GREEN BAY - Some 36 hours after a crushing playoff loss in the Arizona desert, the Green Bay Packers met with the media to close out their season. In a hushed locker room, reporters flocked to players set to become free agents, gathering their quotes for perhaps the final time.
Among the group with uncertain futures was Mike Neal, a starting outside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Neal, 28, was entering free agency for the second time.
"The process will take its toll and I'll end up where I'm supposed to," Neal said Jan. 18. "God will put me in the right place and the best situation for my family."
But then things got weird.
It began when the Packers re-signed outside linebacker Nick Perry in early March and used their third-round draft pick on Kyler Fackrell, another edge rusher, last month. Then Neal posted a (sarcastic) tweet about the unlikelihood of a return to Green Bay. Then director of football operations Eliot Wolf said Neal had "moved on" — only to have general manager Ted Thompson back away from Wolf's statement later the same day.
As everything unfolded, Neal, who is still a free agent, made the decision to move his family to their off-season home near Tampa, Fla., where his days consist of training and spending time with his kids. The latter, he says, is the No. 1 priority.
On Monday, Neal spoke to Journal Sentinel beat writer Michael Cohen in a wide-ranging interview that he hopes will shed light on the events of the last few months. Among the nuggets he shared:
» The Packers never offered him a new contract.
» He definitely wants to play football in 2016.
» His Tweet during draft weekend was meant to be sarcastic.
» He has visited several teams, the Lions and Seahawks included.
» The NFL has never contacted him about the Al Jazeera report.
» He still won't rule out a return to the Packers.
"I'm not here to throw anyone under the bus," Neal said Monday. "I love Green Bay. They've started my life off great, so how can you ever be mad at that? You know what I'm saying? You can never be mad at that. That's just a business, that's what they choose to do. I'm in a good place. I couldn't be in a better place."
Q. First of all, do you still want to play football?
A. Oh, without a doubt. There's not a question in my mind. But the only thing I do realize is that everything is a process, you know? I've never thought that I couldn't play another down of football. And with that being said, there's a whole lot of football left in front of me. I mean, my goal has always been to play 10 to 12 years, and I'm just halfway to that. Yeah, I'm definitely going to play football.
Q. So from the end of the season until now, was there ever a part of you that thought about not playing next year? Or is your goal to definitely play in 2016?
A. My goal is definitely to play in 2016. There's no doubt in my mind that I wouldn't. I've never even gave it a second thought.
Q. Free agency is a wild and unpredictable thing, but did you think that in 2016 you'd be back with the Packers? Or did you think you'd end up somewhere else?
A. I can say it's 50-50 just because you never know. I mean, I expected to be back with the Packers, but obviously that's just not going the way that I intended it to go. But at the same time I'm not going to harness my thoughts and think fully on why I'm not back with the Packers. Those things are out of my control. The only thing that I can control is, like I said, I do have a personal life. I do have kids, I do have a different place to live, I do have to worry about things that are off the field. And the only thing I can rely on is that my agents do the best that they can to get me places and see what teams like and teams don't, try to get a deal in place. I'm not going to rush the process. I'm not panicked for anything. I'm not going to need the money. I've been smart with everything I did. I'm in a good place, so whatever happens, happens. I'm not one of those guys that panics because I need money. That's what you see in free agency: Guys start panicking because they need money and they need to get on a team. I'm not panicking, man. You beat yourself up for 16, I mean 20-something weeks during the season. (Instead) you're going to let me just get this much time off to better myself. That's just how I look at it. It's just a whole bunch of positive energy going into what I can accomplish by not having to be with a team right now. You've just got to look for the positives in it.
Q. You said this offseason hasn't gone the way you intended, at least as it relates to the Packers. What do you mean by that?
