A lot of Packer fans have been venting in emails lately about the state of the franchise after the embarrassing loss to the Bucs. I understand the pain that Packer Nation is feeling and empathize with it, although I know we’re only halfway through this 2009 slate. This column is about the Packers, but sorry to disappoint, it’s not about the current state of affairs in Titletown. Rather, it’s about a player brought back from the past into the present and near future.
It was with scant notice that the Packers signed old friend Ahman Green, now wearing No. 34 (he couldn’t get his old number 30 back from John Kuhn?). After signing Mark Tauscher the week before, it looks like the band from the mid-2000s is back together after breaking up for a while. At this rate, Marco Rivera, William Henderson and Bubba Franks should be expecting calls from Lambeau FIeld soon.
Buried in the stories from the bungle at the bay was the fact that Ahman broke the all-time Packers rushing record of Jim Taylor, an extraordinary accomplishment for a player who left the Packers in the seduction of free agency process.
In attempting to lock up players prior to their “walk” year, Ahman was the first player approached in that manner in Green Bay, which extended him with a five-year deal a year before he was to be a free agent.
Ahman played out that entire deal, although it was difficult when another player, Clinton Portis, hit the exacta two years before free agency with a trade from Denver and stunning contract from the Redskins, causing the low rumble of discontent from Ahman to percolate. To his credit, however, he was always friendly and courteous and never made his grievances public.
Ahman’s last year of his five-year contract was interrupted by a quad injury, and he signed a one-year, incentive-laden deal in 2006 before becoming a free agent for the first time in his career in 2007.
That first taste of free agency was exciting for Ahman. With his former head coach and friend, Mike Sherman (Ahman was referred to by teammates as ‘Ahman Sherman’), with the Texans, Houston put on the recruiting blitz — private plane, floor tickets to a Rockets game, fancy dinner and hotel suite, etc. And, by the way, over $8 million in the first two years of the deal, a good bit more than we were willing to pay.
I’ll never forget that day in early March 2007 when, during my son’s 10th birthday party at — where else? — Lambeau Field, I walked the concourse with my cell phone trying to convince Ahman and his agent that he would regret leaving Green Bay. Ahman lived year-round there, has a large house in the area and another one on a nearby lake. I warned Ahman that the passion of the recruiting visit would quickly become cold embers once he signed. His mind, however, was made up. He was a Texan.
At least he was for two injury-shortened seasons, the second only when he took a pay cut to not be released, which he was prior to this season.Now, 32 months later, Ahman returns to the scene of his glory and sets the all-time Packers rushing record (soon after longtime teammate Donald Driver set the team’s all-time receptions record). Ahman could always run; he was a former track star. If he can still show some burst, he’ll be a productive signing for the Packers.
Free agency can be the Wild West, with money thrown around and promises made, much like college recruiting without the money (we hope). Everyone wants to feel wanted. The problem, however, is that many players leave for the wrong reasons: the seduction of the recruiting pitch, some hard feelings against their incumbent teams and, of course, money. Unlike baseball and basketball, where players can fit seamlessly into their new teams, football is all about fitting into schemes and structures that vary significantly from team to team. Players often jump to new teams in free agency only to discover a new system that they don’t fit as well into.
Another problem with free agency is that the new teams don’t really know the players. Ahman Green, for instance, was very comfortable with the training staff in Green Bay, a staff that provided him great care and treatment. As a new player with the Texans, he wasn’t going to get the same maintenance, no matter how much money they were paying him. I’ve heard of many cases like this in which teams call the former teams of players they have acquired realizing the player requires more maintenance than they thought.
The money part of free agency is complicating. At the Packers, I remember when we made a big splash in free agency in 2002 and signed Joe Johnson from the Saints, outspending them in a high-stakes bidding war to get a two-time Pro Bowl defensive end. We became emotional — a taboo in the negotiations game — and paid more than we wanted for Joe. He was a good guy and played hard and hurt, but his heart was in New Orleans. He should have never left the Saints.
Ahman never wanted to leave the Packers but was seduced by the money and the glitz of the Texans. He was in Houston two years, but his heart — and home — was in Green Bay.
Now Packer fans can go back to venting.
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