JS reporter Tom Silverstein and ex-Packers All-Pro safety LeRoy Butler discuss Brett Hundley's timing with receivers, Mike McCarthy's playcalling, and the failings of the defense. Bill Schulz
GREEN BAY – Damarious Randall had a plane to catch. It was the first day of the Green Bay Packers' bye week, which can be as confused as the first day of spring break, and Randall was trailing the mass exodus out of northeast Wisconsin.
He went home this week, back to Florida, where Randall’s only connection to football will come when he watches his “little nephew” play. But he couldn’t forget the ball. It was still stashed in his locker almost 24 hours after the Packers lost to the New Orleans Saints. Randall took a few steps toward the exit that leads to the player parking lot, then remembered.
He smiled as he retrieved the ball from his cubby.
“Add this to my collection,” Randall said, twirling in his hand the football he picked from Saints quarterback Drew Brees. “An interception off a Hall of Famer.”
It was Randall’s third interception in as many weeks, but the 2015 first-round pick, a player criticized for his outsized ego, was not gloating. A couple minutes earlier, Randall was saying the best interceptions come in wins. An interception in a loss, he said, isn’t as rewarding.
But he couldn’t deny this ball was special. Growing up in Pensacola, Randall watched Brees throughout his childhood in the Florida Panhandle. His father, Randall explained, was a Saints fans. So although the ball might be the newest addition to his collection, Randall already has designated a caretaker.
“I’m giving it to my dad,” he said, walking to the parking lot.
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The image of Randall leaving the Packers' locker room, football tucked under his arm, was striking. A reminder there’s a personality underneath the helmet and shoulder pads.
Randall was just 22 when general manager Ted Thompson made him the only first-round cornerback he has drafted with the Packers, selecting him with the 30th overall pick. Now 25, Randall’s maturity at times has been questioned.
He is perhaps the Packers' most polarizing player. Talented but inconsistent. Charismatic but haughty. Four weeks ago, coach Mike McCarthy sent Randall to the locker room after he allowed a touchdown seconds before halftime.
Randall has an interception in each of the three games since.
“You have to say he’s responded very well,” McCarthy said. “He had a huge play in the Dallas game. That was a big-time play (against the Saints), too. You take points off the board. He’s kind of kept his nose down and has gone about his work. I’ve been impressed.”
It would presumptuous to suggest Randall’s sideline dismissal was a pivot point in his personal growth. But that last part — keeping his nose down — is important.
The Packers need Randall to play well. When healthy and inspired, Randall might be the biggest playmaker in their secondary. Through three turbulent years, he leads the team in interceptions since being drafted.
The doubters have followed, but Randall doesn’t pay them mind.
“I’m going to shut them up,” he said, “whenever I end up leading the league in picks come Week 17. I think that will be a better feeling.”
It’s his goal every year, Randall said, to lead the league in interceptions. It also sounds outlandish, until you check the league rankings, and realize no cornerback in the NFL has more interceptions than Randall’s three.
Only Buffalo Bills safety Micah Hyde — the former Packer — and Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard have more, both with four.
But Randall also is also among the Packers' biggest conundrums. Cornerback is an unforgiving position, where even the slightest missteps are exposed. For all of Randall’s big plays, there remain too many breakdowns.
Four weeks ago, it would not have been a stretch to view Randall’s career at a crossroads. So these three straight interceptions, the first time since high school he has had a streak that long, would seem significant.
Randall simply shrugged.
“I didn’t feel like I was playing bad,” Randall said. “Even before the Chicago incident, the only real kind of bad game I thought I had was the Falcons, and obviously it was evident. But I felt like I’ve been playing well throughout the season. So to now finally get rewarded for playing well, and for just being in the right spot at the right time, it is pretty refreshing.”
In Atlanta, Randall had the misfortune of lining up against All-Pro receiver Julio Jones. He allowed three catches for 66 yards, and the Packers soon moved him away from Jones.
Randall allowed the touchdown against Chicago, then was beaten for a touchdown the next week against Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant. In Minnesota, Randall was the last line of defense with Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon barreling toward the end zone on a screen pass, but failed to disengage from receiver Michael Floyd’s block near the goal line.
Yet since the sideline incident, Randall has scored as many touchdowns as he has allowed in coverage. The playmaking he showed as a rookie has returned. This is what coaches had in mind after the Chicago game, when the Packers publicly supported Randall.
There’s no guarantee Randall’s high level of play is here to stay, but the Packers have been pleased with his past three weeks. Perhaps the former first-round corner has started to figure things out.
“I don’t think I felt much pressure,” Randall said. “Just kind of being where you’re supposed to be, and just kind of doing the right things. That’s just something I’ve been focusing on, and just kind of taking the negativity things out of my life.
“My biggest thing was, I’ve just been focusing on being consistent. That’s just every day, even showing up to practice ready to go. Every snap, being ready to play.”