, "you're only here as long as it takes us to find someone better to replace you." That sounds really good when you have Walter Stanley as your best wide receiver and Randy Wright as your quarterback. It doesn't sound as good when the player getting replaced is the one whose jersey sits in a place of honor in your closet.
The most difficult time to deal with this "trading up" is when a player up on a pedestal has a rapid descent into the world of ambivalence, when they go from hearing their name chanted in the stands to seeing their name involved in every trade proposition. There's almost a grieving period that some of us fans need to go through. For some players and their fans, that grieving period can be nearly impossible to let go of (see: 2008). But for the three once-superstar players that we are now looking at leaving the fold next season, let's at least be fair and go through where we are in the stages of grief for each.
Denial, Bargaining:This came as a shock to me, hearing the throngs of fan pundits looking to reassure the masses that Woodson's collarbone injury is not only not a one-way ticket to the bottom of the NFC North, but actually might be a blessing in disguise.
Say what? We're talking about the former NFC Defensive Player of the Year...what...two years ago? Maybe three? Well, still, that's not that long ago, and he's still Charles Woodson! Remember the "One Hearts, One Mind, One Purpose" speech? We wouldn't have won the Super Bowl without him! And when the Packers lost to the Colts this year? Who led the locker room speech that appears to have turned the entire season around? Was it Aaron Rodgers or Clay Matthews? No, it was Charles Woodson.
Hidden behind all of that emotion are some cold realities that some of us, myself included, may just not be ready to face quite yet. We saw he had already lost a step last season, which made moving him to safety and slot corner in the nickel a whole lot easier for Mike McCarthy. This season, he's been almost invisible on defense, except when committing a holding penalty, which he seems to do once a game. The most difficult part to watch, however, is his watching his 36-year old body back off from making the tough, physical tackles that we're used to seeing from him.
The rallying cry from those already at the acceptance stage of coping is that we have all this young talent in the secondary, that it's time to move on and give these kids a chance. After all, they're the future of the secondary for the Green Bay Packers. And I certainly understand the sentiment. Youth and enthusiasm are always more fun to watch.
The saying goes, however, that "age and treachery will always win out over youth and enthusiasm". I don't know if I'm ready to part ways with an expensive (and easily dumped cap figure) contract until I know for certain that the leadership portion that Woodson brings to the table can be properly replaced.
Grief, hopelessness:No one would have expected at the beginning of the season that it might be Greg Jennings on the chopping block. After all, the guy is the pure #1 receiver on the roster, able to make the explosive play as well as getting necessary yards to keep the ball moving. In preseason, The Cheesehead Radio gang evaluated some of the contracts coming up and which of the players would be most expendable. BJ Raji actually ranked higher than Greg Jennings at the time.
A few months later, most of them without any playing time from Jennings due to his groin injury, we've done more than just hypothesize that we'll be okay without Jennings, we've seen it. Particularly with a rejuvenated Aaron Rodgers throwing darts again, Jordy Nelson has established his role as the #1 receiver, James Jones has overcome the drops that have haunted him in the past and established himself as a playmaker, and the exciting Randall Cobb has become a threat that perhaps none of us would have expected to become, running out of the Cobra and making plays as the #3 receiver.
All three have proven that they not only can make plays downfield, but can also make the possession receiver plays as well. If Jermichael Finley can get his head screwed on straight, this receiving corps is about as threatening as any in the NFL...and that is without Greg Jennings.
I love Greg Jennings. He has been my favorite player for several years now, but my own rationality has overcome my emotions in not wanted to see him go. I've long been a little critical of Ted Thompson for keeping an overload at certain position groups while leaving others dangerously thin, such as the decision to keep James Jones last season over, say, a more lucrative offer to keep Cullen Jenkins.
But the Jones move was, in retrospect, likely a roll of the dice that Jones would develop in time to make the large contract Jennings would demand an option instead of a must-have. With so many of the young stars coming up for contract renegotiations in the end of this and next season, Thompson has some tough decisions to make.
You never like to see an injury help you make that decision, but it appears to be a decision made easier by the fact that Jennings has been more than adequately replaced. It pains me to see a guy who's been there, a rookie during Mike McCarthy's first season in Green Bay, leave the fold.
It will pain me more to see his Old Spice commercials in a different colored jersey.
Acceptance:Donald Driver, the Green Bay Packers leading receiver over his career, has been long-beloved by fans through three different coaches and two different Hall of Fame quarterbacks. He's the "good brother" of Ray Lewis, the same megawatt smile and personality, same can-do attitude based on a hard-knock childhood, and the same trophy from "Dancing With The Stars", yet Driver comes off as the affable everyman, not the menacing entity that Lewis has been.
There's probably no one on the Packers' roster more beloved than Donald Driver. The 37-year old has been around since 1999, drafted by Ron Wolf. He's been called one of the most consistent receivers in the NFL, and all of us remember the numerous times that he's been decked while making a catch over the middle on a slant route, only to get up and smile and signal an emphatic first down.
Nobody wants to lose a guy like this from your team. And it has to hurt a guy like Driver even more, knowing that you're still in better athletic shape than 99.99% of everyone in America right now, but can't seem to sniff the field.
His newfound popularity with the crowd that affiliates themselves as Packer fans might have tempted Thompson to give Driver a contract restructuring that placed him behind Jennings, Nelson, and Jones on the salary cap list. It also placed him behind those three (plus Cobb) on the depth chart.
Driver, team player to the end, has kept most of his frustrations to himself, but some cracks in the veneer let us know that he wishes he were out there to try out more of his new dance celebrations after catching touchdowns. If Jordy Nelson does not play today, he might get his chance to show what he can still do; but if he does, you can consider it his swan song more than a comeback.
The Packers passed up on two project players they loved in Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel to keep Driver on the roster. As much as we love Quickie, its just not going to happen again.
C.D. Angeli is a longtime Packer fan and feature writer for CheeseheadTV. He is also the co-host of the weekly live Packer podcast Cheesehead Radio. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision. em>
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