Tramon Williams pulled his t-shirt over his head – something that was once no small feat for him – and looked around the Green Bay Packers locker room and smiled.
The usual throng of reporters was surrounding quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ locker, jockeying for position. That same group would later migrate to Sam Shields’ dressing area, to ask the newly minted $39 million cornerback about how his lucrative contract will change his life. A week earlier, they’d surrounded Casey Hayward, asking the third-year cornerback how he’s coming back from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for all but three games last season.
The 31-year-old Williams is still a trusted voice in that room – with the departures of Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett over the past two offseasons, Williams is now the longest-tenured defensive starter, and only defensive end/outside linebacker Julius Peppers (34) and fullback John Kuhn (31, older by six months) – and he’s been both in Shields’ cleats (a five-year, $38.148 million extension in November 2010) and in Hayward’s (playing through a debilitating shoulder injury in 2011).
Still, amid the arrival of Peppers, changes on the defensive side of the ball, Clay Matthews’ comeback from his twice-broken thumb, yet another influx of young talent via the draft, the controversial signing of troubled tight end Colt Lyerla (a move Williams was extremely supportive of) and of course Rodgers, who is primed for a bounce-back season after missing half the year with a fractured collarbone, Williams hasn’t been a primary offseason story.
But maybe he should be.
For after that 2011 shoulder injury, which caused significant nerve damage in his shoulder but sidelined him for only one game, and an uneven 2012 season, Williams looked more and more like the shutdown, difference-making corner he’d been during the Packers’ 2010 Super Bowl XLV run. By the second half of last season, he might’ve been the Packers’ best defensive player.
He finished the year with 91 tackles (according to the Packers’ official stats) along with three interceptions and 14 pass breakups while playing all 16 regular-season games, then had an interception (which ended in a bone-jarring, lower-the-boom whack on San Francisco quarterback and would-be tackler Colin Kaepernick) and a pair of tackles in the season-ending playoff loss to the 49ers at Lambeau Field.
After missing most of training camp with a bone bruise in his knee, Williams’ watershed moment came on Nov. 17 against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium – the same place where he’d drawn criticism the year before for what some thought was turning down a tackle. Although the Packers – without Rodgers, and with No. 3 quarterback Scott Tolzien under center – wound up losing 27-13, Williams was phenomenal, tackling with abandon (eight solo stops, including two for loss) and picking off Eli Manning for his first INT of the season. A few weeks later, he clinched the biggest come-from-behind victory in Packers history with an interception at Dallas on Dec. 15.
“Really, the last nine games – he played as good as everybody talked about 2010,” cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said. “From the New York game on, you’re not going to get much better play than that. If you’re looking for much better play than that, you’re not going to get it from anybody in the league. Now, can we get it for 16 games and onto the playoffs and next year? I’m a firm believer if he’s healthy, we’re going to get it.”
Williams, for one, feels good about his chances. While he acknowledged this week that his right shoulder remains ever so slightly weaker because of the nerve damage he sustained when he was hit by teammate Nick Collins in the 2011 season-opener against New Orleans, he said it no longer affects him. (He merely does additional weight-training with that shoulder to improve its strength.) And despite his age, he remains one of the team’s best-conditioned athletes, having been at the forefront of a movement that’s seen more players adopt yoga as part of their training regimens.
And while his future is somewhat uncertain – he’s going into the final year of his contract and the Packers have significant money tied up in Shields and safety Morgan Burnett – Williams is clearly at peace with where he is right now.
“Truthfully, I don’t even worry about it,” said Williams, whose oft-told football life story of going from sitting in the Louisiana Tech bleachers to working out for a different NFL team each Tuesday after going undrafted to becoming one of the Packers’ core players is an inspiration to many of his younger teammates.
“From my point, when I put in the work that I do, whatever the results are, I can live with it. Do I expect to play at a high level? Do I feel good? Absolutely. But you never know what happens.”
That is a lesson Williams knows all too well. After a breakout 2010 that had him rated among the top 5 cover men in the league, the shoulder injury forced him to essentially play with one arm tied behind his back in 2011, and in 2012, Williams’ play remained inconsistent enough that Whitt wouldn’t guarantee him his starting spot before the season.
That he’s now returned to his pre-injury form should mean good things for a defense that desperately needs to reverse its fortunes.
“That New York game might be one of the best games he’s played since we’ve worked together – out of all of them,” Whitt said. “You might go back to the Atlanta game in 2010 in the playoffs, but that New York game, he tackled at such a high level, he played fast. He played at a speed quicker than most other people, and he said it going into the game. He said, ‘Joe, I’m not worried about anything.’ And that’s the way he played. ‘Whatever’s going to happen is going to happen; I’m just going to play all-out and I’m not worried about trying to be perfect. I’m just going to play football.’”
Williams played more snaps last season on defense (1,124 in 17 games) than any other player, and according to Pro Football Focus he finished having been targeted 93 times, allowing 53 completions for 714 yards with four touchdowns allowed (78.0 opponent passer rating). PFF charged him with 10 missed tackles while crediting him with three quarterback hurries and three QB hits along with his two sacks when blitzing from the nickel spot.
With a still-ascending Shields, a healthy Hayward, Micah Hyde making a second-year jump and Williams back atop his game, perhaps coach Mike McCarthy’s big-letters prediction of defensive improvement will come true.
Williams, though, is simply focusing on himself. He grew up as an NFL player looking up to veteran teammates Charles Woodson and Al Harris – Williams’ big break was as the third corner in the Packers’ nickel defense in 2007 – and has his sights set on matching their longevity. Harris played 14 seasons and retired in 2011 at age 37; Woodson, who’ll be 38 in October, is entering his 17th NFL season and second in his second go-round with the Oakland Raiders after seven years in Green Bay.
“I feel good enough to,” Williams said. “Hey, Wood’s still going at it. I feel good. You always wonder. Coming from my perspective, I’d never been injured up until the shoulder injury, so that was new to me, something different to fight. I got through that, and I’m still feeling great. I feel like I can go for as long as I want.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.