A. Well you know, I kind of expected to be back. But like I said, that didn't work out the way that I thought. After a while I was kind of sitting around Green Bay waiting, and to be there and continue to wait for what? I have a beautiful home down in Florida. To continue to live in a house (in Green Bay) and pay bills, that's all things I don't need and can get out of that environment. Obviously I'm not there, and I don't want to watch my teammates or old teammates — whatever they're going to be in the future — go to work while I'm sitting at home trying to work out while I have kids and stuff. I don't want to be around that. So for me to get out of that place and be able to enjoy what I have and be away from football and remove the thought from it, it gives me enough time to sit back and realize what I do have. And like I said I'm a father first. That's my No. 1 job, and I enjoy it more than I enjoy absolutely anything else. I want to fully focus on that. When a (football) opportunity presents itself, then I'll take that opportunity. But being a dad is No. 1, and I love it.
Q. Was there a contract offer from the Packers and it just wasn't what you wanted?
A. Absolutely not. The Packers never offered me a contract, and I think that's one of the things that people get the misconception of. There's things that I hear people saying, "Well, they say they want you back. Hopefully they can get you back." But there was never a deal offered. It was pretty much a phone call (from my agent saying) we want to work a deal. "Well, let's just wait and see." A call back (again from my agent) asking can we get something done. "Well, we've got these other free agents that we want." After that, I told my agent there's no need to call back.
I'm obviously not a priority for them. I mean, my feelings aren't hurt by it. That's just the way that the organization works. They decided to go one way, and I'm here. They never offered me a deal for me to turn down. If they would have offered me a deal, I would have been back in Green Bay.
Q. You might not use Twitter as much as other people do, but I know you see some of the stuff. I'm pretty sure you're aware of Eliot Wolf's comment at the draftabout you moving on from the Packers. Did that surprise you at all?
A. People told me kind of about what he said, but to be quite honest Eliot isn't the GM. What he had to say, that's him, OK? He might be close with the GM. But his and the GM's remarks were completely different. I think that people get surrounded in Twitter hype. I don't even really have Twitter on my phone, but because I'm signed up to it, I still get emails. You jokingly make comments and then people really take it and run with it right around the corner, right away. The one guy that made the comment, "It seems like the Packers are moving on from Mike Neal," and I said, "You're 100% right!" That's a sarcastic remark. I don't know that. I don't know what the future holds. For you to say that, how would you know that? You're not sitting in a room with the GM, so you don't know that either. As soon as I say that, people take it and run with it. I guess being a scout like Eliot, why are you so hell-bent on what's going on with Twitter? I don't get that. If that bothered him, then that's his own personal issue. I don't have an issue. I'm completely happy and satisfied with the way my life is to this point. I've been blessed to play football this long.
Q. When you see a guy like B.J. Raji walk away, is it natural for that to just cross your mind and wonder, "Should I be walking away, too?"
A. There's so many things that can be said about the reasons why B.J. decided to do that. I think people get so caught up in the fact that football players are supposed to play football. I think people overreact when football players decide that they just want to stop playing football. You've got to think of the job and the pressures. There's so many things that factor into one guy deciding to do that, not just from the physical standpoint of the concussions or the CTE — all the things you read about. I think that these are real people. These are real people that live in real environments that have real lives outside of football. This is only just a stitch of what you're going to do for the rest of your life. So you have to take all that into account, and you pretty much move from there. I'm not shocked by it. I know B.J. will come back and play football. I just talked to B.J. yesterday. I know that he's in a good place. He had to do what he had to do, and that's completely understandable. Hey, hats off to him if he doesn't come back. He made a good career for himself. But I'm pretty sure that's not going to be the last time you see B.J. in pads.
Q. When you mention the concussions and CTE and things like that — and different guys will answer this in different ways — I know many of you love football, but how do you not at least get nervous or think about those things when you're playing this sport?
A. I mean, honestly there are guys that do and there are guys that don't. I think you have to just be cognizant of this is what you chose to do. For me, I don't really think about that because I'm the person that I believe what you focus on the most are the things that will present themselves to you in life. If you're worried about getting hurt, if you're thinking about it all the time, you're putting negative energy in the atmosphere and it's going to get back to you. I think you just have to roll with the punches and you have to understand that at the end of the day, there's a plan set in place for your life, you know what I'm saying? Whatever happens, happens. You just have to deal with it as it comes. Once you understand that, you can always look for the positive in a situation. I think no matter what the outcome is, you always take a positive one. Different guys feel differently about it. For me, that's not something I think about. I just try to play the game and enjoy it because I enjoy playing football. That's pretty much it.
