News of the Green Bay Packers' decision to release safety Nick Collins was sad, sobering and inevitable. From my experience, Collins is a quiet and humble family man who was on his way to becoming one of the best and most consistent safeties of this generation before suffering a serious neck injury last September. (Agent Alan Herman confirmed the news to Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com.)
But I've suspected this moment was coming from the moment Packers coach Mike McCarthy said last month that he wouldn't let Collins return if he were his son. Collins had cervical fusion surgery to repair his injury, a procedure some NFL players have returned from, but McCarthy seemed scarred by seeing Collins immobilized and removed from the field on a stretcher, and the Packers' medical staff must not have offered enough supporting evidence to suggest it was completely safe for Collins to return.
I won't pretend to understand all of the medical details involved in this decision, and your first reaction might be to criticize the Packers for disposing Collins the minute they decided he could be of no use to them. That would be shortsighted, however. The Packers can't prevent Collins from playing again with another team, but it's clear they didn't want the burden of a possible re-injury to fall on their watch. Directly or indirectly, they're trying to help him walk away from the game under his own power.
Think about it. Collins is 28 and a three-time Pro Bowl player. The Packers' pass defense collapsed after his injury last season, and thus they have every reason to want him back on the field. If they were unconcerned about his well being, they would have brought him to training camp regardless of the medical risks and let him play for as long as he could. If he were re-injured, they would release him then. For once, an NFL team appears to have acted with some empathy even if it hurts on the field.
*UPDATE: General manager Ted Thompson indicated as much in a statement released as part of the team's official announcement: "From the beginning of this process, we have taken our time and sought numerous medical opinions while maintaining consistent dialogue with Nick. In the end, we were not comfortable clearing him to play again. As with all of our players, Nick is a member of our family and we thought of him that way as we came to this conclusion. Nick is a part of our core, and this is a very difficult day for all Packers. Making this kind of decision is never easy, especially when it involves someone like Nick Collins. He has meant so much to the community, his teammates and the organization. He is a good man and will always be part of the Packers family."
My guess is the Packers have been planning for this eventuality all offseason. They didn't sign a free agent safety, but it's fair to assume that position is among their priorities in this week's draft. Veteran safety Charlie Peprah had a better year in 2010 when he replaced fellow safety Morgan Burnett than when he stepped into Collins' role last season.
With the NFL's attention mostly on the draft, the Packers have now released two franchise cornerstones this week. Chad Clifton, their starting left tackle since 2000, departed Monday. The two moves cleared about $9 million in salary-cap space. But from a big-picture perspective, the Packers have undergone some monumental changes this week -- and the draft hasn't even begun.