The news came with an unpleasant sinking feeling, as bad news often does. Only Mike Neal couldn’t have been more wrong.
Having been through so much – some of it bad luck, some of it self-inflicted – during his first three NFL seasons, the Green Bay Packers oft-injured defensive end figured the club was simply counting the days until it could be done with him. Why else would the coaches suddenly move him – in a contract year, no less – to outside linebacker?
After playing only two games as a rookie second-round pick in 2010 because of rib and shoulder injuries, and having had seven ineffective games in 2011 after missing the first nine games with a knee injury, and after serving a four-game suspension to start last season for violating the league policy on performance-enhancing substances (for what he says was prescribed Adderall use), and after the team took defensive end Datone Jones with its first-round draft pick in April … well, Neal’s a bright guy. He knew what his move meant.
Or he thought he knew, anyway.
“It’s been a toggle mentally, I have to admit,” Neal said as the Packers prepared for Sunday’s game at Baltimore – where Neal will play a vital role with four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews sidelined for at least a month with a broken thumb.
“At first, when they drafted Datone and moved me out there, I started looking at it as, ‘Maybe this is just them trying to find me something to do,’ and then if I didn’t work out, I’d get traded or released.
“But at the same time, it’s kind of been a blessing in disguise.”
That it has – to both Neal and the team. To say that Neal could save the Packers’ season by playing well at outside linebacker while Matthews is sidelined would be a bit of an overstatement. To say the Packers may have saved his career by having him move, well, that’s not so far-fetched.
A renowned weightlifter, Neal bulked up to 295 pounds to play defensive end, with his weight having peaked at 305 with very little body fat. Now, he acknowledges that most of his injuries were the result of him trying to be someone he’s not – a big down lineman. Without the move, Neal said, he probably would have already suffered another injury and perhaps be headed for an achy post-football life.
“Most definitely,” said Neal, who said he now weighs in at between 275 and 280 pounds (the Packers list him at 285). “I think one of the biggest things with me was the size I was, that wasn’t my natural size. You see me now, the weight I’m at now is natural; even if I took a week off from working out and ate, I wouldn’t gain more than a couple pounds. I think just the constant lifting and grueling just took a toll on my joints and ligaments.
“Those were all my issues – joints and ligaments. I think taking some of the weight off, and being more flexible with my body, that might prolong my career a couple years. That’s a good thing for me.”
It’s also a good thing for the Packers, who must find a way to survive without Matthews. If last Sunday’s victory over Detroit was any indication, Neal will help them do that. After getting the starting nod opposite Matthews – and ahead of 2012 first-round pick Nick Perry – Neal was credited with one sack and six tackles in the game. Pro Football Focus also had him for five quarterback hurries and three run stops, which explains why coach Mike McCarthy called the performance the best game of Neal’s career. Entering Sunday’s game, Neal has 11 tackles, one sack and one interception while splitting time between outside linebacker and down lineman in the team’s nickel and dime personnel groups.
“I like where we are and I like where we’re heading with that. If we can keep Mike on the field, Mike’s a big, strong, quick-twitch athlete,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “He can give you some quickness and he can overpower some people.”
That’s exactly what Matthews saw during Neal’s rookie season. Although he only played in two games that year, Matthews saw Neal’s unique pass-rush ability against Washington, when he had a sack, a quarterback hit and a quarterback hurry in 53 snaps. Matthews went to Capers after that game and compared Neal to Pittsburgh outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
“You can tell by looking at someone’s athleticism if they’d make a good outside linebacker, and they don’t specifically have to play that position. It could be anyone from a D-lineman to a safety to a middle linebacker,” Matthews explained before suffering his thumb injury against the Lions. “With him, you could tell he had a unique ability of his explosiveness, his change of direction, everything that makes a great outside linebacker. We’re trying to find places for our best playmakers, and he’s one of them, and he’s doing a great job. Obviously he’s come a long ways, and he’s still got a long ways to go.
“To come out here and play a two-point stance, not only rush the passer but drop in coverage, he's playing fantastic. He shows he has a unique ability to not only play inside but outside, and excel at it. So you know he's a fantastic athlete. I'm looking forward to more times I get to play with him.”
That will have to wait, but in the meantime, Neal will have to keep delivering on the potential that Matthews and outside linebackers coach Kevin Greene saw in him initially. Greene actually had wanted to move Neal earlier in his career, but the injuries and then the suspension scuttled that idea until this winter.
“I know I’ve really been knocking at that door for a couple years, saying, ‘You know, this guy may be able to play a little outside linebacker.’ Because of his explosability and his athletic ability,” the excitable Greene said, creating his own word in the process. “So I’ve been thinking for a while that if I could put my hands on him, he could do it.
“I think it is a matter of time before he really sees the light and that bulb clicks on and he sees exactly what I’m preaching as far as all my technique and fundamentals rushing the passer. I think it’s just a matter of time, because he’s a smart kid and athletic as hell. So I’m glad that they finally saw fit to let me work with him.”
It hasn’t always been perfect, of course. Neal is still adjusting to the coverage portion of the outside linebacker job description, and against Washington in Week 2, he completely botched a coverage that could have resulted in a big play for the Redskins. Instead, when the ball caromed off wide receiver Joshua Morgan’s hands, Neal was there to intercept the pass.
“That’s falling into a pile of poop and coming out smelling like roses, that’s what that is,” Greene said with a laugh. “But we’re not robots, we’re human, and we make mistakes out there. So I gave him a minus, obviously, for the play, but I gave him a positive for the impact play. Because the coaching point is, what he did wrong is coachable, but what he did do was make a play. There’s a lot of positives in that dark cloud.”
And, as it turns out, a lot of positives in what seemed like a dark cloud of a position switch. Now, it’s up to Neal to keep improving. He’s in the last year of his rookie contract, and with continued growth, he could prove to be a core player the Packers want to keep long-term. Or, he could strike it rich on the free-agent market with another team.
For now, though, Neal’s focus is on the Ravens and doing everything Greene tells him.
“I think KG’s the biggest person on me because he knows how bad I want to be good. I think sometimes I get more frustrated with myself,” Neal said. “He’s always telling me, ‘Dude, you’re good, you might make a mistake, but wipe it off and keep going.’ On Sundays, I’m able to let it all out. In practice, I’m a little shaky still, but in the games, I just keep playing. It’s been fun for me.
“I’ve made more plays this year honestly than I’ve made in the past (three years) on the line. So I just want to keep on the same track. Regardless of what happens, as long as I do my job and make a few plays, I think we’ll be fine.”
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.