GREEN BAY – The joke is an easy one to make. Ask what’s different this season about Green Bay Packers inside linebacker A.J. Hawk this year, and let Open Mic Night at the Chuckle Hut commence.
“Haircut?” Packers coach Mike McCarthy responded, clearly proud of his one-liner.
“He's got short hair,” replied Hawk’s ex-teammate, now-Arizona Cardinals guard Daryn Colledge, chuckling to himself on a recent conference call.
Hardy-har-har. But things have changed for Hawk in this, his seventh NFL season – he’s playing fewer snaps, but playing noticeably better at the same time.
“I would just say this: Maybe a year ago, where he might have been playing 65, 70 plays a game, he’s playing probably 45, 50 plays a game. Specific packages. I think it gives guys a chance to focus in on their package and what they’re doing,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers, avoiding the comedy show and answering the question seriously. “I think it’s the smartest way to use A.J., because I think he’s had an excellent year to this point in time.
“I think A.J.’s had his best year since I’ve been here. I like the role we have him in. His reps, I think he’s fresh and when he goes out there you see more quickness.”
When the Packers line up Sunday at Ford Field against the Detroit Lions, they’ll do so with only one of their preferred starting linebackers in the lineup – Hawk. Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop went down with a season-ending hamstring injury in the Aug. 9 preseason opener in San Diego; his replacement, D.J. Smith, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee at Houston Oct. 14; rookie outside linebacker Nick Perry had season-ending wrist surgery during the bye week; and star outside linebacker Clay Matthews has been ruled out with the hamstring injury he suffered Nov. 4 against Arizona.
The one constant has been Hawk, who seems to be hitting his stride – as a player and as a human being – as his 29th birthday approaches in January.
An all-football, all-the-time type during his stellar college career at Ohio State – and even in his early years with the Packers – he believes he’s more of a well-rounded person now. While he’s never allowed outside opinions affect him – good or bad, he says – he has almost a Zen-like mentality about it now, having endured more than his share since being the No. 5 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
“You talk about me being a meathead now, then I was. From when I was 16 to 21 or 22, I was a total meathead – lift weights five hours a day, nothing but football and working out,” said Hawk, who signed a new contract in March 2011 that contained an $8 million signing bonus and has base salaries of $4.4 million this year, $4.9 million in 2013 and 2014 and $5.4 million in 2015.
“Now, I think I’m actually a much smarter person. I know how to work out, (for example). But I never pay attention to (outside opinions) now, never did growing up. Ever.
“I think I’ve always been – I’m not trying to use a big word or anything – but intrinsically motivated, from within. I think you have to be. I don’t want to have to rely on outside forces to motivate me. I don’t want to have to rely on you guys saying something bad about me to get me to say, ‘Oh man, I’m going to prove these guys wrong.’ That’s such a waste of my energy.
“I’m not trying to be this new-age guru or whatever, but I don’t want to do anything just to prove someone wrong. I’m not out there to prove anything to anybody but myself. I never use anything negative. I’m not going to sit there and say, ‘The media or the coaches, I can’t believe what they’re saying about me, I’m going to show ‘em.’ No. What a waste of energy, man. I’d be exhausted by the end of the day. I’m doing it for the team and for myself.”
And the team has benefitted from an improved Hawk, even if it’s meant seeing less of him on the field.
His playing time has diminished because Capers has increasingly used his dime packages (either two down linemen, three linebackers and six defensive backs, or one down lineman, four linebackers and six DBs in the “Bat” dime unit). Even after Bishop and Smith went down, he opted for Brad Jones as the lone inside linebacker in those packages over Hawk.
By keeping Hawk off the field in those situations, Hawk has had to do less of the one thing that isn’t his strength – pass coverage – while remaining solid in all other areas. He enters Sunday with a team-high 75 tackles, while also having registered one sack in limited pass-rush opportunities. ProFootballFocus.com has him playing 422 snaps this season – 200 against the run, 59 as a pass rusher and 163 in pass coverage – and with an overall positive grade on the season in their scoring system. He has missed five tackles and made 57 (40 solo, 17 assists) in their numbers.
