GREEN BAY – An hour later, some of the details were still fuzzy. Jace Sternberger, the rookie tight end, was either in midair, or he’d just landed. There may or may not have been a few preceding cheap shots, an escalation.
What remained certain was the hit Houston Texans rookie cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr. laid on Sternberger, dislodging his helmet, was unnecessary. A referee standing behind the play on Ray Nitschke Field quickly tossed his yellow penalty flag. What’s worse: Johnson stood over Sternberger, flexing.
The Green Bay Packers weren’t going to have that.
In unison, the entire Packers end zone sprinted toward Johnson, like a rolling wave. Houston defenders supported Johnson, because that’s what teammates do, but they knew their guy was wrong. After practice, Texans coach Bill O’Brien said the play wasn’t a big deal, but other than one special-team rep near the end of practice, Johnson did not return to the field.
“It was time for Lonnie to head to the showers,” O’Brien said.
The calmest person involved, perhaps other than O’Brien, was Sternberger. Given an opportunity to share how he felt about the hit, the rookie didn’t. “That’s just football at the end of the day,” Sternberger said. He was treated for a concussion, then cleared to return to practice.
“I’m fine,” he said. “It was more that I got the wind knocked out of me.”
Inside the Packers locker room, Johnson’s hit – and his taunt – remained a big deal. Left tackle David Bakhtiari said “you’ve got to be a pro” when asked about Johnson. Tight end Jimmy Graham called the play “absolutely ridiculous” and mocked Johnson for bringing “the hit stick” to practice.
“Personally speaking,” right guard Billy Turner said, “I’m going to stand up for my teammates regardless if you’re offense, defense, special teams. If you punk one of my players, I’m going to be right here behind you, backing you up. It doesn’t matter who you are, and it doesn’t matter when it happens.
“So if they want to play like that, and they want to take side shots – which we were told wasn’t going to happen – you know what? You keep seeing some of your players out there getting laid out in the middle of the field like they laid 87 out. After that, it was just a wrap.”
The Texans weren’t supposed to play like that Monday. Neither were the Packers. Coach Matt LaFleur, who hobbled with his walking boot down toward the scrum, told his players before practice not to take any cheap shots. He has set a zero-tolerance policy against fighting so far in camp, an expectation that was no different with another team in town.
But LaFleur did not tell his players to roll over and play dead.
“He was clear with us,” Turner said, “and we were clear with him: If they started taking shots on our players, then we’re not just going to stand there. We’re not punks by any means, and that’s what happened. So we were men of our word, just like he was a man of his word.”
Not a single Packers player said they were surprised a fight ensued Monday. Even if the hope was to have a clean practice, in reality there was never a great chance. With two teams involved, intensity increases. Tempers flare.
All it takes is one young player, eager to impress, to light the match.
“I expected that,” receiver Davante Adams said. “I just didn’t know when it was going to come, or who was going to get hit. You look around the league, in all the joint practices, it’s always something like that is going to happen. Because the only thing that stops people from doing stuff like that in a game is getting fined, or getting a penalty. You don’t get either one of those in practice. So it’s bound to happen.”
That the fight happened in the first of two joint practices sets up an interesting Tuesday. If the Packers thought a fight was inevitable Monday, what does that mean for the encore? Asked if he’d be surprised to see another fight Tuesday, Turner simply answered: No.
He’ll be ready.
“Keep your head on a swivel,” Turner said. “Strap up and be ready to go again.”