Desmond Bishop longed to be even a part-time player.
With Nick Barnett out for the season, Hawk and Bishop have gotten their wish.
Hawk, the fifth overall pick of the 2006 draft who had been rendered a part-time player with the signing of Brandon Chillar in 2008, has been playing every snap for the last five weeks. Bishop, the Packers' perennial Mr. August because of his superlative play in training camp and preseason — and yearly disappearance once the regular season kicked off — has become an impact starter.
In fact, Hawk and Bishop have been so good that the Packers have barely missed Barnett, who led the team in tackles in five of his first seven seasons and was just seven tackles shy of John Anderson's franchise record of 1,020.
"I like what A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop have done so far," coach Mike McCarthy said before the Dallas game. "I think A.J. has been extremely consistent. He has excellent command of the defense, and Desmond, he's making plays. You always appreciated Desmond's anticipation and his ability to tackle and make plays. He's a good pressure player. But those two have been very consistent for us. Very pleased with their production and performance."
With Barnett, Hawk and Chillar, Bishop seemed destined for another season of covering kickoffs. Asked frequently about his predicament during training camp and the preseason, Bishop minced few words with reporters. He'd be starting if it wasn't for being a lowly sixth-round draft pick. He could do the job if given a legitimate shot. He'd welcome a trade to a team who would give him that shot.
Well, Bishop's gotten his shot. All he did is record double-digits tackles in his first four starts and a sack and forced fumble last week against Dallas in his fifth start. For the season, his 57 tackles are a career high, and he's added two sacks and a pick-six against Minnesota. That touchdown against Minnesota was the first by a Packers linebacker since Barnett's 95-yard interception return for a touchdown against New Orleans in 2005.
"Desmond's playing at a high level," inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said. "His production has been right up there with anything that Nick has done. Having those timely and impactful plays vs. Minnesota has been real key. I'm very pleased with his progress. I'm not going to compare Bishop to Barnett as far as what their production has been, but based upon getting the opportunity and the amount of plays that Bishop gets, he's doing an outstanding job."
Bishop's timing is impeccable, considering his four-year rookie contract will expire at the end of the season.
"I guess that's part of the motivation," Bishop said. "I think just doing something I love to do is the biggest thing. It feels good to be out there and helping contribute more. It's great. It's what I've been wanting to do, what I've always done on previous teams — speaking of college and high school. I'm enjoying it. Everything else will fall into place."
Joe Robbins/Getty Images
That was Bishop's last chance to start until this season.
"The thing that I'm most pleased with is Bishop is a highly competitive person," Moss said. "There were situations in the past in training camp and during the offseason that he would just compete at an extremely high level. He always thrived going up against the (Jermichael) Finleys, the (Greg) Jennings, the (Donald) Drivers in some special situations where he's had to match up against those guys in coverage. You can just always see the intense competitive spirit that he had. He would always compete against those guys very well. The thing that I'm pleased about is he's taken that on the practice field and that success there and he's been able to carry that over to the regular season. He's always had his success in the preseason but the preseason is a whole different ballgame. He's been able to take the regular season and improve on some of those inconsistencies that he's had in the past and has basically established himself as a legitimate impact player."
Hawk is making his impact in a different way. He's having arguably his best season on the field, which is saying something considering he didn't play a single snap in the season-opener against Philadelphia. With a team-high 78 tackles in nine games, he's only nine short of his full-season total from last year. His two interceptions have matched his career high and are tied for the NFL lead among linebackers.
Plus, he's replaced Barnett as the defense's signal-caller, a role that fits his cerebral personality. Not only is Hawk responsible for relaying in the coaches' call but he has to make adjustments on the fly to get everyone lined up against the offense's formation and tendencies. And he occasionally has to make the call when the headset cuts out with 15 seconds left on the play clock.
"He's playing at a high level," Moss said. "That's not a surprise. He played in more difficult situations that first year, when he was a rookie. We put him in a lot of situations from a coverage standpoint, matched up vs. wideouts and tight ends. His first two years, he played a lot. The last couple of years, not as much. We tried to get more of a specialized package developed after we got Chillar onboard. In response to all of the distractions that could be going on as far as going into his fifth year, expectations, being given lesser packages and not starting out getting any snaps in that Philadelphia game, to respond to all of that and to really come on and play at a high level with a lot of production, with fulfilling all the roles that he has, from a signal-caller, from stepping in to his position, embracing all three downs, you couldn't ask for anything more. I'm very pleased."
Even while spending large chunks of time on the bench at times, especially last season, Hawk said he never felt like he was only a situational player.
But the huge grin on his face following Sunday night's game said as much as his words.
"Of course, yeah, winning and being on the field is a lot of fun, definitely."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.