Let me start with a philosophical question. If you remain at the same speed, but everyone around you has slowed down, are you going faster?

No, I’m not talking about Albert Einstein and light speed. But, there is a scene in the movie “Days of Thunder” when crew chief Harry Hogge yelled at driver Cole Trickle because he thought the car was being driven too fast, which was going to burn up the tires. It turned out that Cole wasn’t driving any faster; rather, everyone else was driving slower, giving the illusion that Cole was faster.

File that thought in the back of your mind for a few minutes. What does this have to do with A. J. Hawk? I’ll build up to that.

This off season, the blogosphere has been blowing up about A. J. Hawk ever since Desmond Bishop got released by the Packers. It’s almost as if his release was pitted as an A. J. vs. Desmond argument, even though it had more to do with Brad Jones being healthy and Desmond most likely not being cleared for play.

Whether or not the criticism of A. J. Hawk is fair, there are some valid points to be discussed. Ever since A. J. was selected 5th overall in the 2006 draft, ahead of Vernon Davis, Haloti Ngata, and Nick Mangold, much has been made of his on-field performance. He’s been a very serviceable middle linebacker, but he hasn’t really lived up to the superstar status expected from a 5th overall pick. Yet, he has remained the starter for all but a handful of occasions ever since joining the Packers.

The biggest gripes against A. J. are his lack of game-changing plays. Since entering the league, he has only forced two fumbles, recovered four fumbles, and intercepted eight passes. Fans like to point out he always seems to be a fraction of a second late to every play. After watching many games over the years, I will agree with that. A. J., even though he has lots of tackles, consistently seems to be just a hair late the party over and over again.

Despite his lack of game-changing plays, Mike McCarthy, Dom Capers, Winston Moss, and Ted Thompson still really like A. J. and are content with him being the starter. We’ve heard all kinds of reasons, with some of them bordering on apologetic, including:

  • He’s assignment-sure. He rarely makes mistakes.
  • He lines up the rest of the defense. He’s like a coach on the field.
  • He’s rarely hurt. Superstars are no good if they’re never on the field while they nurse injuries. A. J. is reliably on the field every game.
  • He’s a team-first guy.
  • He’s a great locker room guy.
  • He’s never been in trouble off of the field.
  • Fans have unrealistic expectations. He does everything he’s asked to do in the scheme.

All of these reasons may be true. But, this is the year the Packers have to put up or shut up. The reality is the Packers released a more explosive linebacker in Desmond Bishop, and Brad Jones is still largely an unknown quantity from a season-long perspective. This is the year the A. J. has to take a step forward and make some more game-changing plays. The talking points and excuses have to end.

This year, there may be faintest and weakest source of optimism. I’ve heard “insanity” defined as repeating the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result. We’ve gone insane waiting for that major breakout year for A. J. But, we have one more insane reason to expect something different this year. Perhaps A. J. will be faster this year. Maybe that speed will result in more plays.

The 2013 NFL season is the first time in years that all players will be required to wear knee and thigh pads. This is part of Roger Goodell’s attempt to make the game safer. Many players do not wear leg pads, which at first glance is quite shocking considering how violent the game is. In fact, Roger claims that NBA players wear more leg protection, which is also completely voluntary, than NFL players do.

Why would NFL players voluntarily not wear leg protection? Most likely because it gives some advantage, and that advantage is speed. Let’s face it, the NFL is a numbers game. It’s a game of inches. Fractions of a second can mean draft position and millions of dollars.

A linebacker running a 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds might be a first round draft choice (like A. J. Hawk and Clay Matthews). However, dropping into the 4.7′s is the difference between a first-round grade and second-round grade (like Manti Te’o). At the combine, Te’o ran a 4.8, and there were shouts from the rooftops of yet another red flag. It was only his 4.7′s he posted during his pro day that stopped his free fall. The Packer’s Terrell Manning ran a 4.71, which dropped him to the fifth round, despite scouts liking him otherwise. If a linebacker runs in the 4.8′s or 4.9′s, he’ll probably go undrafted. Every fraction of a second matters.

A speed advantage can be the only reason an NFL player would voluntarily forgo protection. Their bodies are investments ranging in the millions of dollars, so neglecting protection for a speed advantage must be more beneficial to that million dollar payoff. In fact, several players have gone on the record saying they hate the new mandatory pad rule because it negates their game speed.

Where does A. J. Hawk fit into all of this? Well, he’s always worn leg pads since joining the NFL. Many of the tight ends, running backs, and receivers he is assigned to cover and tackle did not wear leg pads. Until now.

So, if A. J. remains at the same speed, but everyone around him has slowed down, is he going faster?

Is this a far stretch? Yes. Does this border on the insane? Yes. But, it’s to highlight my main point here. There can be no more excuses for A. J. Hawk after this season. He’s been a serviceable and competent middle linebacker, but he’s far from the elite player that accompany being the 5th overall selection. We’ve heard all the excuses for why he’s remained the starter for years with no real attempt to replace him via the draft or free agency. The only action regarding A. J. has been his consistent reduction in salary, but not in playing time.

After this season, he has no more excuses for his lack of game-changing plays. He has no more excuses for being that fraction of a second late.

The time is now.

 

 

 

 

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  • Satori

    AJ is AJ, and while he lost a few pounds and played a little lighter in 2012, I’m not sure how much difference it really makes. My guess is that Capers will stop asking him to do things he’s ill-suited for, such as covering speedy RBs or TEs

    We saw a hint of this last year vs the Saints – The Packers were acutely aware that N.O. would target Hawk with Sproles, same as they did the season before with great success

    But this time around Capers rolled out his “Dollar” package with only 3 LBs on the field ( 3-3-5) and the lone ILB was played by Jerron McMillian. This gave GB a player capable of hanging with the likes of Sproles in the passing game

    As GB tries to get faster and more athletic on defense, the role of the thumper ILB is devalued in GB going forward. Terrell Manning, Brad Jones and even a big safety like Sean Richardson or McMillian may find themselves playing the ILB role in certain packages going forward.

    AJ’s playing time vs certain teams and packages will diminish, and that’s part of why Bishop is gone too. I think the traditional body type and role of the ILB is being phased out as the offenses continue to evolve. The game keeps getting faster, so whether AJ is red-shifted or blue-shifted, sometimes its just better if somebody else is on the field.

  • Anita

    A Days of Thunder reference? You don’t see that every day.

    I’m more of a Talladega Nights chick, myself.

    Ricky Bobby: “I’m going fast again!”
    Cal Naughton, Jr.: “How fast is he going?”
    Lucius Washington: “26 miles per hour.”

    I’m kinda imaginging Hawk, McCarthy and Capers in this scene.

    • Jay

      Brilliant. Love it.