GREEN BAY – Tramon Williams hasn’t forgotten the play. Russell Wilson’s rainbow loft from 35 yards out, Jermaine Kearse’s sprint inside against Cover 0, the despair as Williams landed in CenturyLink Field’s end zone. Each detail remains etched in memory.
It has been more than three years since that overtime drive, that touchdown catch. Williams has played for two other teams since then, but his last snap with the Green Bay Packers stays with him. In the 2014 NFC Championship game, Kearse beat Williams inside to catch Wilson’s game-winning touchdown pass, sending the Seattle Seahawks to the Super Bowl, and the Packers to arguably their most crushing defeat ever.
Now that he’s back, returning to that precipice has weighed on Williams’ mind.
“It’s one of the things that I do talk about,” Williams said this spring. “… Green and gold runs through my blood. To walk off the field on my last play as a Packer getting scored on to go to the Super Bowl, it was a tough way to end it. But God puts you in different situations. I ended up leaving, and there was a reason why I left — for me to grow.
“I feel over these last three years, I’ve grown so much more than I would’ve probably ever done while I was here. Now, it’s time for me to come back here and get things in order. I’m up for that challenge. I believe that we will be back in the Big Dance when it’s all said and done.”
With the Packers' secondary starved for solid cornerback play, it’s worth remembering former general manager Ted Thompson decided to let Williams walk in free agency after 2014, at least in part because the defensive backfield was heading in the right direction.
Sam Shields was a true, No. 1 corner. In Casey Hayward, the Packers had another veteran entering the final year of his contract. That spring, the Packers loaded up at cornerback through the draft, selecting Damarious Randall in the first round and Quinten Rollins in the second.
The plan was to have a nice mix of veteran experience with developing talent. Then things went sideways, both for reasons within and outside the Packers' control. Shields’ career in Green Bay ended because of concussions. The Packers let Hayward walk in free agency a year later, only to watch him become one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks. Randall and Rollins never matched their pedigree.
A secondary that was among the NFL’s best in 2014 and 2015 has been among its worst in the two seasons since.
Which brings things to the present. It’s fair to wonder whether Williams, entering the twilight of his career at age 35, can perform to the two-year, $10 million contract he signed this spring. It’s also clear the Packers are paying him for more than his on-field production.
“Tramon brings a whole different level of experience,” coach Mike McCarthy said, “that we’ve never had here. Never. And I say that with great respect to Al Harris and Charles Woodson and those guys, because when they were here, they brought such – not only being Pro Bowl-, Hall of Fame-type players. They bring experiences from other places, and brought it into our program, and it was a huge part of our success early.
“But Tramon, his experience is so unique. He came in here and was on the practice squad, worked his way up, and went through the program. Had some great years there in the early years, and then left and has a whole other set of experience, and now he’s able to bring that back, see the changes we’ve made since then. So he just brings a whole different perspective of leadership and experience to that room.”
With Williams back in the fold, the Packers essentially are resetting their failed plan from three years ago. Williams and Davon House, who re-signed on a one-year deal, are the veteran experience. Kevin King, along with first- and second-round rookies Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, are the developing talent.
Williams is aware of his role. He also knows his leadership will be maximized not by what he does in the locker room, but how he performs on the field.
“I’m up for that challenge,” Williams said. “That’s one of the reasons why I’m here. But I don’t think they would have just signed me if I couldn’t play, you know? The first reason is because I can play still. The second reason is that I’ve always been that way with guys.
“I played that role a little bit in Cleveland and even in Arizona. I was still the older guy in the room. I had some good players in there, but guys still looked up to me. I’m used to playing that role.”