The Green Bay Packers play in the smallest market in major professional sports, and when they make money, there isn't one guy or an exclusive group of investors that gets rich. Because profit motives and profit potential aren't as big for the Packers as they are for every other team in professional football, we rarely question whether or not a roster move was made for anything but football reasons. The Packers have no reason to sign a player for marketing purposes.
There is, however, something to be said for keeping everyone happy. Sometimes, even the Packers have to make a decision that, while not damaging to the football team, is not necessarily the best long-term or even short-term football decision. The restructuring of Donald Driver probably falls into that category.
Driver took a pay cut to stay with the team this season, slashing his salary to $2.5 million with a big enough chunk of that money up front that he's not getting cut. He's not making much less than the much younger James Jones, but he's making a lot more than youngsters Randall Cobb, Diondre Borel, Tori Gurley and Shaky Smithson. If Driver got cut, there's a good chance that no one would have offered him $2.5 million to play for them this season, and there's no chance that any other team would have given him more up-front money. From a pure football standpoint, Driver isn't worth a roster spot at $2.5 million.
And that's okay.
Donald Driver's Dancing With The Stars victory and sold-out charity softball game illustrate exactly how popular Driver is among Packers fans. This morning, I stumbled across four articles that said basically the same thing -- Donald Driver is a superdupermegastar in Wisconsin, more beloved by the people than any other member of the Green Bay Packers. Let's take a look at them.
"I would've never expected this in a million years," Driver said. "When I walked in here in 1999, I would've never expected to have the fan base that I have now. I think you treat people like you want to be treated. I don't put myself on a pedestal, they do. And when they put me on that pedestal, I bring myself back down to earth, knowing I'm just a normal human being. I think now they see that."
Also a testament to Driver's popularity were the 48 teammates that were listed as participating or attending the softball game, many of whom took time to sign autographs and take part in sideline antics throughout the afternoon.
Both Jason Wilde and Paul Imig took less of the journalist angle and more of an editorial/blogger angle, getting right to the point without any kind of neutrality.
Maybe, just maybe, general manager Ted Thompson, having lived through the ugly split with another beloved player in the summer of 2008, recognized that Driver not only had enough left in the tank as a player but meant enough to the team's passionate fans that bringing him back was simply the right move.
With an incredibly deep group of receivers on the roster, led by Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson, Driver seemed very expendable. A roster spot for Driver also makes it more difficult for up-and-coming wideouts Tori Gurley and Diondre Borel - both of whom spent last season on the practice squad - to stick around as Packers. After all, in 2011, both Gurley and Borel were offered active-roster contracts with other teams, offers that were declined with hopes of soon being part of Green Bay's active roster.
But, given what Thompson and the Packers went through with the end of Brett Favre's career in Green Bay, it's understandable why the organization didn't want to jettison its most popular player this summer.
And finally, here's what Aaron Rodgers had to say when he was asked whether or not he thought Driver's popularity had anything to do with the Packers' decision to keep him.
"It's got to. You hear the response today. I think him winning the mirror ball was directly related to the kind of voting the state of Wisconsin did for him. He's been a Packer for life and it's going to be nice to be able to see him finish his career in Green Bay, and hopefully send him off the right way."
Donald Driver is at a point in his career where, at best, he is probably the fifth most capable receiver currently on the Packers' roster. Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson have already blown past him, James Jones has produced at a similar rate and is younger, and Randall Cobb is expected to make a big leap this year. Between Gurley and Borel, one of them could probably beat Driver for a roster spot if he wasn't a Packers legend. Driver can still play, but he's no longer a star.
I can say without hesitation that Donald Driver is my favorite Packers player of all time, but I do not think that he is one of the five best receivers under contract with the Packers right now. I don't think there is any chance he produces at a level to earn $2.5 million from a pure football perspective. But he's a legend, and he had one more year on his contract. He has a family and he's still physically capable of playing, so he wasn't going to simply walk away from that. Driver got the most money he was going to get from any team this season to play one more year and the Packers saved some money while avoiding a PR disaster.
The opportunity cost of keeping Driver around is the potential development of Gurley and/or Borel into an effective fourth wide receiver. The worst case scenario is that Driver does nothing this season, while Gurley and Borel go on to become very solid, but not superstar players for other teams. If that's the worst case scenario when a team makes a questionable footballing move to avoid a PR disaster, they made the right call.
Sometimes, it's not 100 percent about football.