“What (one) difference is, on third down, when we’re playing that dime (package), the opportunities for him to be in coverages that can put him in a situation that can challenge him, I think those are at minimum,” inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. “With that being said, A.J. has gotten off to a fast start. He’s been disruptive, he’s really just had a focus about him this year, a tempo about him this year to where it’s very pleasing to see.”
For his part, Hawk isn’t exactly a fan of reduced playing time – just as he didn’t like it at the start of the 2010 season, when he was on the bench when Capers went to his nickel defense – but he’s not one to complain. Whether or not the reduced PT has helped his production, he can’t say.
“I want to play every down. I’ve told you that in the past,” Hawk said recently in a rare mid-week interview. “People ask me, ‘Does it help you, playing less? Are you a better player when you’re not on the field as much?’ No, I’ll never agree to that. I’ll never say that’s true. But maybe I’ve turned the corner a little bit.
“I’ve kind of said, ‘You know what? When I’m in, I don’t care. I’m going to go crazy.’ Maybe I do have a little more energy when I am in, but I still want to be in there 100 percent of the time.”
And that much is clear. In the past, Moss hasn’t been afraid to publicly criticize Hawk, saying that he needed to be more “impactful” (Moss’ word) and pointing out, as far back as 2009, that Hawk was often so focused on being assignment-sure that he bypassed playmaking opportunities that were there for the taking. Before Super Bowl XLV, he praised Hawk’s communication skills, and during the offseason, Moss spoke of Hawk being important to the defense in terms of intangibles and leadership, even if his productivity wasn’t high.
Now, Moss says, Hawk is still fulfilling his duties but also taking a few more risks – and having fun in the process.
“I just think there’s more of a, he’s letting go. He’s letting go. He’s going out there, he’s enjoying the game, he’s having fun,” Moss said. “He is an extremely intense guy. And not to compare it to the past, but that is either a positive or a negative, but I can say so far this year, he’s maintained his intensity but he’s having fun. And I’m glad to see that. On and off the field.
“Here’s what I think is important: I have seen guys that have been on Super Bowl teams and defenses and they have been very similar to A.J. and they have been perceived differently. My personal opinion, what he does form a command of setting this defense up, game-in game-out, week-in, week-out, to have no panic, you don’t know how important that is.
“I’ve always said this over the years: It’s important that you execute your responsibility. But when the opportunity comes, you make the play. It’s not acceptable to think that you can just go out … We’re not asking you to be a robot. I don’t think he’s ever gone out to try and be that, but I think he doesn’t have a problem if he is not the guy making all the plays. As long as he’s doing his job and helping the team out, that’s just as important to him.
“You’ve got a guy who for all these years had has to hear all the whatever, all the (criticism), he’s stayed the course and he’s still standing. No matter what we put him through. The Super Bowl year, he started out the same way, where he was (only) in (in) specific personnel groupings, and in our sub packages we had Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar playing. Guess what, those guys got injured. He stayed the course, and ended up with a Super Bowl ring.
“He’s the same guy doing the same things. He’s just having more fun doing it. That intensity is still there, the execution is still there, but it’s looking a little bit different because whether it’s play speed, having more fun, whatever it is, his production has picked up versus the opportunities he’s getting.”
Hawk, though, has another explanation – a non-football, real-life explanation. He and his wife, Laura, are expecting their second child at the end of January, and the experience of being a dad to daughter Lennon, who was born in December 2010, has changed him for the better.
And, according to Hawk, fatherhood has changed him in another way, too: On the field.
“I’m just an idiot. I feel like I’m 15 years old still. I don’t feel like I’m getting older,” Hawk said. “(But) getting older, I’ve been joking around with some of our scouts, I honestly think – I’m 28 now, and for this team, that’s old – but physically and mentally, I feel like I’m entering my prime. I feel like I’m getting there. I feel like I’m getting stronger, faster. Naturally, I think your body morphs into that.
“I have one kid, I have another one on the way. I feel like I’m getting that Dad Strength, that Man Strength. I always told (ex-Packers teammate) Brady Poppinga that – he’s got a fourth kid on the way now, and he’s all big and strong. I would always say, ‘Damn, Brady, I need to have some kids and be big and strong like you.’ And I always felt like he was a couple years older because he did his Mormon mission and all that, but I always thought he was in his physical prime, too.
“He always told me how good he felt when he was like 30, and I’m starting to feel that way. I feel really good.”
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.