IRVING, Texas -- On Monday, one of the Green Bay Packers' long-haired linebackers was a finalist for the NFL's defensive player of the year award. The other? He sat quietly in a far corner of an interview room Monday evening, relishing his anonymity and at peace with the direction his career has taken.
Five years ago, the Packers made A.J. Hawk the fifth overall pick of the NFL draft, envisioning him as a top pass-rusher who would develop into an annual candidate for the DPOY award. As it turns out, Clay Matthews fulfilled that role a few years later.
To be clear, every Super Bowl team needs the kind of high-octane pass rushing that Matthews provides, just as it needs elite quarterback play and smart personnel decisions. No less important, however, is the glue that Hawk supplied the Packers throughout the 2010 season.
When Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers couldn't find a role for him in Week 1, Hawk managed the uncomfortable moment with class.
When injuries began to mount among the Packers' linebackers, Hawk emerged as both their primary signal-caller and leading tackler.
When the Packers signed a teammate -- and potential job competitor -- to a long-term contract, Hawk smiled and decided he would be at peace with whatever future lay in front of him.
You're going to hear plenty this week about the Packers' sizable stable of star players, from Matthews to quarterback Aaron Rodgers to cornerback Charles Woodson to nose tackle B.J. Raji. Hopefully, everyone will take a moment to remember that Hawk rescued himself from deep disappointment to produce a season that was critical to the Packers' Super Bowl run.
"I enjoyed it," Hawk said as the Packers experienced their first day of media hoopla at Super Bowl XLV. "I really did."
I can't imagine Hawk was enjoying much of anything Sept. 13, when he played only on special teams in the Packers' 27-20 season-opening victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. At the time, the Packers were using Brandon Chillar in Hawk's spot during nickel and dime situations. Capers played nickel or dime for the entire game, leaving Hawk to watch all 60 defensive snaps from the sideline.
That development was a warning sign for any veteran player, especially one whose contract was certain to be addressed this offseason. If you can't get on the field for one play of the season opener, how much could the team possibly have you in its plans?
If you've spent any time around Hawk, however, you know he's too level-headed for the kind of selfish, emotional reaction that can tear a team apart. Instead, Hawk accepted it for what it was: a by-product of playing in a defense that changes dramatically on a weekly basis, and pointedly, not a demotion.
"I felt pretty confident that was a unique situation for that game," Hawk said. "I don't plan on that happening for [the Super Bowl]. But I know anything can happen in this defense, and I'm open to whatever. I wasn't going to complain. I wasn't going to go public with anything. They knew I wanted to be on the field. It's no secret. I think coaches want guys who want to play. They communicated well throughout the whole thing. Things here can change week to week for sure."
How did Hawk know it was a "unique situation"? He calmly grabbed some tape of the Packers' next opponent, the Buffalo Bills, and recognized their offense would lend itself to the defensive sets Capers usually included him in.
"I knew right after that game that the next game wouldn't be that way," Hawk said. "You could see that on film."
Chillar, of course, was long ago lost for the season to a shoulder injury. Fellow linebacker Nick Barnett (wrist) and Brad Jones (shoulder) were also gone by midseason. Barnett's replacement, Desmond Bishop, played well enough to earn a four-year contract extension. Hawk, meanwhile, has a contract that calls for a $10 million base salary in 2011, a total so high that he almost certainly will get a new deal himself or be released before the start of next season.
You want to say that Hawk proved his value as a leader and steady tackler this season, but the Packers already have Chillar, Bishop and Barnett signed to multiyear deals. Matthews' stunning performance in his first two seasons makes him a strong candidate for an extension. Would the Packers commit yet another long-term contract to Hawk, or will he be the odd man out?
No known discussions have taken place to date, suggesting the Packers have at least put off that decision. Typical to his personality, Hawk was pretty convincing Monday in insisting he hasn't considered whether Super Bowl XLV will be his final game with the Packers.
"I'm not sure about anything," Hawk said. "I've never really even, I guess, entertained that thought because there's no real reason right now. But yeah, anything's possible. I've definitely over the last couple years realized that if the team wants to do something, they can do whatever they want. They can let me go right now. But that's liberating also. I know I can be anywhere. But there's nowhere I'd rather be right now than here."
Someone, after all, has to be the glue.