November 16, 2010 by
…. from Rob Demovsky /packernews.com
The Green Bay Packers have only four players left on their roster with NFL experience in double-digit seasons, and there are only six players older than 30.
The NFL always has been a young man’s game, but Packers General Manager Ted Thompson has taken that to the extreme.
For a team whose Super Bowl aspirations remain within reach heading into the final seven weeks of the regular season, Thompson seems anything but concerned about the lack of veteran presence in his locker room. If he was, he wouldn’t have dumped cornerback Al Harris last week after Harris’ stint on the physically unable to perform list was up. Nor would he have placed right tackle Mark Tauscher on injured reserve even though recent medical progress reports indicated Tauscher’s shoulder injury was improving.
For the first time since Harris, who was claimed by Miami and played for the Dolphins on Sunday, was let go last Monday and Tauscher was put down for the season on Friday, the Packers’ players were back in their locker room on Monday following the bye. And at least a few of the veterans couldn’t help but shake their heads and wonder who might be next on the chopping block if an ailment befalls them.
“It doesn’t seem too unusual; It’s been like that around here for a while,” said defensive end Cullen Jenkins, a 29-year-old who is in his seventh season. “It kind of feels like the norm around here. The only thing that does feel unusual is that as you start to look around, you can’t tell some of your old stories that you did because there’s not people here who can relate to them.”
When asked whether veteran players sometimes wonder what the organization is doing when it comes to other veterans who have been injured, quarterback Aaron Rodgers gave a long pause before saying, “You know, I’m not worried.”
The Packers have asked Tauscher, 33, to remain a part of the team even though he won’t play again in this, his 11th NFL season, which could be his last. Some players on injured reserve don’t spend time with the team and sometimes leave town before the season is over, but coach Mike McCarthy said he wants Tauscher around. Tauscher lost his starting job after he sustained a shoulder injury, which will require surgery tentatively scheduled for Tuesday, in Week 4 against Detroit, and the way rookie Bryan Bulaga has played, Tauscher would have had a hard time getting it back.
Still, Tauscher, who according to a source thought he could have put off surgery until after the season and played this year, had been practicing with a harness on his right shoulder. But McCarthy said Monday he didn’t think Tauscher would have been able to play with that brace.
Given that Tauscher is scheduled to earn $4.1 million next season, it’s unlikely the Packers will bring him back at that price, meaning his Packers’ career, like Harris’, could be over. Linebacker Nick Barnett, 29, and in his eighth NFL season was in a similar position as Tauscher. He had a wrist injury he initially wanted to play through, but was convinced going on injured reserve would be the best for him in the future. But it’s worth wondering whether that future will be with the Packers.
Whatever the reasons, there’s a dearth of veteran leadership available to guide the Packers, who are 6-3 and tied with the Chicago Bears atop the NFC North, down the stretch.
“It’s part of the game,” McCarthy said Monday. “I had an opportunity to talk to Al today. Al Harris has played over 100-plus games. Mark has had a tremendous career here. They bring so much experience, both to the field and to the locker room. Yes, that’s part of it, but it’s also the path of our season. Injuries do occur, decisions are made, and we’re always going to operate and do what is in the best interests of the Green Bay Packers from the chairs that we sit in. But Al Harris and Mark Tauscher have been excellent Packers, and we appreciate that. But at some point, careers do come to an end, and you move on, and you appreciate what they have done. Mark will continue to do so and be a part of our football team.”
At least one player, safety Atari Bigby, who was one of Harris’ closest friends on the team, has a theory on why Thompson seems to prefer younger players.
“Younger players tend to have more energy, they’re more excited and they tend to accept their roles a little bit easier than veterans,” said Bigby, who is 29 and in his fifth NFL season. “I think that’s why. I don’t know. I’m not Ted. I’m not in his head.”
When asked whether Harris would have had a hard time accepting a backup role and therefore been a locker-room distraction had he been activated off PUP, Bigby said: “No. I’ve never seen Al as somebody like that, but Ted makes that decision, and that’s what he went with. At the end of the day, he’s the leader, and we have to follow his direction.”
Leadership is difficult to quantify, but the 26-year-old Rodgers will be looked upon to provide some of it simply because of the nature of the position he plays. Between him and the other natural locker-room leaders — Charles Woodson (age 34, in his 13th NFL season), Chad Clifton (34, 11th season), Ryan Pickett (31, 10th season) and Donald Driver (35, 12th season) — Rodgers believes there’s enough veteran leadership.
“I’m not worried about the leadership on this team,” Rodgers said. “Those are decisions that I’m not part of. We play with the guys we have, and I’m excited about the guys we’ve got. Bryan’s done a great job at right tackle in Mark’s absence. Obviously, putting Mark down is tough. He’s a good friend. He’s had an incredible career here. It’s just tough to see him get injured.”
Pickett, who said he didn’t know what went into the decision to release Harris but added he will be missed, believed it was a misnomer that Thompson dislikes veteran players. He pointed out Thompson signed both himself and Woodson at late stages of their careers.
Though Thompson has added his share of young players, such as activating rookie running back James Starks off PUP a day after Harris was waived, he made what could be a key veteran acquisition in claiming nose tackle Howard Green (31 and in his sixth NFL season) to help solidify the defensive line.
“There’s not many of us, but there are some of us that’s been down this road,” Pickett said. “A lot of us were on the team, well a few of us were here when we got to the (2007 NFC) championship game and lost, so that’s good. But we’re not worried about how young the team is. Sometimes that’s good. They’re just playing ball, and that’s what the young fellas are doing right now.”