ARLINGTON, Texas – Amid all the criticism A.J. Hawk has endured over his largely unappreciated five-year NFL career, the Green Bay Packers inside linebacker has proven this season to be a difference-maker with his communication on defense.
And, it turns out, he’s been more of a playmaker than people give him credit for.
But first, let’s talk about the way Hawk … talks. Not in the Super Bowl XLV Media Day sense, although Hawk did draw a respectable crowd to his podium Tuesday at Cowboys Stadium. We’re talking about the way Hawk communicates on defense, having taken over the primary on-field play-calling duties after Nick Barnett was lost for the season to a broken wrist Oct. 3.
“My comfort level is very high with that,” Hawk said as the Packers prepared for Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. “That’s something I’ve done on and off in the past, but now it’s more of a full-time thing. I feel really comfortable. I enjoy it. I don’t feel like I have too many issues with it. I seem like I can handle the ups and downs of the game.”
While it isn’t as exciting as a sack, fumble or interception, Hawk’s ability to communicate the defensive calls has been vital to the Packers’ success on that side of the ball. Hawk even went through the process for reporters Tuesday, taking them from the end of a play to the snap of the ball on the next by tracing the defensive call from coordinator Dom Capers, through inside linebackers coach Winston Moss and into Hawk’s helmet headset.
“There’s a bunch of different people that have to communicate just to get me the call,” Hawk explained. “As soon as one play’s over, our guys up in the box are watching (opposing team’s) the offensive personnel, what they’re putting on the field. Once they figure out what the personnel is, they relay that to coach Capers and he’ll get on the headset and radio down to Moss, and then Moss will radio it in to me.
“Then when I get it, I have to give the defense to give the call to our defense in the huddle. And then when we come to the line there’s different checks – you have to set where blitzers are coming and where the strength is, stuff like that.”
Hawk has been doing an excellent job with stuff like that, and according to Moss, he’s also coming through when the calls aren’t quite reaching their intended destination.
“I just think that AJ has become such a great communicator from a poise standpoint,” Moss said amid the Media Day madness. “If we don’t get a call into him, he’s done a great job of being able to put us in a defense that allows us to execute on a high level. Not just once or randomly, but he has been very comfortable being able to take charge in a stressful situation.
“There are some games that the ability to adapt to the personnel (an offense puts on the field) sometimes gets us right to that (play) clock where we can’t get a call in. Once that happens, we have contingencies in place that he can move forward with. He just does a good job without it being chaotic. His efficiency at doing that is at a high, high level.”
So is Hawk’s efficiency at playmaking, it turns out. According to statistics compiled by the Green Bay Press-Gazette’s Rob Demovsky, Hawk finished eighth in the NFL among inside linebackers in “big plays” – defined as sacks, interceptions, pass breakups, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries – this season with 14.5: Three interceptions (tied for most among NFL inside linebackers), a fumble recovery, a half-sack and 10 pass breakups.
Often criticized for his perceived lack of playmaking, Hawk ranked behind Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson (24), Washington’s London Fletcher (20.5), Chicago’s Brian Urlacher (20), Pittsburgh’s Lawrence Timmons (18), San Diego’s Kevin Burnett (17), Denver’s D.J. Williams (16½) and teammate Desmond Bishop (15) in that category.
Whether that’s enough to bring Hawk back next season remains to be seen. As part of the rookie contract he signed as the No. 5 overall pick in 2006, Hawk’s 2011 base salary of $10 million will be guaranteed if he’s on the roster when the new league year begins – whenever that is, given the uncertainty of the next collective bargaining agreement.
While the Packers have shown some interest in bringing Hawk back -- and Hawk said Tuesday he wants to return – it won’t be under the terms of his current deal. Given how the coaches rave about him, Hawk would seem likely to be back. The Packers could also sever ties with Barnett, who is set to make $6 million in salary and bonuses in 2011.
“I’d love to (come back), if I could. But I don’t know,” Hawk said. “I have no idea what the future is for me, here or anywhere else. It’s a good place to be right now, at least. I’m glad I’m still playing in February.
“With my contract and everything like that, I just want to play, regardless of where that is. I’d love to be here, but that’s not really up to me now. You just have to make your case with what you do. If I can’t figure it out here and get it done, then hopefully someone else will give you a shot. (But) we’re in the Super Bowl, so … If we win the Super Bowl, that’d be a great way to cap off this season.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green and Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.