By JASON WILDE
GREEN BAY – A.J. Hawk searched for the right word Thursday, and he never quite found it. He didn’t like disappointed, and he didn’t like frustrated, either. Upset was too strong, and discouraged wasn’t quite right, either.
Whatever he is, the Green Bay Packers fourth-year linebacker acknowledges what he isn’t: The impact player he – not to mention everyone else – expected him to be when the Packers picked him with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2006 NFL draft.
That fact became glaringly obvious after the Packers’ victory over
For a guy who had been on the field non-stop playing for his Pop Warner team, for
“Obviously I’ve had all kinds of different thoughts on this whole situation. But I know for me, if I’m going to help this team, I know you think it’s a cliché – ‘Oh, I’m a team guy …’ – but to help the team, I’ve got to be at my best, I need to be here, I need to still work like I always have,” Hawk said. “I’ve seen it happen to people in college a lot, and even here in the league being here four years. If your role gets reduced or things happen, if you let it affect you negatively, you’re done. I can’t do that. Honestly. I can’t. Then it could really go downhill for me, if I let that happen. I’m not going to let that happen to me. I’m not going to be mentally weak and let all these outside influences affect my play.”
Every day, the Packers public-relations staff clips every story written about the team and assembles them in a packet for coaches and players who are interested. There’s also a computer with Internet access in the players’ lounge where some players – including a former Packers quarterback who’ll be coming to town in, oh, about a week or so – have spent plenty of their free time reading every word about themselves.
Hawk has never been one of those guys. In fact, his response to questions about the expectations put upon him by his draft status has always been the same: “I have much higher expectations of myself than anyone else could put on me.”
So on Thursday, I asked him how he’s measuring up to those expectations – not everyone else’s, but his own.
“This exact moment, today, it’s obviously not my ideal situation of what I’d want to be doing,” Hawk replied. “But there’s so many ups and downs. I’m just trying to stay constant and not have anything bother me. Believe me, this isn’t the end of the road for me. I’ve got plenty of time left that I’m trying to play in this league. I know this is a change from what I’m used to. In the long run, this is going to make me better. It’s going to make me better.”
Hawk and fellow linebacker Brady Poppinga – Hawk’s roommate on the road – have talked a lot about the situation lately, especially with Poppinga losing his starting right outside linebacker job to rookie first-round pick Clay Matthews last week.
“Me and Brady talk a lot. Brady’s the ultimate positive guy – and look at his situation (with Matthews),” Hawk said. “Brady’s got a lot of good insight. I know people laugh at him and he’s crazy in interviews – that’s him, he is – but he’s helped me out a lot. This is going to be better for me in the long run, I think.”
Right now, Hawk’s coaches – head coach Mike McCarthy, defensive coordinator Dom Capers and inside linebackers coach Winston Moss – all defend him or deflect questions as to why he hasn’t been more productive. When asked Wednesday whether Hawk was struggling in Capers’ 3-4 scheme, McCarthy talked about the limited number of base-defense calls the Packers have made the last two games.
“If I was A.J. Hawk, I'd be disappointed I wasn't playing either. But that's what you want in your players,” McCarthy said. “The fact of the matter is we haven't played much base the last two weeks. The game, the way the (opposing) offense plays, has a lot to do with that. It's our responsibility (as coaches) to try to get A.J. involved in other areas.
“You go through a process where you try to acquire good football players, and then if you get more than 11, then you have another set of problems. We're trying to get as many good football players as we can, and we're trying to utilize them as much as we can. … Yeah, he hasn't played a whole lot the last two weeks, but I don't really think anything's going on. I think A.J. is a solid, solid professional, just the way he goes about it. I don't mean solid, consistent, the way he shows up every day. He's fun to coach. He just doesn't have a lot of opportunities right now.”
Moss, meanwhile, says Hawk’s progression in the 3-4 “has been very, very good,” but he acknowledges “A.J. has not been flashy. A.J. is that workhorse. He’s the guy that brings his lunch pail to work, he’s very quiet, and his demeanor is very, very conservative. I still believe he has that ability (to be flashy). He’s been questioned, ‘Well, how come he’s not?’ But, I definitely feel he has that ability.”
Even the Packers’ media guide’s description of him in his bio – reliable, assignment-sure defender … – sounds like a polite way of saying he doesn’t make many plays. Entering Sunday’s game at
Hawk said he doesn’t think he’s playing cautiously or is afraid to make mistakes, but he has made big plays at times – especially before playing through chest and groin injuries for most of last season, when he had 121 tackles, 3.0 sacks and three pass breakups in 16 games.
As a rookie in 2006, Hawk had a team-leading 155 tackles, 3.5 sacks, two interceptions, nine pass breakups, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in 16 games. In 18 games (including playoffs) in 2007, he had 129 tackles, 2.0 sacks, one interception, four pass breakups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
“I don’t think that’s a conscious thought in my mind when I’m playing – that I’m trying not to make mistakes. I’m not worried about that. I can live with making mistakes,” Hawk said. “But maybe sometimes unconsciously I’m trying to be a solid, steady consistent guy. I always talk about that. But I think you have to find a good balance between being a consistent guy and actually making plays and getting TFLs (tackles for loss), getting interceptions and things like that, which I haven’t gotten a lot of recently, obviously.”
Then there’s another set of numbers: Hawk’s contract numbers. He’s in the fourth year of a six-year, $37.5 million rookie deal that included $15 million in guaranteed bonus money and calls for a 2010 base salary of $4.12 million. His 2011 base salary is $10 million.
“Hey, I’m not stupid. I understand how that works,” Hawk said. “I 100 percent want to be back. It’s up to them.”
Asked if he’d consider taking a pay cut if the Packers approach him during the offseason, Hawk replied, “I honestly haven’t thought about that. If that happens, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Honestly, I want to be here. I love it here. Regardless of how many reps I’m getting right now, I still want to be here. I’d much rather not be playing as much as I’d like on a winning team and a solid organization than starting and going 2-14.”
The thing about Hawk is that he’s not stupid. He acknowledges that if he had the exact same production but was a third-round pick, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. He also admits that it stings that the coaches clearly believe Chillar and Barnett are better than he is – obviously, if they didn’t think that, he would be playing more.
“Everybody’s got an opinion,” Hawk said.
But it’s up to Hawk to change that opinion, whenever he gets his opportunities to play.
“It’s no secret, everyone in this whole locker room wants to play every single snap. But I wouldn’t say I’m disappointed,” Hawk said. “I’m still on the team, I’m still here, I’m still getting a chance to play. Just not as much as I would like. But I’m sure there are a lot of guys in that boat around the league. It’s not something where I’d say I’m disappointed, it’s just part of the whole journey. I plan on playing for a long time, so this is not that big of a deal.
“I’m going to make sure that I do everything I can to stay positive and when I do get a chance, whenever I’m out on the field for however many snaps that is, I’m going to make sure I do some good things. I’m not going to let it affect the way I approach the game or the way I prepare or anything.
“I’ve never really been, even in college, the type of guy that’s going to be shooting gaps, taking tons of chances. I’ve never been that type of guy. But obviously I’ve made more impact plays in the past, which is what I’d like to do. I don’t know. We’ve obviously switched our scheme up, which has helped everybody around here.
“I think it’s just finding little ways to make plays here or there in the situations you’re in. That’s football – trying to find a way, through studying everything, a way to make some plays. Now you just have a little less of an opportunity to do that.”