Letroy Guion didn't want to think about how this season might've been different without changing fortunes during training camp.
Back in August, Guion couldn't get on the practice field. In his first offseason with the Green Bay Packers, a hamstring injury lingered late into camp. Meanwhile, defensive lineman B.J. Raji seemed poised for a renaissance season, benefiting from his return to defensive tackle.
Raji, not Guion, was ready to have the big season.
It hasn't worked out that way. Raji tore his biceps muscle in the Packers' third preseason game. Guion returned the following week. With Raji on injured reserve, Guion has flourished with the most productive season of his career.
"I knew I was going to come in here and play some type of role," Guion said. "I didn't know what it was. … I feel like I'm doing good, and I feel like this thing is going in the right direction."
For Guion, the right direction is a career-high 3.5 sacks, 32 tackles, two forced fumbles and a batted pass he almost turned into a diving, highlight-reel interception. He's added eight quarterback hurries, two coming Sunday in Green Bay's win against Detroit for the NFC North title.
A season ago, aging defensive linemen Ryan Pickett and Johnny Jolly combined to finish with eight quarterback hurries, according to ProFootballFocus.
The Packers have gotten bargain value with a one-year, $1 million contract that lured Guion away from division rival Minnesota this offseason. After six seasons with the Vikings, Guion has anchored the Packers' interior defensive line. His 555 snaps are most among defensive tackles, and he's been effective as a pass rusher and run defender.
"Obviously, when B.J. went down during training camp, thank goodness we had Letroy," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "Letroy has been good for our team. He loves to play the game. He has fun playing it. He's enthusiastic. He's got a combination of strength and quickness in there, and he plays hard. He gives you everything that he has.
"Letroy's progress, you see him every game, he'll make a play or two. He's active. He can still give you some pass rush inside. He's big enough and stout enough not to get knocked off the ball. Yeah, I like the way Letroy has been playing."
Guion isn't surprised with his success. He predicted it before the season, while the Packers were preparing for their opening trip to Seattle and life without Raji. In his first discussion with the media following the biceps injury, Guion said he was confident Green Bay's defense could still succeed in Raji's absence.
It took several weeks, but eventually Guion was proven right. The Packers rank tied for 13th in the NFL with 21.8 points allowed per game and 15th with 346.4 yards per game. Both are significant improvements from last season, when Green Bay ranked 24th in scoring defense and 25th in total defense.
Outside linebacker Julius Peppers was the Packers' biggest free agent acquisition this offseason, and his success has been well documented. Peppers has been a leader in the locker room — voted a team captain in his first season — and the most consistent pass rusher on the field. But Guion's emergence has had a significant influence on the defense's trajectory.
As Guion shed the rust from his hamstring injury in the season's opening weeks, incrementally playing better throughout the season's first half, the Packers defense has improved.
"I think Letroy has been everything we thought he was going to be," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "I've always had a lot of respect for Letroy in Minnesota. I think he's come over to us, and I think he's taken his game up a notch. He's an excellent fit in the locker room, teammates love him, he's an excellent teammate, and he's a damn good football player"
Guion said he's comfortable in Green Bay. The small-town feel has been a perfect fit for his family. Compared to a big city, Guion said, there's nothing much to do in Northeastern Wisconsin. He enjoys the rest and relaxation.
Of course, Guion also appreciates what his team has done on the field. The Vikings won NFC North titles in Guion's first two seasons, but he missed the playoffs in three of his past four.
"We worked hard all this year to play good football up until this point," Guion said, "to be division champions and to go farther than that. It's just stepping stones and certain levels you have to complete."
Once this football season ends, the next step will be working out another contract. Guion didn't hesitate when asked this week if he'd like to return to Green Bay.
"I sure hope so," he said.
In the NFL, success is addictive. Guion wants to make another run at an NFC North title.
"It worked out perfect for me because I'm playing football with a great group of guys," Guion said. "I'm getting to enjoy the time out there on the field. I'm getting to interact with the fellas and become a Green Bay Packer. That's the most important thing to me and I get great joy out of that.
"I never really looked at it as a second chance. I always believed in myself and believed in my talents. I knew who I was as a player. I guess it just took the right team to bring it out of me. That's what I think about that."
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood