GREEN BAY – Mike Neal would certainly prefer coach Mike McCarthy say good things about him than bad things, but the Green Bay Packers second-year defensive end didn’t quite agree with his boss’ kind assessment from the other night.
After practice on Monday, McCarthy singled out Neal, who has only been practicing full-go since last Thursday as he works his way back from last year’s right shoulder injury that required a season-ending surgery, saying he “looks very good” and “is off to a good start.” Certainly not glowing praise, but considering the mood McCarthy was in at the time, having just finished criticizing his sloppy offense, it was significant. Even though he said he wasn’t in the mood to “throw out any bouquets,” McCarthy sounded quite pleased with Neal.
Neal, one of the Packers’ more active Twitter users, read the quotes Monday night after practice but said Tuesday afternoon that McCarthy must have been watching a different No. 96.
“I really appreciate what Coach McCarthy said but, honestly, I walked off the practice field and was beating myself up,” said Neal, who played in just two games last season after suffering a strained abdominal muscle in training camp and the shoulder injury on Oct. 10 at Washington. “I looked at a whole bunch of plays that were there for me to make that I didn’t make. Progression is the biggest thing and being able to be consistent. I had some good plays and I had some bad ones. I’m trying to get better. I think that I didn’t have a good practice (Monday).”
Part of Neal’s self-flagellation is simply his personality; as a perfectionist and workaholic, nothing is ever good enough for him. The other part is a lesson he learned at Purdue, playing for defensive line coach Terrell Williams, who is now at Texas A&M working for ex-Packers coach Mike Sherman.
"I was in practice one day and I thought I was playing 110 percent, flying to the ball. He grabbed me and said, ‘You’re practicing good, huh?’ I’m patting myself on the back, ‘Yeah.’ He looked at me and said, ‘That’s not good enough,’” Neal recalled. “From that point on, that’s just how it is. When you think you’re doing good, there’s always something that you can do better. If our team takes that message, then I think we can be unstoppable.
“Coach McCarthy made a good point in our team meeting today, and it echoes what my college coach told me: Whenever you think that you’re playing good, it’s just not good enough. You can always take your game to another level.”
The Packers need Neal to do exactly that. Neal is the odds-on favorite to fill the void left by the free-agent departure of veteran Cullen Jenkins, who signed a five-year, $25 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. One of the reasons the Packers didn’t try to re-sign Jenkins, whose deal was certainly affordable given the Packers’ salary cap room.
Instead, they will use Neal, C.J. Wilson and Howard Green, although Neal is the front-runner to be the second defensive lineman along with B.J. Raji in the Packers’ nickel defense, which the Packers played nearly 70 percent of the time last year.
While Neal only played in two regular season games before suffering a complete tear of his rotator cuff and a partial tear of his labrum, he did have a significant impact. In 26 snaps against the Detroit Lions on Oct. 3, he forced a Jahvid Best fumble that was recovered by Ryan Pickett to set up a touchdown; against the Redskins, with Pickett out with a first-quarter ankle injury, he played 53 snaps and had five tackles, his first NFL sack, a quarterback hit and a pressure.
“You saw him against Detroit, we had him on a slant move where he went down inside and caused that fumble. And, he got a sack against Washington. So, you saw some of the signs that he could do,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “He’s a strong kid. He’s got quick feet. He’s got good movement. I’m sure he was a little bit rusty on some of his techniques. But, we still have four preseason games and a lot more practices left to go. It’s just whether the shoulder is ready to go. I don’t know about that.”
Neal said Tuesday that the shoulder is “100 percent,” even though doctors told him he wouldn’t regain full strength in it until a year from now. Neal had been wearing a harness in practice but stopped wearing it on Monday, which coincided with his impressive practice.
As for replacing Jenkins, Neal said he isn’t assuming anything about the job – or about why the team let Jenkins depart.
“I think we have a lot of guys that played, and I don’t think they just automatically threw all their chips in the bag with me,” Neal said. “If they want to lean on me, then I’m going to be there for them to lean on. I just want to play football. If the pressure’s on me, that’s fine, but I probably create more pressure than anybody else in this world can put on me. I’m fine with that.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.