B.J. Raji may be avoiding 'Brown out'
B.J. Raji didn't know about Gilbert Brown's career with the Green Bay Packers, but he was headed on a similar trajectory.
Brown was a once-dominating player who'd eaten his way out of the NFL by age 28. He eventually saw the light, improved his diet and workout regimen, and revived his career for a few more years. But what should have been some of his best seasons instead were lost.
Raji, 28, also was a key young defensive lineman on a Packers Super Bowl team who appeared headed down a similar road. But going by the eyeball test this offseason, he appears to have committed to a better diet and conditioning a little earlier than Brown to take better advantage of his remaining prime and extend his career.
"In college they tried to teach me a little bit (about healthy habits), but I was too young and I wasn't ready to listen," Raji said after a Packers OTA practice this week. "Just realizing that I'm trying to prolong my career, and obviously health is a big part of that, and I want to be the best person and the best player I can be."
You might or might not remember, but in 1995 and '96, Brown was dominant in the middle of the Packers' defensive line. He wasn't a Pro Bowler but probably should have been. He was nearly as important to the Packers' defense, which led the NFL in fewest yards and points allowed in '96, as Reggie White.
A friend of mine worked on the sidelines at Lambeau Field on game day and talked in those seasons of hearing opposing offensive coaches constantly shouting, "Where's 93? Find 93." That's the ultimate sign of respect. Brown was the player they worried about.
That ended in 1997. Brown was a free agent after the Packers won the Super Bowl the previous season, and the Packers re-signed him to a three-year deal that averaged a little more than $2 million a season. That was big money at the time.
But at age 26, he wasn't the same player. Always a huge man — his listed playing weight was 345 pounds, but he no doubt weighed more — he was even bigger in '97. Offenses stopped calling out his number. In the Super Bowl, Denver's small, cut-blocking linemen wore him down and neutralized him.
Two years later, at the age of 28, he'd eaten himself out of the NFL. The Packers didn't try to re-sign him, and no one else did either. Then he saw the light and salvaged his career.
After a year out of football, Brown in 2001 moved in with his former strength and conditioning coach at Kansas State, improved his eating and workout habits, and returned to the Packers. He played three more seasons, then retired after playing through a torn biceps in 2003.
A nice career, to be sure. But he left plenty of good football on the table.
Similarly, Raji was a key player in the middle of the Packers' defense during their Super Bowl run in the 2010 season. He was as important to their defense as anyone during that run.
But each season thereafter was a little worse than one before. By 2013, he wasn't anything like the disruptive player he'd been, and the free-agent market in the 2014 offseason confirmed. So rather than sign low-ball long-term offers, he did a one-year, $4 million deal with the Packers.
That's also when he started paying more heed to diet and conditioning. Then after tearing biceps in training camp last year he deepened the commitment, including adding yoga to his regimen.
"Three years ago, I was only able to do a certain amount of things as hard," Raji said of his stamina, "but now I'm doing my lifting, cardio and yoga, reflexology — a lot of the things I didn't have the energy to do on a daily basis because my energy wasn't where it needed to be."
Anyone who follows the NFL should be wary of the spate of offseason stories about players and the changes they've made in the offseason. A daily look at news-collating websites such as ProFootballTalk.com reveals that everyone's new workout and diet have made all the difference in the world. Every player is in the best shape of his life.
Occasionally, no doubt, it's true. Sometimes a change in diet or regimen or especially commitment matters, a lot. But more often, changes bring only improvements at the margins.
Still, in Raji's case, I wonder if it's more the former than the latter.
There's no way to know right now, based only on non-padded, offseason practices. Raji's also always been a fast starter in training camp, so the true test will come later in camp and the regular season.
But Raji looks a little different. He wouldn't disclose his weight — the Packers, as usual, list him at 337 pounds — but while he's still a very big man, he's slimmer in his face and body than last year.
He's also set a new goal. He's saying openly that he wants to play as long as Pat Williams, the former Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings run-stopper who played until age 38.
"I made up my mind last season after I got hurt, that's what jump-started this yoga and everything," he said.
The Packers have played a role as well. Raji credits Mark Lovat, the team's strength and conditioning coach, and Adam Korzun, the nutritionist coach Mike McCarthy hired last year, for their help.
Also, last year McCarthy had Raji attend practice, meetings and road games despite his season-ending injury in training camp. That's often not the case with players who are out for the season. And after Raji underwent surgery on his torn biceps tendon, he had to take part in weekly weigh-ins, and says he made each.
Raji wasn't under contract for 2015 at the time, but the Packers knew they'd be trying to re-sign him. They did and now are hoping for the player more like he was in 2010 than 2013.
"That was one of (defensive line coach Mike Trgovac's) first speeches to me when I came here, him seeing good players letting their weight get out of control," Raji said. "His words were, 'They eat themselves out of the league.' I just remember him constantly saying that to me and constantly being on me. That had a lot of impact as well."
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