What’s in a captaincy?
It’s about the captaincy. It has to be. Za’Darius Smith’s cryptic tweet was shared widely, coming in the wake of both the Packers’ captain announcements as well as the news that Ravens running back Gus Edwards and cornerback Marcus Peters had torn their ACLs on consecutive plays. A lot of folks speculated it was about the captains thing; a lot of folks said it was about the injuries accruing on Za’Darius’s former team; a lot of folks said we don’t know and so we shouldn’t worry about it. I say that’s a pretty rosy spin to put on an obvious rift surfacing in Green Bay.
I want to disclaim, somewhat, that I don’t know the inner-workings of the minds of the players involved here. I don’t have sources “with knowledge of Za’Darius Smith’s thinking,” as the NFL reportbots like to say. I am speculating, and that’s OK. As a fan, my brain starts trying to solve these little puzzles on the team whether I want it to or not. And whether I think it’s cool or not, I believe these types of issues can affect the on-field product.
For instance, I believe that Aaron Rodgers’ relationship with his family does have significant implications for who he is as a person, which in turn has significant implications for how he is as a franchise quarterback. Do I think it’s cool that people shove his family in his face to levee criticism about his performance? No, I don’t. Do I think it’s worth digging into every TMZ hit on what subtext is contained in the latest thing his brother said just to try and glean a glimmer of insight into his lived reality? No, I don’t. But do I think his rocky relationship with the front office, comments referring to him as a “complicated fella,” and his inability to overcome differences with his family are dots that can easily be connected? Yeah, sort of.
I don’t live in this world, and the on-field product always sheds the most light. But I wanted to take a look at the news of the Packers captains, and muse a bit at how that might underscore some of the tensions this roster has to bear as it tries to write a happy ending to its “Last Dance” subplot.
Za’Darius Smith changed the defense. He was the flagship signing of GM Brian Gutekunst’s massive 2019 free agency class, which included Adrian Amos, Billy Turner, and Smith’s brother-from-another-mother Preston Smith. Smith brought an energy and intensity that pervaded the locker room, and he had career-best numbers that made him the unquestionable face of the defense. This process began the second he arrived in Green Bay, with his infectious joy permeating media coverage and landing him the honor of captain of the Green Bay in his first year, the first under new coach Matt LaFleur (significant here because under Mike McCarthy, new captains were named for each game — it was a change in team culture to elect captains at all). Smith’s rise in profile coincided with his rise to the role of the Green Bay defense’s face.
There was a small sort of issue, however, that Green Bay’s defense wasn’t all that good. Despite some highlights along the way, plenty of which Smith himself provided, the Packers were undone by bad defense in the conference championship, a loss to San Francisco. The Packers couldn’t stop running back Raheem Mostert, who waltzed his way to 220 yards and four touchdowns (Jesus Christ). Smith, the face, was a pass rusher, not really accountable to the whole thing. He finished with 5 tackles. That aptly sums up his impact. His energy was minimal throughout that game, and he never seemed to take ownership of that performance.
Last year, the energy shifted slightly. It wasn’t a dramatic shift, but quietly Smith was supplanted by Jaire Alexander as the defense’s definitive best player. Smith was still an asset, but carried himself like a car in its second or third year of ownership: no more brilliant sheen, crumbs accumulating on the floor, the new smell no longer noticeable (yeah, I’m not a car-interior maintenance guy, what of it). The Coronavirus pandemic halted the joint press conferences with Preston Smith, and the pair seemed less buddy-buddy and more so just buddy. The energy was there, but it would come in spurts and fade away for longer periods of time. Ultimately, the team reached the same fate: an NFC Championship loss. Za’Darius managed four tackles, 0.5 for a loss, and one QB Hit. It was Jaire Alexander’s two second-half interceptions, however, that gave Green Bay a chance.
Fast-forward to this offseason, and Za’Darius was given two contract restructures, neither of which guaranteed his longevity with the team. Meanwhile, a back injury took him out most of camp. The captains get voted on. They have increased from one captain per unit to three (except for special teams). Z is not voted among the team’s top three captains.
Za’Darius Smith hasn’t tweeted the word “Baltimore” since 2019. He hasn’t tweeted the word “Ravens” ever, although he has tweeted at the Ravens account three times, between 2017 and 2018. He doesn’t seem to care about the Ravens, at least not publicly and on Twitter. He has tweeted “Prayers up” twice, about legitimate tragedies in Milwaukee and in his hometown in 2013. He tweeted in 2013 that he was “Praying for RG3.” The odds that Smith’s tweet was about the Ravens’ unruly rash of injuries are slim, especially considering that of the four players injured (J.K. Dobbins, Justice Hill, Gus Edwards, and Marcus Peters), only Edwards was teammates with Smith, and that was for only his rookie season, playing on the opposite side of the ball. It’s reasonable to doubt they interacted much. Furthermore, the emoji in the tweet implies there is some mystery in need solving. To emphasize the mystery of “why do these Ravens keep getting hurt” seems rather flippant in the face of debilitating, career-threatening injuries. If Za’Darius cared enough about this situation to tweet about it, the cryptic nature of his tweet is unnecessary, and the flippant focus on the mystery of it as opposed to sympathy for the afflicted seems rather tone-deaf. So, no. It’s not about the Ravens. It’s about what Z really cares about.
