By ZACH HEILPRIN
Stats aren’t everything.
At least that’s the opinion of Green Bay Packers linebackers and assistant head coach Winston Moss when defending linebacker A.J. Hawk and his play last year.
“I thought A.J. did just an outstanding job of leadership, being consistent, and really just was steady week-in and week-out,“ Moss said. “The one thing that you guys (media, fans) look for, obviously, is the impact and the paper production, but you cannot measure A.J. and what he brings to this team in some of the intangibles. From that standpoint, he’s as good as anybody as far as being a leader, the players believing in him and really having a good grasp of what we’re trying to do defensively.”
That’s not to say Moss isn’t looking for Hawk to increase his production.
“Overall, for his skill set and his talent level, he’s OK," Moss said when asked what he thought about Hawk‘s play. “You want more from him. It’s as simple as that”
It’s also simple to see that Green Bay is doing almost everything they can to avoid a repeat of last year, when the team went 15-1 but had a defense that was one of the worst in franchise history. The Packers spent their first six picks in April’s draft on defensive players, along with dipping into free agency to pick up several defensive linemen. Some players would take such a move as the team making an effort to replace them, but Hawk said that isn’t how he and his teammates took it.
“We understand completely,” Hawk said about the influx of players. “There were so many games that, as a defense, we didn’t play like we should have. But I don’t think we take it as a message. I don’t think anyone on the defensive side of the ball was comfortable or get content with where you are. You’re always trying to get better, so I don’t think any alarm bells went off or anything.
"I’ve been around for a while, so I’ve been around a lot of drafts. I don’t think I ever freak out about anything like that. We’re actually welcoming the guys coming in and hopefully they can push everybody to get better.”
When the Packers took Hawk with the fifth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, much was expected of him. It’s those high expectations that have resulted in him joining tight end Jermichael Finley as the two players that generate the most angst and division among fans. Is the criticism justified? Yes and no.
Hawk has led the team in tackles three of his six years in the league and served as a captain in the playoffs the past two years. At the same time, he hasn’t made the big plays expected of a linebacker picked so high in the draft. Many thought he may have turned the corner after seeing his strong play down the stretch as the Packers were making their Super Bowl run in 2010. He even earned a five-year contract extension that will pay him just more than $33 million. But like the rest of the defense Hawk regressed last season coming up with only 1 1/2 sacks and not forcing a single turnover. The bitter taste of how the season ended and how he played has stayed with Hawk.
“I think our mood is definitely still hot,” Hawk said. “We don’t feel down about it but we definitely know we let something slip away. We had something special going and I think obviously losing that regular season game was something we didn’t plan on happening and it did. Who knows if that had an affect on us in the playoffs? I think each game is its own entity but losing the playoff game especially how we did, at home in front of all these awesome people, that’s terrible. We feel terrible about that. That’s a loss you never will forget about…ever.”
While Hawk hasn’t put that loss behind him, he has put the, “long hair, don’t care” phase of his life to rest and turned that action into a positive. He and his wife, Laura, started a foundation called “Hawk’s Locks for Kids”, which takes real hair and makes wigs for kids with cancer.
“I told our strength coach Mark Lovat (after the playoff game), ‘I think I’m going to cut my hair, it’s just time.’ And he said, ‘Good, I think you’ll like it. You’ll feel refreshed.’”
Hawk will have to be refreshed if he wants to hold onto his starting spot. Not only did the team go heavy on defense in the draft, his main threat may have already been in the house last year. D.J. Smith, a sixth-round pick in the 2011 draft, played well in the three games he started, and though he was technically playing the position normally held by Desmond Bishop, it’s not unlikely that he could threaten for Hawk’s spot.
“You’ve got to be excited about him,” Moss said about the undersized Smith. “He came in last year without an offseason, and by the end of the year had a substantial grasp of this defense to where we obviously felt comfortable putting him in. This offseason, nothing has detracted from that. So he’s in a tough position where he has guys in front of him that have stripes. He will have to continue to work hard and do the things that we’re asking him to do, and if he wants to play more, he’s going to have to take somebody’s job.”
Inside linebacker isn’t the only position where players will be fighting for playing time. Battles at defensive end, outside linebacker and safety all figure to go deep into training camp. And Hawk is just fine with that.
“We had a ton of talent before the draft and now seeing these guys we brought in,” said Hawk. “It’s a good thing. (General manager) Ted (Thompson) can tell you that competition at every position is always good for everybody. And there’s definitely no lack of talent on the defensive side of the ball. We know how great the offense is and it’s time for us, I think, as a defense to step up and play the way we should. And last year that didn’t happen.”
Zach Heilprin covers the Packers for WBEV and WXRO radio in Beaver Dam, sister stations of ESPNWisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/zachheilprin.