The date was October 30. Less than two hours before the trade deadline, Packers GM Brian Gutekunst traded away Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Just two days earlier, the Packers had traveled to California and played maybe their best game of the season.
As you’ll recall, Ty Montgomery fumbled away the ball and the game prior to what would have been the Pack’s final drive toward a winning field goal. Ty was also traded away within minutes of the Clinton-Dix trade. I’d say Gute was in one irritable mood that day.
It had been predicted, even by Ha Ha himself, that he wouldn’t be back in Green Bay in 2019 – when his five-year-deal ran out. But the timing of this move was striking. There’s got to be more to the story than has been told, but to my knowledge no one, including the national sports media, has unearthed more details.
It would be hard to name a player who has been more of an anchor for the Packers in recent years. Clinton-Dix never missed a game while at Green Bay; and he started all 55 regular-season games. He was on the field for every defensive play of the 2018 season prior to his leaving. Such durability on a team with so many injury issues was priceless.
For his first three years, his play was solid, though never at the All-Pro or Pro Bowl level that he was accorded in 2016. Over the last two years, however, not only did his coverage go to hell, but he began going out of his way to avoid heavy contact – not a trait DC Pettine would stomach. He no doubt was watching Damarious Randall too much.
Without Ha Ha, the Packers were left with a motley crew of free safeties: Kentrell Brice, Jermaine Whitehead, Raven Greene, and somewhere in there you might add Ibraheim Campbell and Natrelle Jamerson (the lines between free and strong safety got blurred last year).
The sequence of events quickly got more bizarre. A week after Ha Ha got the boot, the Packers released Whitehead. Just two days earlier, Jermaine had been ejected from the Patriots game for “slapping” a guy after the whistle. There may have been justification for the team disciplining Whitehead, but in so doing they left the free safety cupboard bare.
Cornerback Tramon Williams was switched over to safety, by which time Green Bay’s defensive backfield resembled a game of musical chairs. The 31-0 drubbing by the Lions in the season’s final game – with new-to-the-team Bashaud Breeland and Tony Brown occupying the corners – reflected how chaotic the defensive backfield situation had become.
Kentrell Brice, who actually was the strong safety starter opposite Ha Ha when the season began, wore down badly. By season’s end, it appeared the three-year experiments with not only Whitehead but also Brice – both who were undrafted – had run their course.
And let’s not forget, in the past two years the front office watched as reliable safeties Morgan Burnett departed for Pittsburgh and Micah Hyde shuffled off to Buffalo.
When asked, Gutekunst said repeatedly that the trades weren’t about sending messages, and indicated performance is the first consideration, though everything is taken into account. He added that such decisions are “always in the best interest of our team, not only in the short term but the long term, as well.” Blah, blah, blah. The short term?
The abrupt departures of Clinton-Dix and Whitehead, coupled with Gutekunst’s generalities, leave many questions in my mind.
Had Clinton-Dix become a toxic and disruptive force off the field? Was he sowing so much discord he couldn’t be kept on till the end of the season? Had he demanded to be traded? Did he and Pettine irrevocably lock horns?
Was the release of Whitehead due solely to a stupid penalty? Did Gutekunst and/or Pettine view both these guys as hopelessly bad Ted Thompson picks/projects? Whitehead had 75 snaps and had seven tackles against the Rams – wasn’t his performance coming along nicely? Pettine at times had used Jermaine as a dime linebacker and at slot corner – wouldn’t that versatility likely have come in handy?
Of the two unusual mid-season actions, I find the Whitehead one the more mystifying. What don’t we know?
If there’s any lesson here, I’d suggest that before you willingly get rid of a player – especially one who’s been starting games, and especially one with some years with the team, you first make sure there’s a replacement at the ready. Whenever possible, you should make such moves in the offseason.