CHARACTER, CLASS, CRITICISM DEFINED CAREER

At some point, every player gives way to someone younger, faster, and better. It’s the circle of life in the NFL. With apologies owed to no one, A.J. Hawk put together a record-setting career and was a class act from his first day to his last. (Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY)

The release of Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk on Wednesday was hardly a surprise. Neither was the reaction from a fan base polarized by No. 50 for most of his nine-year career.

Message boards and social media ran the gamut from “good luck” to “good riddance,” from “it’s too bad,” to “it came too late.”

But to be clear, A.J. Hawk didn’t suck. Let’s get that out of the way for all the Internet trolls, armchair quarterbacks and bar-stool geniuses.

There’s a lot of middle ground between superstar and bust. Hawk does not suck. He never has. Regardless of what comes next for him, Hawk’s combination of stats, starts and intangibles that he brought to the Packers for nine seasons are deserving of respect and appreciation, not criticism.

Somewhere along the NFL timeline, things like hard work and reliability have become marginalized. Solid and dependable equate to boring. Intelligence gets underrated. Every player at every position needs to be a Pro Bowler, or on the cusp. If not, they should be replaced. Or so that line of thinking goes. Perhaps winning has done that. After all, it’s not the early 1990s. If anything short of a title for Titletown is a failing, then anything short of All-Pro must be a disappointment.

But if that’s your mind-set, that’s a shame. With apologies owed to no one, Hawk put together a record-setting career and was a class act from his first day to his last.

Hawk played in 142 of 144 regular-season games for Green Bay with 136 starts since being drafted back in 2006. Not only did he not miss games, he rarely missed practices. It’s not that the former Ohio State Buckeye never got hurt, it’s that he consistently found a way to play through those injuries and never used them as an excuse or explanation — even when he could’ve. Players with more talent could take a lesson.

He led his team in tackles five times and eclipsed the century mark in stops seven times. He captained the defense that won Super Bowl XLV and played in his only Pro Bowl afterward. Well-liked and well-respected, he’s the kind of high-character player that his Packers coaches and teammates value.

“A.J. is a consummate Packer and we are grateful for all that he has given and how he represented the organization over the past nine seasons,” Packers’ General Manager Ted Thompson said. “He was a durable and consistent contributor to our success, but more importantly, he is a great person and teammate. The Packers are grateful for all that he has done on the field and in the community.”

Yet, Hawk was a frequent target of criticism throughout much of his career: He’s not fast enough. He doesn’t make enough impact plays. He can’t cover opposing tight ends. His tackles come too far downfield. Oh, and most notably – he should be better for a No. 5 overall pick.

There’s some legitimacy to those comments, but they’re lacking perspective.

Looking back on that 2006 draft, nearly one-third of the players selected in the first round are out of the league, including Top 10 picks Vince Young, Michael Huff, Ernie Sims and Matt Leinart. Quarterback Jay Cutler was taken No. 11 and Bears fans probably wish he were out of the league, too.

How many of those GMs wish they got the number of starts out of those selections that Thompson got out of Hawk? How many wish they had drafted a player that would end his time as the franchise career leader in the most meaningful stat at his position?

Among the 30 linebackers taken in 2006, you could argue Hawk’s been the best. His first-round competition included Sims, Chad Greenway, fellow OSU alum Bobby Carpenter and Manny Lawson, an outside backer-turned-defensive end. Some will lament that 2006 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year DeMeco Ryans went with the first pick of the second round, No. 33 overall. Here are their numbers through nine seasons (tackles are from league data rather than coaches’ stats): Ryans has 921 tackles, 13.5 sacks, six interceptions and six forced fumbles in 126 games. Hawk has 926 tackles, 19 sacks, nine interceptions and three forced fumbles. And a Super Bowl ring, for those that think that counts for something.

Everyone – Hawk included – wishes he had more turnover-producing and game-changing plays. It simply didn’t happen. While he made one Pro Bowl, his play wasn’t at that level for the bulk of his career. He’s had the rare game where the team decided to blitz him, but his primary role was to get the defense lined up and in position — to be its quarterback — and to make tackles. That’s the role the coaches gave him, and not one to be taken lightly. No one forced the team to put Hawk out there every week. They wanted him there.

In 2014, however, Hawk looked lighter than he had in previous years, making it harder than ever to take on running backs head on. He opted to go low on runners more noticeably than in the past. And he looked at least a step slow in coverage compared to previous seasons – which again, was never his forte, and something he could ill afford to do. Did an ankle that required surgery at the conclusion of the season contribute to that? Hawk would never say it did. But it very well might have.

But if the intangibles remained, it was the tangibles of playing the linebacker position that ultimately cost him playing time. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers put Clay Matthews at inside backer to take advantage of his speed and athleticism and it changed the course of the Packers’ defense and season. Eventually, Hawk would lose snaps to second-year player Sam Barrington, a thicker, faster player who made the types of stops down the stretch that the 31-year-old Hawk simply wasn’t making anymore. With Hawk set to count $5.1 million against the cap in 2015, the final year of his contract, his release became a matter of “when" and not “if.”

Hawk, to no surprise, was nothing but gracious when it became official.

“They didn’t just all of a sudden call me in the middle of the night and let me know I’m cut,” Hawk said on his “Hawkcast” podcast. “I could almost feel it in the air throughout the year, in the second half of the year, I don’t know, whenever. I didn’t know anything for sure, but sometimes you get a hunch and that’s just how it goes, so I’ve been preparing for it for a while mentally and now it’s real, so it’s weird.

“I try to look at it like, ‘Hey, man, I was lucky enough to get nine years there and win a ring. I wish we would’ve won more rings, but I wish them the best. No ill will towards anybody there, honestly, players, coaches, front office. I’m not leaving bitter at all.”

At some point, every player gives way to someone younger, faster, and better. It’s the circle of life in the NFL. That time has come for Hawk, at least in Green Bay. But fans looking to sum up Hawk’s career need only consider the following two words:

Thank you.

W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at karoer@msn.com.


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