Kevin King pleased to still be with Packers after moving on from NFC title-game debacle
GREEN BAY - A long, painful silence filled the media auditorium inside Lambeau Field on Tuesday as Kevin King relived the lowest moment of his football career.
He bobbed back and forth, recreating the pass interference penalty in his mind. He stared blankly into nothing. He mumbled the play by play under his breath.
It had been seven months – to the day – since the Green Bay Packers lost the NFC title on their home grass. Two weeks later, the Packers watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hoist a Lombardi Trophy they believed should have been theirs. They were so close. Perhaps only a tug of the jersey away.
There are many moments that can change a championship game, but, as is often the case on this stage, one player received the brunt of blame. King surely knows where he stands with a large swath of Packers fans. It was his pair of first-half touchdowns allowed against Bucs quarterback Tom Brady that dug the Packers into a deep hole. They had one final chance to climb out. With 1:46 left in regulation, third-and-4 from the Tampa Bay 37-yard line, a play that will live in Packers infamy, King was called for the penalty.
Game over. Championship lost.
Seven months later, King was finally asked about the pass interference in his first interview since the title game. He stood in the silence as 13 … 14 … 15 seconds passed before offering a sheepish smile.
“I might have gotten a little bit of his shirt,” King said.
Those last 10 words encapsulated the entirety of a 20-minute interview after Tuesday morning’s practice. If you expected King to shirk talking about what happened seven months ago on the cusp of Super Bowl LV, perhaps shrugging it off to too much time passing by on the dawn of a new season, something very different happened.
King answered every question Tuesday with a candidness his unfortunate place in Packers history deserved. There was no shortage of topics to discuss. Since the title game, King has become a free agent and stayed with the team that drafted him, re-signing on a one-year, $5 million deal. He has watched his potential replacement in the Packers' secondary drafted in the first round. He then watched rookie Eric Stokes Jr. get most of the first-team reps in camp, King opening the month on the non-football-injury list with a balky hamstring before recently returning to the field.
Given how his last game ended, it would have been understandable if King left Green Bay once he hit the open market, searching for a fresh start with a clean slate. King said he was open to a change if another team made him a financial offer he couldn’t refuse, but in a market depressed by the COVID-19 pandemic, that wasn’t happening.
Once it became clear, King said he never considered anywhere else.
“I’m not the type of guy that tries to just sweep (expletive) under the rug,” King said. “You know, all right, let me get a fresh start somewhere? No. I want to finish this with my guys. The guys who believe in me, and the guys who continue to believe in me. I’m going to do my part to uphold my side of the bargain. We’re here to win a Super Bowl.
“If the money was all good, I was going to be a Packer, no doubt about it.”
Even before the title game, King’s inconsistencies did not endear himself with much of the fan base. It was always going to be an uphill struggle. The Packers infamously chose to trade out of the first round in 2017 instead of drafting Wisconsin star T.J. Watt. As Watt ascended to become one of the NFL’s best pass rushers with the Pittsburgh Steelers, that decision has looked only more dubious.
But the Packers had good reason to want King back. He has been a starting-caliber corner in the NFL when healthy, though that too has been inconsistent with injuries limiting King to playing only 41 of a possible 64 games through his first four regular seasons. General manager Brian Gutekunst said earlier this offseason his defense is better with King on the field. Before the title game in January, King had not allowed a touchdown pass since Week 3 of the 2020 season.
Coach Matt LaFleur said he had “a lot of discussion” with King before he chose to re-sign, especially regarding his role in new defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme.
“He was a guy,” LaFleur said, “I was super excited to get back. Unfortunately, I just think when you’re at that stage, and you have a bad play or whatnot – and that doesn’t rest solely on him, that’s the responsibility of myself and our coaching staff. He’s a resilient guy, he’s a smart guy. I think our value within our building is much higher, maybe, than public perception is out there.
“He’s a guy I have a lot of faith in, a lot of confidence in. I think when he’s healthy, he’s really tough to deal with. His length when he challenges at the line of scrimmage and gets his hands on them, that’s a tough matchup for most wide receivers.”
King’s title game was infamous for more than the penalty. It started with King allowing a touchdown against Pro Bowl receiver Mike Evans on the Bucs’ opening drive. King fell back on a bad habit, playing Tom Brady’s pass instead of his assignment, taking himself out of the coverage when he was in position to force an incompletion in the end zone.
With 8 seconds before halftime, King was on the end of a back-breaking touchdown against Bucs receiver Scotty Miller. From the 39-yard line, King got his eyes stuck in the backfield, watching Brady. Miller raced past King down the left sideline, catching Brady’s pass wide open at the goal line.
King had no details on either play Tuesday, but indicated both came down to not trusting himself enough.
"There were very little, intricate things that happened,” King said, “that I’m not even going to speak about, but it’s kind of like, ‘Ah, Kevin. You know it.’ Little things like that. It’s like, ah, regardless of what else is going on. You put the work in, you put the time in, you know. Certain things are just like, as a player out there you know what’s going to happen just in terms of football, in terms of knowing situations, knowing personnel. We go through all that stuff. It’s little things that I should trust in myself more.”
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In a preseason where his starting job may be threatened, King is sticking to that self-belief. He didn’t know what the Packers would do in their draft when he re-signed in March. A month later, Gutekunst drafted Stokes in the first round.
King said he does not begrudge Stokes' inclusion on the roster. It isn't the first time the Packers drafted a cornerback with a premium pick since he arrived as the first pick in the 2017 second round. A year later, Gutekunst selected Jaire Alexaander and Josh Jackson.
Even if it threatens his job, King said he's willing to be a veteran consult to his rookie teammate.
“I’ve never been one of those guys that tried to withheld knowledge from a guy,” King said. “He’s a great guy, he loves listening, he’s got a great ability, great talent. He’ll have a long, prosperous career in this league, no doubt about it. And I want to help with that. But I know what type of player I am. I know what type of player I can be, and only I really know that type of potential and capability.
“So just try to get better every day, try to help him get better. If he beats me out on that field, then they drafted the right guy.”
King doesn’t know if he’ll ever get over the NFC championship game. Some scars last forever. He’d like to think of his “failures” as a turning point in his career. King reiterated Tuesday a belief has long expressed, that he could become a top cornerback in the NFL.
By staying with his past, he might have given himself the best chance to move on. The Packers are on the short list of Super Bowl favorites with Aaron Rodgers returning behind center. King’s return also gives them a better defense, bolstering the secondary’s depth. When he evaluated his options this spring, he quickly realized returning to the Packers gave him the best chance of reaching a Super Bowl.
It may be the only way for King to requite what happened seven months ago.
“I feel like we have all the pieces here,” King said. “I feel like we have the pieces to get over that hump. For a lot of teams, that hump is becoming .500, or becoming a playoff team. Our hump, we’ve been to an NFC championship the last two years in a row. So our hump is the dance. So just wanting to do my part in that.”