GREEN BAY – While Cullen Jenkins appreciates the many ex-teammates and coaches who have been talking about how much they missed him this season, the former Green Bay Packers defensive lineman would have preferred that they’d have said something to general manager Ted Thompson a little earlier.
Say, before the season and before he signed a five-year, $25 million unrestricted free agent deal with the Philadelphia Eagles last July 30.
“You look at it now, even though they’re saying that stuff, before the season and throughout the whole offseason, everybody had that attitude that they could just replace me, that I was just another player. ‘We can just let him walk,’” Jenkins said in a telephone interview Wednesday afternoon. “Certain players spoke out publicly about guys they hoped they’d bring back, but back then you didn’t hear anybody say too much about me. So I don’t pay it too much attention.”
The Packers certainly are saying it now. Following their 37-20 NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants, the grim reality set in for the Packers’ 32nd-ranked defense: Their lack of pass rush proved to be their undoing.
“I don’t want to get into who we missed, but let me just tell you something: Cullen’s a rare bird,” straight-shooting defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “He is a rare bird. There’s not very many guys like him. But, in this defense, still, you can create some things that’ll give you opportunities (to generate pressure on the quarterback). And we obviously didn’t take advantage of them as much. We didn’t have that type of guy. But we can still improve (despite) not having a guy like him.”
Said cornerback Tramon Williams: “You lose a Nick Collins, you lose a Cullen Jenkins, you just may have to cut back on some things you do. Obviously, the caliber of players we’re talking about, it makes a difference in any defense. I think the defense took a hit with it, but like I said earlier, when it happens, you just expect the next guy to step up and do the job. That’s our mindset – that the next guy is going to step in and do the job. You don’t really realize it until everything’s gone now. You sit here and you realize that, ‘OK, maybe those guys DID make that big a difference.’ But while we’re playing, we never think that way, it never crosses your mind.”
Even the player who was supposed to pick up the slack with Jenkins gone, second-year defensive end Mike Neal, admitted Jenkins was missed.
“If you look at some of the things Jenks did last year, we has able to play around the defense. I think some of the things he did, he was able to create rushes when he didn’t have opportunities to rush (in the scheme),” Neal said. “I think that’s just experience. He’s played here, he understands football. We have a young defensive line, we really don’t have guys as athletic as Jenks and really understand this defense like Jenkins did. I think that showed.”
The Packers ranked 27th in sacks with 29 on the season – down from 47 in 2010, when the Packers finished tied for second – and star left outside linebacker Clay Matthews had just six sacks, down from 13.5 last season, without Jenkins on the opposite side. With the Eagles this season, Jenkins played in all 16 games, recorded 5.5 sacks and helped teammate Jason Babiin earn a Pro Bowl nod with 18 sacks – third most in the NFL.
“Jason Babin, I’m hoping he got Cullen a good Christmas gift because he’s probably been his biggest asset there,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.
While Jenkins missed five regular-season games with a calf injury last season and played the first half of the season with a cast on his broken hand, he still registered seven sacks in the regular season and another half-sack in the playoffs. According to ProFootballFocus.com, he played 573 snaps and had 10 quarterback hits and 28 pressures last season; this year in Philadelphia, he played 652 snaps and had eight QB hits and 22 pressures in 16 games.
“I thought the season went decent. I started off real strong numbers-wise,” Jenkins said Wednesday. “I felt like one of the biggest things I wanted to try to do this year, I got tired of everybody giving me the label of not being able to play the run well. Last year in Green Bay, we had that rotation where, once I broke my hand in the first game, they tried to keep me out of putting me in bad situations, so I didn’t play a lot of the run-down plays. I caught flak that I couldn’t play the run well. So one of my big focuses this year was to prove that I’m a versatile player, that I’m not just a player who can pass rush.”
Still, moving to Philadelphia was an adjustment for Jenkins and his family – “We’d never been in a big city before, so a lot of this year has been an experience for us to get used to the traffic, the time it takes to where you want to go, things like that,” he said – and he made no qualms about the fact that he wanted to stay in Green Bay.
Jenkins went to the Packers before the 2010 season and told them he was willing to take a hometown discount as part of a contract extension and got a thanks-but-no-thanks response. When the lockout ended and free agency began, he said his agents spoke with the Packers “a couple times” but that the team never made any effort to re-sign him, even when the free-agent market wasn’t as big for him as expected.
“I believe they spoke with my agents a couple times about just seeing what was going on with us and asking questions. To my knowledge, that was the only thing,” Jenkins said. “There was no effort to bring us back. My agent even tried to reach out to them during the time we were allowed to talk and tried to get them to offer me. But only two teams actually offered me: The Eagles and the (New Orleans) Saints.”
Jenkins’ five-year deal was structured in a way that the Packers could have matched it had they wanted to. Instead, Jenkins, who turns 31 this week, proved to be one of the free-spending Eagles’ best investments.
Still, with a $5 million roster bonus due to him in March, it’s possible that the Eagles will either cut ties with him or restructure his deal to create salary-cap room. Jenkins said he hasn’t gotten an indication from the Eagles whether they plan to pay the bonus or not.
While it appears unlikely that the Eagles will let him go, Jenkins and his family still own their duplex in Green Bay. He said he watched his former team a lot during the season – “It was hard not to because between the Packers and (Tim) Tebow, that was all that all that was on TV,” he said – but he sounded Wednesday like he had moved on with his life without the Packers.
Would he consider a return engagement in Green Bay if the opportunity arose?
“I’m going to stay away from even commenting on that one,” Jenkins replied. “You kind of move on. Right now, I’m an Eagle, and that’s my mindset. I’m going to continue to be an Eagle until they don’t want me to be an Eagle anymore. That’s my main focus right now. I’m not worried about any of the other ifs, ands or buts.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.