ARLINGTON, Texas — Looking for someone with a big play in him that could make the difference for the Green Bay Packers on Sunday in Super Bowl XLV?
Try A.J. Hawk.
Yes, that A.J. Hawk — the reliable and steady starting inside linebacker who supposedly doesn’t make enough of the so-called “splash” plays the Packers’ coaching staff always talks about.
Take into account the following defensive stats — sacks, interceptions, pass breakups, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries — and Hawk made more “big plays” than perhaps those around the league realize. The 27-year-old former Ohio State star ranked eighth among NFL inside linebackers in making such plays, according to statistics on the NFL’s official website. Hawk’s resume for the 2010 regular season lists 14˝ of them. Ten were pass breakups, but he also had three interceptions (tied for most among NFL inside linebackers), a fumble recovery and a half-sack.
“Very solid, very dependable,” Packers General Manager Ted Thompson said at Tuesday’s Super Bowl Media Day when asked to evaluate Hawk’s play this season. “We got beat up at that position quite a bit, and he and Desmond (Bishop) have been able to play very well together.”
That’s always been the rap on Hawk, that he’s Mr. Steady but doesn’t make enough big plays.
But among his position group, only the following players made more than Hawk’s 14˝: Kansas City’s Derrick Johnson (24), Washington’s London Fletcher (20˝), Chicago’s Brian Urlacher (20), Pittsburgh’s Lawrence Timmons (18), San Diego’s Kevin Burnett (17), Denver’s D.J. Williams (16˝) and Bishop (15). Not bad for a guy who didn’t play a defensive snap in the season opener at Philadelphia because defensive coordinator Dom Capers played only his nickel package, which Hawk wasn’t initially a part of.
At that point, it seemed like the beginning of the end for the player Thompson picked fifth overall in the 2006 NFL draft. But after injuries wiped out Nick Barnett (wrist) and Brandon Chillar (shoulder), Hawk’s role of playing only in the base defense suddenly expanded. He took Chillar’s spot in the subpackages and took over as the defensive play caller for Barnett, who previously had the coach-to-defense speaker in his helmet.
With Hawk calling the plays, miscommunications were practically nonexistent, and the defense flourished, finishing the season second in scoring defense behind only their Super Bowl XLV opponent, the Pittsburgh Steelers. At the same time, Hawk began to develop an improved relationship with his position coach, Winston Moss, who is responsible for getting Capers’ play call relayed to Hawk. Previously, Hawk and Moss had a relationship that was described by a source as “frosty.”
“I trust A.J.; I always have,” Moss said. “But the opportunity had never come up to work as closely with him because it was always with Nick Barnett. But now, we’re able to communicate a lot more because we have to now that he’s the signal caller. That’s been a tremendous help. Now there’s a trust factor there. We’ve connected, and it’s allowed for him to do a lot more than he’s done in the past and have a huge leadership role in the defense.”
There should be fewer miscommunications this season considering it’s the second year of the 3-4 defense Capers has installed. But Hawk’s demeanor has helped, too, especially in times of crisis, such as when the play clock is winding down, the offense is breaking the huddle and the defensive call comes in late.
“A.J. has a sense of calmness about him,” Bishop said. “He never panics, especially in the tough spots in the game where you could get panicky. He comes in, and I think he relaxes everybody and helps everybody line up right and get comfortable to make plays.”
That, according to the coaches, is an underrated aspect of the NFL game.
“When you’ve got some veterans that are in the communication area — A.J. and (Charles) Woodson — that helps,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “And then Nick (Collins), he’s gotten so much better. The defensive line relies on A.J. and Bishop to get them the call. They do everything based on what the linebackers do.”
Still, there’s reason to wonder how much the Packers value Hawk. Because of where he was drafted, his contract has reached the stage where his base salary has escalated. If he’s on the roster the first day of the league year next season, which at this point is undetermined because there’s no collective bargaining agreement beyond this season, Hawk’s 2011 base salary of $10 million will be guaranteed. The Packers have expressed an interest in bringing back Hawk, but only if he’s willing to redo his contract.
Then there’s the issue of Barnett, who has two years left on his deal. His base salaries for the next two seasons would be $5.5 million and $6 million. It’s all but a given the Packers wouldn’t bring back both Barnett and Hawk. If it’s one or the other, perhaps Hawk’s dependability gives him a slight edge. He has not missed a game in his pro career while Barnett, 29, has ended two of the last three seasons on injured reserve with major injuries.
“I’d love to,” Hawk said of returning to the Packers. “It’d be cool if I could, but I don’t know. I have no idea what the future is for me here or anywhere else.”
One more big play on Sunday against the Steelers could help ensure that it’s with the Packers.