Sunday's game against Dallas came one year and six days after that injury. If there ever was doubt about Barnett's ability to come back from such a debilitating injury, those doubts were erased. Barnett was on top of his game with eight tackles and two sacks.
"I haven't thought about my knee ever in a game," Barnett said. "When I'm in the game, I'm thinking about the opponent. I did a lot of work in the offseason, me and my trainer and these guys here. We did a lot of work, and it's paying off, because I feel great. There's still a lot of work. You've still got to maintain (the strength), you're still rehabbing. But in the games, I feel great and I don't worry about it. I just play football."
Playing football was not what Barnett was doing enough of early in the season. Held out of three of the four preseason games after missing all of the offseason work and most of training camp, Barnett rotated in and out of games for the first two weeks and played the first 40 defensive snaps at St. Louis in Week 3.
The defense's emotional heartbeat, Barnett was none too happy about the reduced playing time.
"I'm not a part-time player," he steadfastly said at one point.
That rotation ended in Week 4 at Minnesota, and Barnett's play has improved because of it.
"The difference in the last five games, if you go back and you think about it, I wasn't on the field the whole time," said Barnett, who passed former safety Mark Murphy for fifth place on the team's career tackles list and needs only 23 to pass LeRoy Butler and 37 to surpass Mike Douglass for third place. "For me, I'm an emotional player. So, for me, it's the timing of the game, it's the energy of the game, and I've got to be in there all the time. That's how I feel. By pulling me out, my emotional level drops. You know what I'm saying? Earlier in the year, the way my knee felt, it's way different than it feels now. It's great now, but it wasn't messed up to where I couldn't be physical and run fast. I think if anything, I know the scheme a lot better now. I'm more confident in where I'm supposed to run. I'm confident in who I'm supposed to cover. That's maybe the difference, but other than that, I think it's just because I've been playing more."
While Barnett was upset about his limited role early in the season, in retrospect, he understands the medical staff's intentions. But that didn't mean there weren't some difficult conversations in early September.
"At the time, you're like, ‘(To heck with) that, I want to play football.' You know, that's my mentality," Barnett said.
"He didn't want to hear it," inside linebackers coach Winston Moss said, "but he knew the decision came from the top and it was very important to have that structure and have that plan in place. He didn't take too kindly to it, but he understood. He's a professional. He did the best that he could with it. He was very frustrated with it but he never complained about it."
Nobody's complaining about Barnett's play these days. Not only does he lead the team in tackles with 67, but he's third on the team in pass breakups with five (all over the last four games) and he's third in sacks with three after taking down the Cowboys' Tony Romo twice to match his career high.
Barnett said he blitzed more against Dallas than he did all of last season, and Moss went even further by saying Barnett blitzed more in that game than he did in any of the previous few seasons. Barnett said he and A.J. Hawk, who worked in tandem on both of Barnett's sacks, had figured out the rhythm of Romo's cadence. But there's more to it than that. The more Barnett rushes, the better he gets, and Moss pointed to Barnett's "desire" and "passion" to get to whoever has the ball.
Barnett entered this season with 11.5 sacks in his first six seasons. He didn't have any last year, so Barnett's improvement as a pass rusher was a revelation to defensive coordinator Dom Capers, who hadn't seen that ability while learning about his new group of players in the film room. What he did see was a player who was bound and determined to get to whoever had the ball.
"I knew he was a good athlete, had good quick-twitch in his body," Capers said. "Watching him, Nick's problem was never getting to the point. Sometimes it was just being patient enough on the back side not to overpursue and get there too fast. You kind of have to gear it down if that flows away from you. You're not always going to be the point-of-attack player. You've got to hold back-side leverage on those plays so that they can't get back across your face."
Barnett's strong play is a surprise, in some ways. While knee reconstruction surgery has gotten better with medical advances, it's still hardly a sure thing. And that's especially true for athletes who rely on explosive movements, such as a relatively undersized linebacker whose game is built around quickness rather than power.
"I think he's a pretty special guy," Moss said. "I think he's a guy that's always had an extremely high motor and he's always taken very good care of himself. He's an extremely hard worker. I'm just pleased that he's been able to always move forward and not take any big steps just from a health standpoint. It's been good to see him get comfortable, have some production and have fun playing."
Barnett's big game came in the, ahem, nick of time. Coming off two consecutive losses, the Packers faced a season-defining game against Dallas. With Barnett and Charles Woodson leading the way, the season appears to be back on track heading into a game Sunday against San Francisco.
"Do I think we saved our season? I think we saved our (butt) this game," Barnett said. "We've got to keep that going. We've got to do the things we're supposed to, and we'll be fine. We have a lot of talent in this room and a lot of confidence."
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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 email@example.com, 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.