Q. Did you go out and visit the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions?
A. Absolutely. I've taken visits and I've seen different places and things that people have to offer. Like I said, I don't rush the decision.
Q. When you talk about wanting to play next season, where do you think you are in the timeline? I know you're not in anybody's front office so it's hard to say, but do you think it will be until closer to training camp when you sign? Or do you think a deal is more likely to happen in the next couple weeks?
A. I'm not really picky either or. I guess if you look at it like this: The benefit of me signing a deal closer to training camp is at least I will gain the whole offseason to specifically work on things tailored to me and making me a better football player and not have to be in an organization doing things they want you to do. But the negative to that is if I sign in the next couple weeks, everything will be (about) speed. I'll be behind and I would have to catch up. I think going into training camp gives me a fresh start. But I don't want to have to wait anything past training camp. I don't want to have to wait anything past June or July. At that point, I want to get there, I want to get acquainted and I want to know where I'm going to be and how things run....As long as I know I'm in good shape, my health is good and I'm ready to play football, that's the only things that matter to me.
Q. Did any of the visits or discussions you've had with other teams end up with contract offers? Or were they more about feeling each other out?
A. A little bit of both.
Q. So you've had some things to consider?
A. Yeah, I've had some things to consider. But I'm not making a move because I need to, I'm going to make the right move. Whatever the right move is, that's the move I'm going to make.
Q. Looking back on your career, you've obviously gone through a pretty big physical transformationfrom the way you played in college to the role you play now. Depending on which team you end up with, and you might not necessarily have your choice, but is there a position you like or that you wish you could play moving forward?
A. I think if you look at me in Green Bay, and I think what people don't really realize, is that first and foremost you have to address the issue of playing outside linebacker. You don't typically take 310-pound defensive tackles and make them outside linebackers in the NFL. Anybody that can say any remarks about that, that's an extraordinary switch of positions. That's a lot of learning, it's a big difference, it's a completely different mannerism that you have to carry about yourself — learning about the position, how you approach the game, it's very difficult. To address that, I think over the past three years I've done a phenomenal job being able to turn myself into an outside linebacker. And I don't want to backtrack. I think that I've been able to produce at that position. I think that that position helped save my career, gave me the ability to do what I like to do, gave me the ability to use my athleticism. It gave me just so many different opportunities to be able to create things for myself that I don't want to go backwards. But at the same time, if you look at all the positions that I've played while I was in Green Bay — right outside linebacker, left outside linebacker, rush 3-technique, sometimes being off the ball on the inside — I enjoyed it all. Any position I'm asked to play, I'll play it. But I'm not going to gain any more weight. Where I'm at is where I'm at.
Q. The NFL is a business, but did it sting at all that the Packers re-signed Nick Perryand didn't extend an offer to you?
A. It's like a yes and a no. The way that I've been brought up in this life is that you can't ask for anything if you have jealousy in your heart. So if I have to put it that way, I would say that I'm extremely happy for Nick. He just had a kid. It's difficult to transition when you just have a newborn and you're going from one city to the next. When you've been somewhere and you want to prove yourself because you haven't had the opportunity to, I think that all worked out fairly for Nick. You know, I can't say that from that standpoint it hurt. I mean, look at the history of how Green Bay does things. They re-sign the younger players, they re-sign guys that they feel have potential regardless of stats and playing time. I think the way they structured Nick's deal is fair for both of them, you know what I'm saying? You just have to look at everything that's around him. If Nick brings his tendencies, then he'll be a hell of a football player and he can accomplish a lot more. But I think that they just played it safe, and you can't be mad. That's just the way it is. Green Bay really doesn't let first-, second-, third-round draft picks walk away after their first deal with them without extending another offer to come back. You know what I'm saying? That's just the history of how they've done things in the past couple years. That was to be expected. They've let a lot of players walk out after they've done phenomenal things. You have to expect that, you know what I'm saying? It didn't really stun me. I just thought at least they would make an offer to me. But I didn't get that. So why complain? God shuts one door to open another. That's beyond me now. That's looking in the rearview mirror.
