GREEN BAY – Ryan Grant had finished with all the formalities Wednesday – inking his contract, calling his mother – and was ready to go to work. Having spent a little bit of time at 1265 Lombardi Avenue before, the Green Bay Packers newly signed veteran running back knew where to go. He took the elevators down from the third floor offices to the lower level and headed straight for the gymnasium, where the morning walkthrough was in full swing.
He came through the door expecting to go unnoticed, sneak down the short flight of stairs onto the parquet floor, then stand on the sideline until his old No. 25 was called. Instead, he was greeted with a standing ovation – a reaction that, even hours later, he wasn’t quite sure how to take.
“I kind of think that's more of a joke than anything,” Grant said when swarmed by a throng of reporters Wednesday afternoon. “I told them, ‘Ha ha ha. Whatever. Let’s keep going.’ You don’t want to be a distraction. At the end of the day, it’s all good, it’s feel-good, and I’m a familiar face. But we’ve still got to go to work. None of this means anything if we don’t take care of business on Sunday.”
His reaction to the hullabaloo was classic Grant. Fiercely professional and an unwavering team guy, the fact that the ovation was heartfelt never really dawned on him. He was more focused on getting to work.
“It was nothing in jest. It was all about respect,” said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Grant’s teammate during his first tour of duty (2007 through 2011) and one of his closer friends on the team during that time. “We like to make jokes from time to time, but I think it was legit. It was for me. We’re excited to see him back. It was fun to see him walking down those stairs.”
The storyline is undeniable, and Grant begrudgingly acknowledged it: After suffering a broken leg in the 2010 regular-season opener, landing on season-ending injured reserve and missing the team’s run to the Super Bowl XLV title, he now gets a do-over.
With Cedric Benson – the veteran back the Packers signed in August instead of Grant – done for the year after foot surgery and James Starks – the back who shouldered the rushing load down the stretch in 2010 – out for “multiple weeks” per coach Mike McCarthy with a knee injury, Grant’s phone finally rang Tuesday. He flew to Green Bay that night, went through a physical and a conditioning test Wednesday morning and was on the practice field by the afternoon.
And while the whole thing was a little surreal – “Even until I actually signed on the dotted line I was kind of like, ‘Well, we'll see,’” Grant confessed – he wanted to make something very clear: The only narrative that interests him is the one that has the Packers winning. His role in it matters little.
“I didn't come here for a feel-good story, I came back here to help this team and contribute,” said Grant, who ranks fifth on Green Bay's all-time rushing list with 4,016 yards and 25 touchdowns.
“I live in the now. I’m excited to be back here, I’m excited to help this team win, just to be back and work. Because I love to work in the game of football. All this is good, but I’ve still got a job to do. We’ve got a job to do. This team has a job to do. Its goals are set, and I’m trying to just add and help these goals and bring the leadership guys know I can bring and just contribute.”
Grant should be able to contribute right away. Although the offense has changed some since his last game with the Packers (their NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants last January), its basic principles all remain intact, so there’ll be no adjustment period.
In addition, Grant signed with the Washington Redskins on Sept. 26, and although he only played in one game and had only one carry (for 5 yards against Atlanta) before being released on Oct. 23, he’s stayed in good shape by working out at home in New York and shouldn’t be far removed from the elusive “football shape” he needs to be in. McCarthy said he fully expects Grant will be able to play Sunday night against Detroit at Lambeau Field.
“Ryan has great history with us, can kind of step right in. The offense has evolved, there’s some new terminology, but I don't see him having any issues getting ready,” McCarthy said. “He's in very good shape. I don’t think we expect him to go out and play 60 plays this week. We’ll let the week’s work give us some information on where he is. We’re not looking for him to go out and play the full game.”
Not yet, anyway. While Grant had visits and workouts with the New England Patriots, Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and Washington since the Packers opted not to re-sign him this spring, he remained on the street after turning down several offers. Presumably, the Packers had determined that Grant – set to turn 30 on Sunday – wasn’t as good as their younger alternatives.
Grant played in 15 games with the Packers last season, rushing 134 times for 559 yards (4.4-yard average) and two touchdowns while catching 19 passes for 268 yards including an 80-yard touchdown.
Acquired from the Giants for a sixth-round pick before the start of the 2007 season, Grant took over as the Packers’ starting running back midway through that season and rushed for 956 yards and eight touchdowns that year. He put together back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2008 and 2009 – his best year coming in 2009, when he ran 282 times for 1,253 yards and 11 TDs.
Now, with Starks sidelined and Benson done for the year, second-year man Alex Green becomes the starter with Grant and former practice-squad running back DuJuan Harris as the only other halfbacks on the 53-man roster. Green has been up-and-down in his time as the lead back, and Rodgers, for one, believes Grant will be a factor down the stretch.
“We’ve won a lot of games together. He’s been a part of a lot of big victories,” Rodgers said of Grant, who put together an impressive three-year run from mid-2007 through 2009, when he rushed for the second-most yards in the NFL over that period. (Only Adrian Peterson had more.)
“He’s as tough as they come, he runs as hard as anybody, especially in the winter months, and he’s made some big plays for us over the years. It’s good to have him back. Just his presence in the locker room alone is fun and it’ll be good to see him get back out there and make some plays.”
Having sat out nearly all of the 2010 season with the leg injury and having not gotten his big break until the Giants traded him to Green Bay just before the start of the 2007 season, Grant said he doesn’t feel like a 30-year-old running back and believes his odometer is lower than one might think.
“We'll see but, as of right now, looks like it could be a good birthday,” Grant said. “Fortunately for me, I’m not the average going-to-be 30-year-old back, because I didn’t do anything the first couple years. So I haven’t taken that wear and tear. Of course 2010 I didn’t take that wear and tear. So I don’t feel, I guess, how people think I should feel as a 30-year-old back.”
To his credit, Grant never took any shots at the organization for not re-signing him this spring, and while he dismissed the idea that his attitude helped grease the skids for his return, there’s no question that his standing with players and coaches alike factored in how he was welcomed back.
“That's the business aspect of it,” Grant said. “I came into this league understanding the business aspect and I think that – I don't want to say it made things a little easier, but at the same time it made me understand some things. I don't take things personal in this business.”
Well, with one exception: With Benson now occupying his old locker, Grant was relegated to the auxiliary locker room, adjacent to the main dressing area.
But even that didn’t bother him that much.
“I have a bunch of lockers back there. That’s kind of cool,” Grant said with a laugh. “Maybe (I’ll stay back there) long-term. I’ve got about four lockers back there. I can spread all my stuff around.”
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.