Injured Packers LB Barnett feels left out
Editor’s note: The Packers announced Wednesday afternoon that the team’s Super Bowl photo will be taken Friday, Feb. 4, which will allow the players on Injured Reserve to be included. The photo originally was scheduled following media day on Tuesday, Feb. 1.
As an athlete who lives his life in a constant quest for motivation, Nick Barnett(notes) understands the power of imagery. So when the Packers’ injured middle linebacker speaks about his desire to be part of the team photo that will be taken next Tuesday at Cowboys Stadium – a media day tradition for Super Bowl participants – he’s channeling an emotional attachment to the shared sacrifice such a snapshot represents.
“In our team meeting room, there are pictures of past championship teams that line the wall, and we stare at them every day,” Barnett explained Tuesday. “There’s a spot there that’s empty – that was for us, this year. We’d go in there and visualize being on that wall, and think about the effort it would take to get there. You’d see guys like Ray Nitschke up there, and that’s motivation. So, now that we’ve gotten to the Super Bowl, to not be on that wall … well, it’s disheartening.”
Earlier Tuesday, Barnett had started the first mini-controversy of Super Bowl XLV when he complained on his Twitter page that he and the Packers’ other players on the injured-reserve list won’t be flown to Texas until next Thursday, three days before the team battles the Steelers – and too late to be included in the photo. Barnett, a standout eighth-year veteran and locker-room leader, suffered a season-ending wrist injury in Green Bay’s fourth game and is one of a league-high 16 Packers on IR.
Barnett’s sentiment, echoed by injured tight end Jermichael Finley(notes), provoked a response from Packers public relations director Jeff Blumb, who said the decision “was based primarily on the sheer number of players we have on injured reserve. Our primary goal in Dallas is to get the team ready to win a game.”
For what it’s worth, in recent years injured players have typically joined their teammates at media day for the photo shoot. My gut feeling is that the Packers’ decision was prompted by a fear that their large contingent of injured players might not feel compelled to honor team-imposed curfews early in the week and could potentially lure teammates into late-night partying sessions.
Whatever the case, Barnett says he hopes general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy reconsider their decision – and I completely understand his perspective. In a sport in which injured players perpetually feel a sense of alienation, symbolic inclusion in a photograph that will be displayed to future Packers players for posterity seems like a wholly reasonable request.
“When you get hurt, it’s amazing how quickly you become detached,” said Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita(notes), who missed the season’s final seven weeks with a knee injury. “Even if you’re not on IR, that sense of disconnect happens after you miss a game or two, and it’s easy to feel like you’re no longer part of things.”
Last season I spent a weekend with the Chicago Bears’ Brian Urlacher(notes), a perennial All-Pro linebacker who’d gone on IR after sustaining a wrist dislocation in the season opener. “When I go to the facility and see guys,” he told me, “I feel like I’m in the way.”
While not nearly as big of a name as Urlacher, Barnett is a prominent presence for the Packers. In addition to being one of the league’s more underappreciated playmakers, he is a savvy, driven leader who holds himself to impossibly high standards and exhorts his teammates to follow suit.
It was Barnett who, in an NFL Network interview last July, coined the “Super Bowl Or Die” mantra that ended up being prophetic. It caught on so quickly with fans that Barnett had T-shirts made to propagate the slogan.
“I didn’t make any money off the shirts – I just did it for the fans,” Barnett said. “The phrase just kind of came to me in the moment. [Analyst Brian Baldinger] asked me, ‘Is it Super Bowl or bust?’ and I said, ‘Nah, it’s Super Bowl or die.’ I knew we were going to the Super Bowl. We had the right team, the right players and enough depth to survive whatever injuries we suffered. Then the buzz started, and I think it built confidence, and we just took it from there.”
Barnett was productive in his first four games. When he sustained the same injury that felled Urlacher in ’09, he simply had his right wrist taped up and finished out the game against the Lions. An MRI later revealed the dislocation; after contemplating a stopgap procedure that might have allowed him to return in eight weeks, Barnett and the Packers (who needed the roster spot) decided he’d undergo season-ending surgery.
