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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Mike McKenzie - one question answered, many more raised.

by Mark Lawrence
PackerChatters Staff

In 1998, an extraordinary thing happened to the Green Bay Packers. Randy Moss.

Randy Moss single handedly exposed the Packer's secondary as being wide open to a tall fast athletic wide receiver. Ron Wolf, the Packers GM, watched this player almost single-handedly reduce what had been a superbowl caliper team to a group of spectators at a touchdown fest. To say that the Packer's defense had no answer for Moss incorrectly implies that we were certain what the question was.

Ron vowed to fix this problem. In the very next draft, he picked three cornerbacks. Antuan Edwards with his first round pick, Fred Vinson with his second round pick, and Mike McKenzie with his third. Vinson never managed to stay healthy enough to play anywhere in the NFL, although Wolf did manage to trade him for pro-bowl running back Ahman Green. Edwards was never quite fast enough to play cornerback, and never quite physical or dependable enough to play safety. Mike turned out to be the only keeper in the group - he started that very year. Mike McKenzie brought a physical style of playing cornerback to the Packers that had been missing since Craig Newsome got hurt.

Mike has always been a player who marched to a different drummer, playing in foot-long dreadlocks and going through just slightly more than an agent a year. However, he was well loved in Green Bay due to his talents, and his ability to play strongly against Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, and other such specimens.

In 2002, with one year remaining on his rookie contract, Mike signed a 5 year extension. Originally the Packers approached Mike's agent with a contract proposal; however in the middle of negotiations Mike fired his agent and finished the negotiations himself. This was perhaps a mistake on Mike's part - Mike agreed to several clauses, such as requiring off-season workouts in Green Bay and performance de-escalator clauses that no agent would ever have agreed to. Additionally, since the extension was done a year early, the Packers rightfully and correctly got Mike at a discount - by extending a year early, the Packers were taking on the risk that Mike would get severely hurt in what would otherwise have been Mike's contract year.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the salary cap continued to increase at roughly 10% per year, huge fast wide receivers continued to be in vogue, and the value of cornerbacks who could successfully play against these FrankenReceivers went up even faster than the salary cap. Mike found himself perhaps the 10th to 15th best cornerback in the NFL, but paid as if he were the 40th to 60th best cornerback. Without question, his contract had turned into a real asset for the Packers.

In February of '04. after watching several other cornerbacks in free agency get very nice signing bonuses, Mike announced he wanted a new deal. The Packers were very understandably uncomfortable giving an extension to a player who had three years left on his contract - this is the assumption of an enormous amount of risk with no obvious benefit to the Packers, and it also sets a very bad precedent. However, they made Mike an offer to drop the unusual de-escalator clauses and to convert the workout payments to mini-camp and training camp bonuses. However, in the middle of negotiations, Mike broke off the talks, fired his fifth agent, and announced he would never play in Green and Gold again, he would be traded or he would retire. There was also talk, not perfectly substantiated, that he was very unhappy with Mike Sherman and with various decisions about who was promoted to Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Backs coach.

This left Green Bay short their number one cornerback heading into the draft. Needless to say, this had a huge impact on the Packer's draft - two cornerbacks were taken with their first two picks.

Mike later hired yet another agent, who asked for and received permission to seek a trade for Mike. However, the Packers held firm that in return for Mike they wanted a 1st round draft pick and a mid-round pick or equivalent player. Although a few teams showed some interest in Mike, notably the Saints and the Cowboys, none were willing to meet the Packers full price, and the Packers were not in the mood to have a garage sale.

Subsequently Mike refused to attend training camp, so the Packer promoted their nickle back, Hawthorne, to starter. Hawthorne is a great guy who plays his heart out, but he really does not have the speed to be a starting cornerback in the pass-happy NFC. The two Packers rookie cornerbacks, Ahmad Carroll and Joey Thomas, made enormous strides in training camp, but neither one looks ready to start either to me or, much more importantly, to the coaching staff.

Immediately after the Packers won their first game at the Carolina Panthers, Mike asked for and got a meeting with the Packers GM, Mike Sherman. We'll never know what was said in that meeting, but the result is that Mike is now attending practices, and we may safely assume he'll be the starting cornerback within a week or two.

Mike's return raises several questions:

Will Mike stay on the Packers roster? Mike has proven to at least my satisfaction that he is a pretty volatile character, and we must presume there is a decent chance that he will simply walk out again.

Will Mike play to his full capacity, and continue to be an excellent NFL starting cornerback? My take is that he most likely will: whether Mike stays in Green Bay or gets traded, it's not in his interests to perform poorly on national tv.

Will Mike stay with the Packers for the entire season, or will he quit again after the trading deadline passes? We cannot know if he means to play out the year, or if he simply thinks of this as showcasing himself for an early season trade.

Will Mike settle in and just do his job, or will he prove to be a loud and vocal dissatisfied player, a locker room cancer? Mike has a history of being a very quiet self-contained person, it seems very unlikely to me that he will suddenly want to stand on soap boxes and spread dissension.

Will Mike stay with the Packers after the entire season has played out, or will he demand a trade after the season is done? I think this cannot be predicted: if we were to play in the Superbowl, it's difficult to not see this effecting Mike's attitude. Furthermore, after this season, he'll still have two years left on his contract. I think it unlikely that the Packers will let Mike go at fire sale prices in 6 months, given that they refused to let him go at fire sale prices 6 months ago.

In any case, the Packers have a difficult schedule through October, facing the Colts, the Titans, the Cowboys, and the Redskins. I think it very likely that Mike will start for all those games and perform well. After these games, the Packers have their bye week. It's obvious that by November our rookie cornerbacks will only be more practiced and experienced, and more ready to start in the case that Mike reverts to animal and walks out again.

This is a year when perhaps everything will come together for the Packers and we will win a superbowl. We have an outstanding offensive line, a nearly unstoppable running game, Brett Favre slinging balls around to a trio of very fast and very physical wide receivers. The primary weaknesses of the '04 Packers is pass rush and defensive backs. Mike immediately shores up both problem areas: Mike is both an excellent cornerback and an excellent blitzer. If Mike were an early season trade or FA acquisition, he would be the reason for great amounts of drunken revelry in Green Bay.

But Mike is not a new acquisition. Instead he's a member of our team who was highly loved and respected for years, but is now perceived to have shown such depths of disrespect for the team that many fans question if he can ever be welcome back in Green Bay. Mike Sherman, the Packers coach and GM, said "We'll just have to take this one day at a time."

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