From the Far Hash: The Comeback of Johnny Jolly
LL Cool J once rapped, “Don’t call it comeback, I’ve been here for years.” The same can almost be said about Packers defensive lineman Johnny Jolly. He looked in mid-season form during the most recent preseason contest against the St. Louis Rams, and certainly not like someone who has been completely out of football for the last three seasons. He was disruptive, moving the line of scrimmage, batting down passes, and intercepting passes. He also showed some nimbleness with his Eddie Lacy-like spin move during the interception return.
Up to this point, Jolly appears to be the feel good story of the 2013 training camp. We’ve heard so many positive comments about him from his teammates and head coach Mike McCarthy. They all say the same thing, albeit a little bland and cliche up to this point, about how good big men are hard to find, how Jolly’s a great locker room guy, and how he’s done a great job turning his life after being sentenced to six years in prison. He served less than one year behind bars and vowed to get on track with his life. During 2012-2013 the off season, Jolly was welcomed back to the Packers as an extreme long shot to make the team.
While all of those comments may be true, I think there’s more to the story about welcoming Johnny Jolly back into the mix. Good big men are hard to find, but Ted Thompson seems to find diamonds in the rough via the draft. He also really values character before drafting players, so why would the Packers take a chance on a convicted felon with a codeine addiction? Isn’t this just asking for problems? Isn’t there enough of a track record in the NFL to show that dark clouds usually follow players forever? Remember Lawrence Phillips? Maurice Clarett?
I think the Johnny Jolly reclamation project is a more personal affair than it is just filling out a roster. Sure, the NFL is a business measured in wins and losses, but it’s still an extension of humanity. People and emotions are involved. I think Mike McCarthy is the sole reason we’re seeing Jolly back in his number 97 jersey. I truly believe that the head coach whispered into Thompson’s ear, or even twisted his arm, to give Jolly an audition this preseason.
If we know one thing about Mike McCarthy, it’s he’s a fiercely loyal guy. At times, this loyalty may have been his undoing. Last year, he refused to give up on Mason Crosby, even if it meant the possibility of not winning a game on the final drive. He still refuses to give up on Dom Capers as his defensive coordinator, even though they got torched in the postseason three out of the last four years. He refuses to completely give up on Graham Harrell. He is now showing that loyalty to Johnny Jolly.
So, where is this loyalty to Jolly coming from? McCarthy’s first year in Green Bay as head coach was 2006, and it was his first head coaching gig anywhere in his life, ever. This truly had to mean a lot to the journeyman. During the same time, in 2006, Ted Thompson drafted Johnny Jolly in the sixth round. Jolly was part of McCarthy’s first training camp and first team completely under his control. As a college professor, I can relate to this. I can still remember just about every face and name of all the students in my first classroom that was completely “mine.” I am grateful for them, and I will fight for them and support them wherever they go in life. On the flip side, I spent many years being a teaching assistant while training to have my own classroom. I honestly can’t remember many names or faces of those students because they didn’t mean as much to me. That first team to McCarthy had to have been special to him as a first time head coach, and Jolly was there with McCarthy from the start.
After the 2008 season, the outlook for the Packers wasn’t as optimistic as we’ve become accustomed to over the last four seasons. While the thought may have never entered Ted Thompson’s head, Packers fans were screaming everywhere to have McCarthy removed as coach. Brett Favre was in New York, and the Packers defense couldn’t stop anyone. Things certainly were tenuous.
Then, before the 2009 season, McCarthy made a drastic change, which was perhaps the direct result of trying to save his job. He replaced embattled defensive coordinator Bob Sanders with Dom Capers. Coordinator changes are risky business, and can lead to head coaches eventually losing their own jobs. Just ask Lovie Smith, Mike Singletary, and Andy Reid. To make matters even more precarious, the hiring of Capers transformed the Packers from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 one. The NFL isn’t like college and can’t simply recruit all new players each year to help adopt a new scheme. They have to build around players on the current roster. They have to ask players to switch positions and play out of their comfort zone. It takes time, and McCarthy bet the farm in 2009.
Well, the hiring of Capers may have very well saved McCarthy’s job. The defense improved from 21st in 2008 to second in 2009. That alone may be the reason McCarthy is fiercely loyal to Capers. The revamped defense may have granted McCarthy a stay of execution, and then contributed to the Super Bowl victory that cemented him as a Packers immortal.
Johnny Jolly was there for the 4-3 to 3-4 transition. He helped it go smoothly because of his athletic and versatile play on the defensive front. Jolly was there. He contributed. He earned that respect and loyalty.
Jolly is once again being counted on to make another transition. The last two seasons, the Packers have made early exits from the playoffs. While the offense isn’t perfect and without blame, it seems much of the criticism falls on the defense. This year, the focus has been to rebuild it and improve it if the Packers hope to make another legitimate run. Jolly is part of that, too.
Johnny Jolly was there for two major transitions, and those transitions were successful. It seems completely logical that Mike McCarthy is counting on his reliable workhorse to complete this next fixer-up. Along the way, Jolly is also a reclamation project himself. It seems like the perfect partnership. Jolly has moved from a roster long shot to a legitimate possibility to make the final 53-man roster.
It seems like most of the Packers nation has embraced Jolly during his comeback. If you have not yet, consider a few thoughts. We all have addictions and vices. I’d be willing to bet most of the Packers nation has an addiction of some sort, whether it’s caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, sugar, Twitter, or Facebook. From a legal standpoint, his addiction was seedy and criminal. From a humanistic standpoint, he’s not all that different from the rest of our personal weaknesses. But, he has shown true remorse and has tried in earnest to make it right and live a clean life.
I’m certainly rooting for Johnny Jolly. I hope you do, too.
Featured image by LPDrew (Creative Commons).