Thrust into the starting lineup, Barnett’s replacement, Desmond Bishop(notes), had a breakout season and signed a reported four-year, $19 million contract extension in early January. That called Barnett’s future with the team into question: He has two years and approximately $12 million remaining on his contract. Meanwhile, A.J. Hawk(notes), the team’s other starting inside linebacker, has a provision in his contract which guarantees his entire 2011 base salary of $10 million on the first day of the league year – meaning the franchise is likely to ask him to restructure his deal or cut ties altogether. Another injured inside linebacker, Brandon Chillar(notes), signed a four-year, $21 million extension during the ’09 season.
“I’ve wondered what they were thinking when they [extended Bishop],” Barnett said. “I’ve got two years left on my contract, which I hope to play out, and I expect to be here. I think I can help the team the way I have the last two years. [If not] I feel like I’m a hot commodity. I feel like I’m a great player, and 31 other teams would love to have a guy who loves the game the way I love it. If they don’t want me, some team’s gonna be happy, right?”
In the meantime, Barnett is trying to enjoy being part of an NFC championship team he knows in his heart he helped build.
“It definitely feels good to see guys like Bishop and A.J., who were rookies a few years ago, playing the way they are,” Barnett said. “I feel like I groomed them, like I raised them for this, so it was sweet seeing those guys celebrate [winning the NFC title] in Chicago.
“At the same time, it was bitter not being out there. I put everything on the line to play football, and my family sacrifices because my commitment is so intense. I put in so much work in the offseason, trying to be as strong and healthy as possible and putting out so much effort, and then bam – you get hurt. You do feel, I don’t want to say alienated … but you do feel a disconnect because the team keeps going without you.”
Though Barnett did his best to stay involved, he couldn’t help but feel like an outsider – even when simply seeking treatment on his wrist.
“We probably have the best training room in the NFL, but there are only three guys doing treatment, and we had so many injured players that they were overwhelmed,” Barnett said. “It wasn’t only the guys on IR but the guys who were hurt and still active – and they’re more important because we have to get them back out on the field. You had to get up at 5 [a.m.] just to get a table – and that was even the guys who were still playing. And even when they’d go out to practice, you’d still have eight [IR] guys in there with three trainers.”
As a result, the former Oregon State standout flew to Portland for some of his rehab and had a physical therapist from the area fly out to work with him in Green Bay. His most difficult moments came on game days.
“You do feel disconnected,” he said. “I feel like, sometimes, being on IR, you get forgotten about.”
Barnett watched the Packers’ playoff victories over the Eagles and Falcons at home on television, calling out blown coverages and shouting out calls only his wife and children could hear. He nervously paced around the house between plays and did pushups and curls during commercial breaks. When cornerback Tramon Williams(notes) intercepted a Michael Vick(notes) pass in the end zone to clinch a 21-16 Packers first-round victory over Philly, Barnett said, “I think every one of my neighbors heard me, I screamed so loud.”
He was on the sidelines for last Sunday’s 21-14 victory over the Bears, but he still felt somewhat removed from the proceedings.
“Being on the sidelines, it’s almost like watching on TV,” he said. “In a way, it’s harder because it’s so close, yet you feel so helpless.”
With one more Sunday’s worth of sideline duty in his future, in this case a Super one, Barnett hopes to get an up-close-and-personal view of a Packers victory, which would be the franchise’s first in 13 seasons. If that happens, he’ll have some gaudy jewelry in his near future, and he intends to wear it with pride.
“Hell yeah,” he said. “I put in a lot of work for eight years. You just don’t win a Super Bowl in a year – there’s a lot of building that goes into it. I’ve always tried to do things the right way. I’ve never been a bad influence guy. And just like everyone who’s playing, I feel like I put in all that work as well.
“So yeah, I’m gonna wear that thing! And if us coming on Thursday is going to help us win, I’d rather have a ring than a picture any day – no question.”
Speaking of questions, here are our final two queries of the 2010 season, in order of perceived power – though, blessedly, that question will be settled on the field 11 days from now.
1. Green Bay Packers: If your nickname is “The Freezer”, does that give you license to store massive amounts of ice cream in your stomach (and, if so, could you kindly refer to me as Michael “The Freezer” Silver from now on)?
2. Pittsburgh Steelers: Was that a double yoi from the heavens I heard at Heinz Field after the Steelers defeated the Jets – and will Myron Cope be watching his favorite football team through the Cowboys Stadium roof on Super Sunday?