Q. From the back and forth your agents had with the Packers, and from the visits you've taken and discussions you've had with other teams, how much — if at all — do you think the Al Jazeera report has influenced your free-agency process?
A. I think it influenced it heavily, heavily, heavily, heavily, heavily. And that's just from meeting with other teams and hearing what other teams have to say. You have to take everything into account. If you don't, then you're kind of cheating yourself out of the whole ordeal. I think that when you look at it, out of all the people that they had reported that are playing in the NFL, who was the only one that was a free agent? It was me. You know what I'm saying? You don't see guys getting cut or anything like that because they've already signed a contract. I was the only one hitting the free-agent market out of that group of guys. I think that that affected it because most teams wonder what is the league's position on everything. To be quite honest with you, I would never even know. Never once have I been contacted by the NFL about anything, about what's going on. Not once. Not one other thing — aside from maybe articles that people have written — has ever been brought to my doorstep about it. With that being said, I don't know how teams take to that. When they ask me about it I'm like, "You're worried about it, but I'm not because nobody has ever brought it to me and asked me exactly what's going on or how do you think it affects you." It came and it went, you know what I'm saying? But I think it definitely has to (influence free agency). They have to take that type of stuff into consideration. It's like drafting a guy with an injury. You know he won't be available for the first half of the season. Well, what if they suspend us guys? You know they won't be available. So I think that you have to take all those things into consideration and you make your decisions from there. I will say that I think it negatively affected free agency. But I'm not going to lose sleep over it.
Q. This time of year you'd typically be up in Green Bay working out. What have you been up to the last few weeks and months? How have you tried to stay in shape and what kinds of stuff have you been doing?
A. A lot. I've been working out a lot and just getting my kids situated, man. Just trying to make sure the kids are OK and just trying to make sure I'm situated in my own home, making sure that everything in my family and my immediate family is going OK. I worked out at Synergy Sports Performance (in Green Bay) for a while when I was there. Now I'm back in Florida, just getting everything moved in within the last two or three weeks has been my main priority, making sure that everything is settled because who knows what could happen? Just making sure that I have my personal life in place and I'm ready to maneuver from that perspective. That's been my main focus, man. But I've been doing things to help me out a lot. I've been working with Dr. Leon Mellman, a crazy, crazy, crazy nutritionist guy, just making sure I take a different approach so I can add years to my career. Everything has been going good, man. I honestly don't have one single complaint about anything. Typically I would be up in Green Bay working out right now, but you know what, I'm not, and I think that's actually helping me more than hurting me. I mean, let's be real: What percentage of veterans actually go to OTAs and enjoy it? Not that many. You go because you have to or you go because you have a workout bonus. If they didn't have workout bonuses for veterans, I guarantee half of those guys wouldn't show up anyway. I think it's working out in my favor, actually.
Q. Is there any chance you come back with the Packers, or is that done?
A. There's just no one way to see it. You just never know. I've talked to a lot of guys around there when I was (still in Green Bay). I've talked to some of the coaches. They don't have anything to do with it. Some of the coaches are like, "Well how could you not get back? What's the deal?'" I've talked to old coaches, Kevin Greene, just — the business will shock you every single year. There's absolutely nothing you can do about it because you're not in control. Once you learn how to deal with that and cope with that, then you look at everything from a different perspective. That being said, I wholeheartedly don't know. I might get a call from them tomorrow. Or I may never get a call from them. You just don't know. But the thing is, I wake up and my life is my life. I'm not expecting it. I expect to play football. I expect to play at a high level. I expect to be healthy. I can't anticipate who calls me tomorrow.