GREEN BAY – The call began with a warning.
“We’re up in the mountains in Tennessee,” Tom Crabtree said Saturday morning. “So you’ll have excuse me if I lose the signal.”
After all, the now-former Green Bay Packers tight end, vacationing in the Smoky Mountains with his wife Chelsea and their two kids and his in-laws, had already lost one call: From his new boss, Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano.
“That’s probably the one time I’ve had a call drop,” Crabtree said with a chuckle. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
That would also accurately describe how Crabtree felt about leaving the Packers, who signed him to the practice squad in December 2009 and saw him blossom into the team’s best blocking tight end, a key contributor on special teams and a favorite among the team’s passionate fan base. Crabtree said he received a two-year deal from the Buccaneers, and he’ll travel to Florida on Sunday to sign the deal.
While Crabtree entered the free-agent period knowing it was a possibility that the Packers wouldn’t issue the low tender of $1.323 million, he said he was surprised and disappointed that the team didn’t make much of an effort to keep him. Instead, they offered him a one-year deal worth the $600,000 three-year veteran minimum with “a little bit” of a signing bonus, while Tampa Bay’s offer over two years is worth more overall money than the one-year restricted free-agent tender.
“We were prepared for a few different scenarios. This scenario that is actually playing out, it was on the list, but was probably near the bottom,” Crabtree admitted. “I kind of expected all along to receive the tender or if not, get some kind of deal done soon after (with the Packers). It just didn’t happen. It was kind of a thing where it felt like I was being put in the same position I was three years ago, and I feel like I’ve worked too hard to be back in the same old spot.
“I just wanted more of a show of faith from them. I know that’s not how this business works. Maybe it’s a little naïve on my part. It didn’t work out the way we were hoping initially. We’re excited. Chelsea and I have been racking our brains over this. It’s a new opportunity, and I think it’s good for our family.”
A league source had said earlier in the week that the Packers had indicated to Crabtree they did want him back, but the Packers gave up the right to match any offer he received when they chose not to tender him.
By not putting even the minimum tender on Crabtree, the Packers gave up their right to match any offer he received. Because he entered the league as an undrafted free agent, if the Packers had placed the lowest tender on him, they would not have received any draft-pick compensation had he signed an offer from another team and the Packers not matched it. However, they would have kept the right to match that offer.
The Packers also chose not to tender two other restricted free agents, outside linebacker Frank Zombo and inside linebacker Robert Francois, both of whom then became unrestricted free agents. While Francois re-signed with the Packers for a one-year deal, Zombo remains on the market.
“With Tampa, we were in communication a lot more with them all along this week,” Crabtree said. “There was a time when we didn’t really hear from Green Bay at all for a couple days. It was disappointing. I have a lot of good relationships there. Still, I’m very thankful for all the opportunities I was given there. But it was disappointing, ultimately. Tampa Bay was willing to go more out on a limb than Green Bay and that meant a lot to me.”
In his three regular seasons in Green Bay, Crabtree caught four passes in 2010, six in 2011 and eight last year. Playing 389 snaps in regular-season and postseason play, Crabtree’s eight receptions went for a whopping 203 yards and three touchdowns last season. He had some memorable moments, including a 72-yard touchdown catch-and-run and a 27-yard TD on a fake field goal, and was also the team’s best blocking tight end and vital to special teams.
“Honestly, I was surprised. I just felt like in the last three years I’ve had a lot more to offer at times. But I’ve been OK with my role on the team. I never complained. I’m not one to complain,” Crabtree said. “I feel like the ways I’ve contributed the last three years, I felt I’d pay off a little more when this time rolled around. It’s disappointing it didn’t, but we were blessed to have Tampa Bay. They were in communication with us all along, had nothing but positive stuff to say. They went out on a limb and we’re happy with the decision. But it’s definitely bittersweet.”
Asked if he gave the Packers a chance to match Tampa Bay’s offer, Crabtree replied, “Tampa was on the same page with us all along, so Green Bay, they knew all week. There were a couple days where we didn’t hear from them or barely heard from them.”
In free agency so far, the Packers have lost outside linebacker Erik Walden to the Indianapolis Colts (four years, $16 million), wide Greg Jennings to the Minnesota Vikings (five years, $47.5 million, $18 million guaranteed) and Crabtree, while inside linebacker Brad Jones is visiting the Tennessee Titans.
At tight end, the Packers have starter Jermichael Finley, third-year players D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor, and Andrew Quarless, who missed the entire season after a December 2011 knee injury.
The Buccaneers’ tight end depth chart includes Zach Miller, Luke Stocker, Nate Byham, Drake Dunsmore and Danny Noble. Crabtree acknowledged that there’s nothing guaranteed in Tampa Bay, either.
“It’s a two-year deal. But in this league, does that really matter?” Crabtree said. “I’m still going to have to earn my spot in camp, earn my spot on the team. But a two-year commitment maybe says more than a one-year deal. I just saw more commitment from their end. It was just backwards from what I was expecting. I would have expected Green Bay, who I’ve poured my heart and soul in the team and into the community, to go out on a limb. But it’s a business.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.