Za’Darius has said he wants to be a Packer for life. Za’Darius leads the team out onto the practice field and gestures to the camera as he runs past. Za’Darius leads the team in coordinated celebrations on the field. Za’Darius leads the team in sacks. Za’Darius leads the team. The vote says it plainly enough: the team isn’t following.
Matt LaFleur was quick to correctly point out that the Packers have a lot of veteran candidates to lead the defense. Kenny Clark has been a Packer for longer, anchors the team as its preeminent defensive lineman, and was just awarded a fat contract that ensures he’ll be around for a while. His personality is easygoing and mellow, but he’s fun to joke around with — just ask Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who has traded good-natured Twitter barbs with him over the offseason. Jaire Alexander is the defense’s best player, he leads by example and with supreme confidence. He’s also been a Packer for longer than Za’Darius, drafted as the first pick of the Brian Gutekunst era, an absolute home run of a selection, and is the next big target for a contract extension. He’s premier at his position in the league, and someone whose example is worth following. Adrian Amos is the most mature of the Packers defenders. He routinely gives wise input on social issues. His game echoes that maturity, playing assignment-sound, reliable football and overlooking the back end of the defense. He sees everything and makes sure no big plays are given up. He is a grounding force on the defense, and while his loyalty to Green Bay has never been an identifying facet of his personality, his production and consistency bespeak a loyalty to the process, and make him a consummate professional, someone to model excellence in the locker room. The candidates are great. They’re also markedly soft-spoken in comparison to Z. That’s worth noting. Perhaps their energy better matches the energy of the locker room.
The Packers also have a new defensive coordinator, Joe Barry, who is quickly getting a reputation as a high-energy firebrand. We don’t have a complete idea yet of what his defense will look like, whom it’ll feature — especially since nearly all the defensive starters sat all three preseason games — and what its on-field energy will be. The word that keeps popping up is “aggression.” That can take many different forms on defense, whether that plays out as blitz-heavy scheme, individual risk-taking from specific players, or pack-like swarming to the ball as a unit. It’s possible that Barry’s philosophy will appear ordinary, not much different than former-DC Mike Pettine’s. It’s possible it’ll feel radically different. It’s Pettine’s scheme tailored more to Z’s strengths. It’s possible his energy tailored more to Z. It’s possible the new coordinator has no effect on this conversation whatsoever.
Mostly, I think Za’Darius is sad. As much of a genuine happy energy that he brings, he seems like the kind of person who on the surface just wants to love and be loved in return. He feels like he’s poured his heart and soul into this defense and the role he has in it, and to see three teammates ascend above him on the ladder of team leaders has to feel like a tacit rejection of the authentic self he has poured into the role. The “Wow” likely refers to his disbelief that he isn’t considered a top-tier leader for the team, and the think-face emoji likely refers to the thinking this is going to make him do about his place on the team, his future with it, and his relationships with the other players.
I teach. If I was voted grade-level chair two years running, and then not asked to be on a grade-level committee of three in the following year, I would feel ousted. Come up with an analogous situation to your own workplace, and you’re likely to land on a similar conclusion. There’s legitimate reason for this thing — which may seem trivial or small from a distance — to cause actual emotional hurt. Considering this, it’s surprising that Matt LaFleur didn’t think to talk to Za’Darius Smith about it before announcing it to the team, let alone at all, as he said in his press conference Friday. Football players are supposed to “man up” and be masculinely emotionless at all times and in all places everywhere, but we know they aren’t machines; particularly Za’Darius. While he may not be a top leader in the locker room, he is definitely still a critical component to the defense. If he’s not fully invested, not feeling fully seen and heard, his play will probably suffer and the team will probably suffer for it. In that respect, this feels like a dropped ball from a coach whose belief in player-led teams may have caused him to overlook potential downsides.
Further salting this wound is the fact that the captains slots increased from one to three. Had it been just that Alexander (or Clark or Amos — remember, all are great candidates!) had usurped Smith as the lone defensive captain, that would make sense on many levels. “Time for a change.” “Emerging leaders.” “New energy.” Sure, but to say “actually, you’re not top three for us” certainly has to hit different.
Why did the switch happen, anyway? Perhaps to encourage more voices? Could it have been that leaving Rodgers as the lone offensive captain would underscore the leadership hole there will be likely to fill next season? You could even make the argument that Smith would likely have retained his spot if only one captain were selected, and that given his contract situation, the defense would be in a similar spot of exposing themselves to a leadership void.
The Packers are attempting something brave, trying to hold a team that is honestly a year past its expiration date together for one last run, all while avoiding disruption of the ambitious quick-rebuild plans for when the team transitions to Jordan Love. Rodgers and Smith, captains for the past two years, are holdovers of that going-by era. One of them has been ousted from the captaincy. The other has already proved himself above the typical rules on numerous occasions, so this is nothing new. The captaincy may seem insignificant, but it gives us a look into just how tenuous the balance is in Green Bay, between eras, between egos, between commitment and retirement. On the one hand, the balance may hold, and nothing major may come of the demotion of Za’Darius Smith (or, what’s it called when a group of people overthrow someone labeled their captain? A mutiny?). But in Green Bay, particularly this season, there’s always something more brewing beneath the surface.
Let’s close that book of speculation. On to the opener, Sunday in Jacksonville against New Orleans. In fact, forget all that I mentioned about Z. He’s probably fine. We don’t know. We don’t know.