The young television reporter peppered Sam Barrington with several questions about how the “young guys” were doing at inside linebacker.
Finally, the line of questioning was interrupted.
“Kind of amazing he’s asking you about the young guys, hey, old-timer?”
Barrington, the battled-hardened leader of the group at the ripe old age of 24, laughed.
“Like I’m not young, right? It is what it is. I’ve only been in the NFL about 2 1/2 years and you ask me about the young guys. It’s kind of funny. It’s kind of funny.”
While Clay Matthews rightly got a lot of credit for Green Bay’s defensive turnaround, Barrington had a major hand in it, too, when he added a badly needed shot of physicality to the position by replacing A.J. Hawk starting with the New England game in late November. While Barrington refuses to take any credit, those around him are quick to offer their praise for their ascending man in the middle.
“Not a coincidence. Not a coincidence at all,” defensive tackle Mike Daniels said during minicamp. “Sam can play football. He’s tough. I remember talking a couple years ago about attitude and he’s what I talked about we needed. Especially at that inside backer position calling the shots. He commands the respect, he’s a natural-born leader and he’s not afraid to do the dirty work. I greatly appreciate his presence. He’s all about the brotherhood.”
Because of that end-of-season performance, Barrington entered this season as an unquestioned starter. He’s in a different place than his first two seasons in the league, when he was simply fighting to make the roster.
“It’s probably not the same type of anxiety but it’s a different type of anxiety because you know you’re expected to do things a certain way,” he said. “Sometimes even though you’ve put it on film or whatnot, you still have that in the back of your head, ‘Wow, can I do this?’ or ‘What is it going to take?’”
He’s done it for a handful of games. Now he must do it for 16 — and more — this season. With Hawk, Brad Jones and Jamari Lattimore shown the door, Barrington has been thrust into an odd position. He’s a young starter — just five to his credit, including playoffs. He’s also a mentor at an incredibly young position. After Matthews and Barrington, there isn’t a player on the roster who has taken an NFL snap on the inside. While the likes of Jake Ryan, Nate Palmer and Carl Bradford seek his guidance, Barrington knows he doesn’t have all the answers. He thinks of Ray Lewis, who is every inside linebackers’ favorite inside linebacker, who was “still finding out things within the game” even during the final stages of his Hall of Fame-worthy career.
Thus, Barrington’s focus is on where he’s going, not where he’s at.
“I don’t think about stuff like that,” Barrington said when asked if he’s happy about where he’s at at this stage of his career. “I go home, I watch the film every day and be like, ‘I can do this better. I need to do this better.’ I promise you, I don’t really sit here and say, ‘OK, this is where I’m at.’ I just want to keep getting better because I know there’s somebody at a different place who’s really emphasizing getting better every day. I just want to keep getting better, regardless. I write something down that I want to get better at every day.”
Even with his limited background, Barrington is one of the new faces of the defense. Matthews is the star with the national recognition and Julius Peppers’ next stop might be the Hall of Fame, but it’s guys like Barrington and Daniels and HaHa Clinton-Dix who will form the core of this defense today and well into the future.
The early signs are encouraging. In years past, Aaron Rodgers and Co. have torn the defense to shreds. Now, not so much. If the Packers are going to win a championship, Barrington must continue to emerge as a physical and vocal difference-maker.
“I think it’s just we’re hitting our goals in practice, simple as that,” Barrington said. “We’re just doing what we want to do in practice. It’s not, ‘We’re stopping one of the best offenses in the league.’ We’re hitting our goals when we go out to practice: not as many MAs (missed assignments), not as many missed tackles. Stuff like that is way more important than saying, ‘We’re doing good against our offense.’”
Bill Huber is publisher of 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.