The older I get. That’s the phrase B.J. Raji kept coming back to. The fifth-year defensive lineman is just 27 years old, but in the Green Bay Packers’ locker room, he qualifies as a graybeard.
For years, the Packers defensive coaches have been looking for ways to reduce his snaps, thinking less might be more. And every year, they’d fail. With the exception of his rookie year, when a late-in-camp ankle injury factored into his career-low 355 regular-season and playoff snaps, Raji has led the defensive line in snaps, from 2010 (884) to 2011 (885) to last year (658, having missed two games at midseason with an ankle injury).
But this year – in a contract year, no less – Raji is indeed playing less. While he still enters Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field with a line-high 192 snaps, the trend is clear: He played 52 of 81 snaps against San Francisco in the opener, then 31 of 61 against Washington, 32 of 56 at Cincinnati, 35 of 68 against Detroit and 42 of 70 at Baltimore. Instead of leaving him in on obvious passing downs, Raji is on the sideline while rookie first-round pick Datone Jones, second-year man Mike Daniels or defensive end-turned-outside linebacker Mike Neal (before OLB injuries hit, anyway) have shared time as the linemen in that package.
But Raji, whom the team informed during the offseason that they wouldn’t be talking contract extension with him after signing fellow David Dunn clients Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews to long-term deals, insists the uncertainty doesn’t bother him – and neither does the reduced snap count.
“The older I get, the more I understand that it’s really all about team,” Raji said. “I feel like the coaches, they put a lot of time and effort to what goes on, and you have to trust them sometimes. Once you understand and realize the concept of what they’re trying to do and you have confidence in your abilities, you don’t worry. You just play and try to help everybody win.
“I’ll just say this: We’re all human. So it has crossed my mind. But that would just be a selfish way of thinking. This is a team that is having $150, $200 million renovations. It’s not like they’re cheap with money.”
It’s also not like Raji doesn’t have money. His rookie deal as the No. 9 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft was a five-year, $22.9 million deal that contained $17.7 million guaranteed, including a $2.4 million signing bonus and a second-year roster bonus of $7 million. His base salary for 2013 is $4.49 million. He’s one of a host of key players up for new contracts – on the defensive line alone, Raji, veteran Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly, C.J. Wilson and end/outside linebacker hybrid Mike Neal are all in the final year of their deals – and it’s unclear if the Packers will change their stance and try to get something done with him before year’s end.
“I’ve kind of set in my mind to just focus on the team,” Raji said. “And you know what? It’s crazy, I’ve grown up enough that I’m tough enough to handle what comes with my job. Any criticism for lack of numbers, I’m tough enough to handle what comes ahead.”
Ah, lack of numbers. During the 2010 season, the 6-foot-2, 337-pound Raji put up the numbers people notice – career highs in tackles (66) and sacks (6.5) – and the Packers won Super Bowl XLV to boot, with his interception return for a touchdown against Chicago in the NFC Championship Game having helped book the team’s ticket to Dallas.
But Raji only had three sacks in 2011 – the last coming in a Thanksgiving Day victory in Detroit – and he hasn’t had one since. He enters Sunday’s game against the Browns with a modest stat line – 14 tackles, zero sacks – even for playing in a system where a defensive lineman rarely gets to leap forward and try to beat his blocker off the snap to get into the offensive backfield.
“We don’t just sit there and jet rush 50 times a game. You may get three or four a game. So you don’t get the time to work a guy like you want to work a guy,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said. “B.J.’s been excellent. We always wanted to reduce his snaps.”
And Raji is fine with that. Or, relatively fine with it.
“You can either come to work every day ‘Woe is me,’ or you can enjoy the people around you and make the most of your opportunity. Looking at the situation, it’s tough,” Raji admitted. “When I was younger, I would look at guys on TV and say, ‘If I was in that system, I would be doing this, this and this.’ Now, the older I get, I just appreciate the game, I have the utmost confidence in my ability. Anyone could say, ‘Oh, if I was there, if I was there,’ but I’m here. Hopefully we get this thing rolling.”
And they are starting to get it rolling. The Packers defense entered the week ranked 18th in the league in total yards per game (371.8) but third in rushing yards allowed per game (78.2) and 15th in points allowed per game (22.8). Last week against Baltimore, when inside linebacker A.J. Hawk had three sacks, Hawk credited the defensive linemen for creating so much push that he was unblocked on at least two of his sacks.
For Raji, that’s being a good teammate. And that’s who he wants to be. The rest, he believes, will fall into place.
“I have confidence in me, the coaches have confidence in me. But part of being a good teammate is having to learn how to adjust. Obviously my playing time has decreased, but I’m fine,” Raji said. “I was joking around with ‘Pick,’ I said, ‘I’m on a fifth-year (guy) but I have the reps of a seventh- or eighth-year guy.’ I have a lot of playing experience in my short time here, and we’ve played in a lot of big games.
“That helps. Obviously we’ve had some success in postseason and the Super Bowl, so I’ve played in meaningful games early in my career. That’s kind of helped me and helped my perspective as far as ultimately wanting to get back to where we were.”
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.