GREEN BAY – When Tramon Williams looks at film from the 2011 season and sees the guy wearing No. 38, he barely recognizes him.
“I see myself, but it wasn’t myself. You know?” the Green Bay Packers cornerback said Thursday, as the team wrapped up its mandatory minicamp and adjourned until training camp kicks off July 26. “The condition my shoulder was in, my whole body was out of sync. I wasn’t really moving like a usually do. If you watch film (closely), when I’m running, I’m kind of carrying my shoulder with me. Basically, I’m not 100 percent. I’m not going 100 percent out there. Because I’m carrying my shoulder with me and I’ve got to watch what I do.”
The shoulder injury Williams is referring to – and the one that he essentially hid from public view until finally revealing the severity of it the day after the season ended – occurred in the team’s Sept. 8 regular-season opener. With roughly four minutes left in what would end up being a 42-34 Packers victory over the New Orleans Saints, Williams’ right shoulder absorbed a wicked hit from Packers safety Nick Collins as the two tried to tackle New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas.
Williams stayed down on the Lambeau Field turf for several minutes and was unable to finish the game. While the injury was diagnosed publicly as just a “bruised shoulder,” Williams missed the team’s Sept. 18 game at Carolina – the first game he’d missed a game at any level, from Pop Warmer to high school to college to the NFL – before returning to action Sept. 25 against Chicago.
But even when he returned, he wasn’t himself. It took time for the pain in the shoulder to subside, and when the pain disappeared, Williams realized something else was gone, too: His strength. He went from being able to shoulder-press a 125-pound dumbbell over his head to not even being able to hoist a 30-pounder up. And when it came to playing press-man coverage? Forget it.
“(The right arm) just physically was so weak. It was so weak,” said Williams, adding that he can now press a 95- or 100-pound dumbbell after rehabbing the shoulder all offseason at home in Houston and back in Green Bay. “If the receiver hit my arm, it was gone. Because I had no strength in it. They’d beat me off press at any given time they wanted.”
In February, Williams underwent an EMG test, which measures how well and how fast nerves send electrical signals. His good shoulder, the left, passed with flying colors. The right?
“Some of the nerve was firing right, then they got to the spot where I got hit at, and it showed a significant difference – that the nerve wasn’t firing like the rest of my nerves were. The nerve might have been firing at maybe 15 percent,” Williams said.
And that was in February. Which begs the question: Why was he playing?
“I couldn’t play my game, obviously, that I wanted to play, but I grinded it out for my teammates. And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. You’re out there for those guys and they’re playing for you. I’d do it again if I had to,” Williams replied. “We came to the conclusion that it was the best for the team for me to play. So I played. I don’t regret anything at all.
“That’s kind of pride talking at the same time. But I got through it. I got through it, I played, I did it for my teammates, and at the end of the day they respect me for it. That’s all I can ask for.”
That said, Williams’ inability to play press coverage forced defensive coordinator Dom Capers to try to hide him on the field – no easy task given that No. 3 corner Sam Shields was taking a step back in his own development and a nearly non-existent pass rush was giving opposing quarterbacks more time to throw than in prior seasons.
“The coaches knew what my situation was. I think they tried to plan around it. I know they tried to plan around it. They might not tell you and they might not say it, but I know they tried to plan around it,” Williams said. “The way this defense is run, it’s kind of hard to do that. There’s a lot of moving parts to it. Obviously you have to have guys who know what they’re doing out there. You can’t make too many errors out there. That’s why I played the way I played.
“Obviously I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, but at the end of the day, we had a terrible defense. Yeah, we did.”
Looking back, though, cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt acknowledged that Williams would have benefitted from being shut down for awhile, but both he and Williams talked it over and decided, given the team’s lack of depth at cornerback, that a one-armed Williams was better than no Williams at all.
“I look at it like this. Tramon is a selfless man, because he shouldn’t … I’m not going to say he shouldn’t have been out there, but he did what he thought was best for the football team, and he put the football team before his body. And guys don’t do that in this era,” Whitt said. “He was really hurt. And where that arm was … but he thought and I thought he gave us the best chance to win football games. Was he close to 100 percent? No, he wasn’t. Did we make any excuses about that? No, because once he ran out there, that meant that he was good enough to help us win.
“But I feel this: With a healthy Tramon Williams, the way he played in 2010 is what you’ll see. I’m confident with him. With how he played in 2010, you’ll see that in 2012.”
That’s a major statement given the way Williams tilted the field in the Packers’ favor during the team’s Super Bowl XLV run and how he was named to the Pro Bowl roster as an alternate. Three NFL scouts at season’s end that year rated him among the top 5 cover corners league-wide. He showed flashes of his normal self during the second half of the season – he was terrific against Detroit’s Calvin Johnson on Thanksgiving – but never regained his pre-injury form.
“You guys have watched Tramon, and you know how well Tramon played for us down the stretch (in 2010). I don’t think there was a corner who played any better,” Capers said. “And we know when Tramon’s healthy and playing the way he’s capable of, we’ve got an awful lot of confidence in him.”
While Williams said he has no pain now, he also cannot say for certain that the nerve will ever regenerate itself fully. He’d like to do another EMG test before the season starts to see where the nerve stands, but no matter what the results are, he’s playing.
“It could’ve been further advanced along (in healing) if I didn’t play last season, but it’s not. But it’s coming along. I’m confident in it,” Williams said.
Williams looks like a reasonable facsimile to his former self to coach Mike McCarthy – “He looks stronger, explosive,” the coach said – but until the pads go on in training camp and Williams faces another team’s receivers in a preseason game, he admits he won’t know for sure how far the shoulder has come. He also couldn’t say he’d be 100 percent for training camp.
“I ain’t quite going to say that. But I’m confident in where I’m at right now,” Williams said. “I’m confident in my shoulder, I’m doing what I want to do on pressing the whole time, and that’s pretty much all I can ask for right now. It’s just more of one of those things that the nerve regenerates on its own and it’ll continue to regenerate and more strength will keep coming.
“I’m totally confident in it right now, and I’m ready to go. Like I said, it’s not going to be 100 percent during the start of training camp or anything, but I’m confident it will continue progressing each and every day.
“It goes along with just the way life goes. You face adverse situations, whatever reason it is, and you have to come back and show what you can do. I’m one of those guys who was always able to overcome adversity. So I don’t see any reason why I won’t go out there and do what I’ve done in the past.”
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.