Solving for Z

“That woman deserves her revenge.
And we deserve to die.”
-Budd,
Kill Bill Vol. 2

When Za’Darius Smith lines up across from his former team on Sunday, he will join a long list of former Packers whose illustrious tenures ended on a sour note — the sourest note, perhaps — of changing their colors and suiting up for the Minnesota Vikings. Like Greg Jennings and Brett Favre before him (as well as numerous others of lesser significance), Smith went to the Vikings partially to join a competitive roster and partially for simple revenge.

To hear Smith tell the story, as he did for Ty Dunne’s GoLong substack this week, he was “treated bad” by “everyone in the building.” That means the team, the coaches, and the management (though I’m having a good time imagining Pro Shop employees calling Smith a pansy and accusing him of faking a back injury). Somehow, within a span of mere months, he went from a hero to an outcast, and since then has completed his heel turn to villain. Like many villains these days, Z has a compelling and sympathetic backstory. If you buy it.

To hear Packers fans tell it, Za’Darius Smith was unhappy about his contract situation and waited to get back surgery until the season had started so he could sit out most of the year. He did this to get back at the team for not naming him captain last year, proving he’s emotionally soft and physically soft.

So either he was outcast by the team after pouring himself into the organization, and was cut as part of a longer term plan that everyone knew about except him. Or, he’s a selfish, ego-tripping softy who can’t handle the simple fact that the NFL is a business. Either way you adjudicate it, it has set the stage for a compelling subplot to Sunday’s game.

It’s easy to consider Z’s case an open-and-shut example of a player having issues. But when you consider that the Packers organization has gotten a lot of grief over the past decade plus for not just what players they get rid of but how they get rid of them, and that there is a veritable pipeline of talent landing in the arms of division rivals as a way to stick it to the organization (a pipeline that hasn’t materialized in the outgoing direction for any of the Packers’ division rivals, or any other teams I can think of right now), you can certainly formulate the argument that there’s something deeper at play here.

Last year, I reflected on the potential issues with Smith losing the captaincy, and those issues seemed to boil over, at least with regards to Smith. The defense, for its part, was better than it had been under Mike Pettine, and finished the year with a lockdown performance against the 49ers, albeit they faltered on the clinching drive to allow a game-winning field goal.

This year, Jaire Alexander was excised from the captain’s seat, and his reflection on the implications of that was more blunt:

This isn’t to say that Alexander is headed the way of the Za’Darius. After all, he was awarded the major extension that Smith coveted so much. He will be around for the future.

But, why did the team do that? Why not just respect the highest-payed defender on the team, the captain from last year’s squad, and elect the same three captains from last year’s team? Develop that continuity, affirm what worked well last season, and run it back. Obviously, Alexander missed most of last season, while new captain De’Vondre Campbell excelled in his role and was awarded a new contract, and was voted per the NFL players list as the second best player on the team, the best player on the defense, and a better player than Jaire Alexander. Still, Campbell is not more important than Jaire Alexander, and Campbell likely wouldn’t be hurt by the snub in the same way Alexander was.

Matt LaFleur has been clear from the start of his tenure that he wanted his team to be a player-led team. Given all of Aaron Rodgers’ drama, Davante Adams’ decision to leave the team, and all the drama on defense I’ve detailed, that style of leadership by LaFleur has led to some chaos. There have been plenty of good outcomes from it too, as players would surely assert. But there are some rifts in the seams of the team that could unravel if things don’t go well. This thread of team disunity, from Za’Darius losing the locker room to now Jaire receiving similar signals, could wind up defining an era.

Nobody can come up with a good reason why the Green Bay Packers haven’t won a Super Bowl in the last two seasons. The main explanations are the subpar play of Aaron Rodgers, who is one of the best quarterbacks of all time and more than good enough to win a Super Bowl; the poor special teams play, which mostly functions as an excuse du jour for Rodgers; the injuries to Elgton Jenkins and David Bakhtiari, which are unfortunate game changers but don’t explain effectively the specific playoff losses they preceded. For the sake of our sanity, let’s assume the variables that have led to those losses are mutable, the team’s fate changeable. The question becomes “How do we change the things that have led to previous failures?”

Winning a Super Bowl puts a rose-tinted filter on all a team’s past failures. When the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, all the failures — 4th and 26, the 2007 NFC Championship game, a crushing Wild Card loss to Arizona in overtime — were reframed as foundational building blocks of a greater success. Every contribution and acquisition and decision that led to the creation of the team and coaching staff that captured the ultimate prize was lionized.

When you don’t win, however, you keep mounting failures, and the Packers in the Rodgers era have had many. If we make it out of this era without a title, without cashing in all these efforts, we will have no choice but to say it was something fundamental in the team’s DNA that kept it from coming through when it counted. It will come back to chemistry. And Za’Darius Smith’s tenure will stick out like a sore thumb. How does a guy you pay big bucks to come in and lead the defense actually do that, and then for some reason it gets awkward and the team turns on him and cuts him and he lands in the lap of your rival and he’s still really good? How did things hit so good, then sour so badly, so quickly? What does it mean that the team couldn’t make it work with him and discarded him so callously? What would it mean for him to settle the score?

That’s why we have to destroy Za’Darius Smith. Za’Darius deserves his revenge. He played with heart and was the soul of the D-train defense of the past few years. He was betrayed by teammates, management, and those nasty Pro Shop employees. We simply can’t allow him to have it, though. We have Super Bowl aspirations as a team, and if the outcome of this dispute is a victory for Smith, that validates and deepens the chemistry concerns of this team. Did we make a mistake letting him go? Are the personalities in the locker room not stronger than Z? Are we missing that leadership?

This defense is poised to take its biggest step forward in years. We say that every year but this year it’s true. There’s no weakness we haven’t accounted for meaningfully this offseason. We have All-Pro potential in five players: Campbell, Rashan Gary, Kenny Clark, Alexander, and Rasul Douglas. The first step to having that great defense is forming a cohesive identity. Building that defensive identity starts by stomping the shit out of the last one. Time to derail the D-train and build something bigger. It’s the only way this Za’Darius Smith episode can turn into something constructive. We need to prove we’re beyond him, ready to take the team to where he couldn’t get it: the Super Bowl.

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