It's time to state the obvious: The Green Bay Packers need to make A.J. Hawk a backup.
They took a big step toward that last week against New England when they replaced the nine-year starter with Sam Barrington at inside linebacker in their nickel defense. That's the personnel group they use most often — about two-thirds of their defensive snaps in most games.
But Hawk still played in their base 3-4, which they used unusually often against the Patriots. And his performance doesn't justify the role.
Hawk never was the playmaker suggested by his high draft status (No. 5 overall in 2006) and physical testing (a stunning 4.45-second 40 at his campus workout and 40-inch vertical jump at the NFL combine), but that's not the point. He'd been an iron-man starter since 2006 and at minimum through last season was good enough to be on the field in some defensive packages, regardless of whether he was changing games.
Not anymore. Now he looks small and slow for his position. The way he's diving at blockers' and runners' ankles when he fills holes, he looks like he's simply trying to survive out there.
In other words, unless he has an undisclosed injury, he's hit the wall at age 30.
That seems to happen more suddenly in the NFL than any other sport. Even last year, though the Packers didn't have any playmaking at inside linebacker, Hawk was OK.
But this season, most especially in the past two weeks, he looks like he's lost his quick-twitch ability. The most startling play was the Packers' first defensive snap at Minnesota two weeks ago. Kyle Rudolph ran a short crossing route, and the 230-pound Hawk couldn't catch the 259-pound tight end even after taking a highly favorable angle up the sideline. He just couldn't keep up.
The Packers already had dropped Hawk from their dime, and that play apparently went a long way toward convincing them to replace him in the nickel last week. And Barrington played fine. The second-year pro is about average sized (6-1, 240) for his position, and not a stud athlete, but he showed some body snap and thump as a tackler.
Barrington three times stood up Patriots halfback Shane Vereen at the line of scrimmage on runs, and on a third-and-2 in the first quarter, he popped LeGarrette Blount hard enough to prevent the powerful 250-pound running back from falling forward for the first down. Blount spent the rest of the day running over tacklers.
Hawk can't make those hits. At 230-235 pounds, he's anywhere from 10-20 pounds lighter than his playing weight for most of his career with the Packers. He never was one to take on blockers, but at the lighter weight he's still not explosive enough to go around or beat them to the spot.
Looking back at his 26 snaps last week against the Patriots, some were fine. On several runs, Hawk played downhill and into his gap well enough that the runner had to find another lane.
But there were far too many run plays on which even if he got to the hole, he gave himself up, dived at blockers' and runners' feet and came up with nothing. Or he moved laterally instead of downhill, and either was pushed out of the play or several yards back by an offensive lineman or tight end.
On one play in the second quarter, tight end Rob Gronkowski blocked Hawk back several yards, and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix had to push Hawk to the ground so he could make the tackle.
Dom Capers, the Packers' defensive coordinator, was coy earlier this week about Hawk's role going forward. He kept open the possibility of returning Hawk to the nickel depending on opponent and game plan.
But in reality, it's almost impossible to see how Capers could play Hawk ahead of Barrington in the nickel, or for that matter, ahead of Brad Jones. The Packers' nickel run defense improved dramatically when they moved Clay Matthews to inside linebacker, and improved again last week with Barrington replacing Hawk. How could they go back?
That still leaves the base 3-4 personnel. Last week they moved Matthews back to outside linebacker in the 3-4, which left Barrington and Hawk as the inside linebackers. But it's time to leave Matthews inside all the time, and Barrington in there with him.
Capers still can move Matthews around and line him up as an outside rusher on given calls — he's been doing that occasionally in the nickel anyway. Nick Perry was limited to only 10 defensive snaps last week coming off a shoulder injury, but he's getting healthier, and with him, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal, the Packers have three players to rotate at their two outside linebacker spots. They need Matthews more inside than outside.
Hawk has given the Packers nine years of wholehearted, low maintenance service. While his play hasn't matched his draft status, that's common in the NFL. On the other hand, he's proven uncommonly durable. He's missed only two of 140 games because of injuries, both because of a calf strain in 2011.
Especially for a team that suffered through a prolonged injury epidemic, from 2010 through last year, that's no small thing. No doubt that's the quality general manager Ted Thompson likes most in Hawk. He can count on the guy to answer the bell every week.
Hawk also is the de facto captain of the defense and wears the helmet speaker when he's on the field. On many plays, you can see him gesturing, relaying calls and moving players. There's value in that, as well.
But Barrington wore the helmet speaker occasionally last week, and the defense functioned fine. Safety Morgan Burnett could do it, too.
At a certain point, players just can't do it physically anymore. Hawk is there. For the rest of the season, he can still be a backup, ready if injuries hit. But there's no room for sentimentality or gratitude for past service when it comes to playing time. It's Barrington's turn now.
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.