NFC North: Charls Rogers
He had nothing planned.
The Green Bay Packers' budding showman resorted to instinct, rolling his hips like a belly dancer while celebrating the score that proved the final margin of victory this past Sunday in his team's 21-14 victory over the Chicago Bears in the NFC Championship Game. Listed at 337 pounds, Raji officially became the biggest man to score a postseason touchdown in NFL history, based on records kept by the Elias Sports Bureau. (You can watch the video here.)
"Football is a game of reactions," he said. "I just reacted and had fun with it."
American sports culture has long had, uh, a soft spot for large men who do surprising things. Exactly 25 years ago, William "The Refrigerator" Perry stole the show in the Chicago Bears' run-up to Super Bowl XX. Raji has better teeth and more of a nuanced personality, but otherwise the man who is calling himself -- yes -- "The Freezer" is set to emerge as one of the fresh personalities on the scene of Super Bowl XLV.
"The guy has some style," marveled Packers cornerback Charles Woodson.
Raji literally served as the rock of a defensive line that was otherwise debilitated by injuries to four players expected to play significant roles. Cullen Jenkins (five games), Ryan Pickett (two), Mike Neal (14) and Justin Harrell (15) were all sidelined for significant segments of the season. Raji, on the other hand, missed only an average of five plays per game.
You could attribute part of that durability to Raji's young legs. At 24, he is only two years removed from Boston College. But it should also dispel any notion that Raji is just a top-heavy, if lovable, big man. He is obviously well-conditioned and, despite the extensive workload, has appeared as spry as ever during the Packers' stretch run. In the Packers' past six games, in fact, Raji has four sacks, has knocked down three passes and intercepted a fourth.
"He's played tremendously for us [in that stretch] and been a real key factor," defensive coordinator Dom Capers told reporters on Sunday.
In fact, the Packers were so confident in Raji's conditioning that they recently added a Fridge-like role to his repertoire. In each of their past two playoff games, Raji has entered the game on offense as an extra fullback in the most jumbo-sized goal-line package you'll ever see. (It also includes reserve offensive lineman T.J. Lang as a tight end and fullbacks Quinn Johnson and John Kuhn as the other men in the backfield.)
Both plays have resulted in touchdowns. The first instance came in the Packers' Jan. 15 divisional playoff game at the Atlanta Falcons, a game for which Raji happened to be mic'd for NFL Films. If you haven't watched the resulting video, it's worth your time.
You'll see Raji admitting that "I didn't block nobody" after bursting through the line ahead of Kuhn on the result. Later, a Packers staff member approached Raji on the sideline and suggested he looked like the Fridge.
"I'm the Freezer," Raji responds.
Personally, I'm partial to "The Garaji" as a nickname, but I'm guessing "The Freezer" has already taken off.
"I was making a joke, just making light of the situation and having a good time with it," Raji said.
The same could be said of his post-touchdown celebration Sunday, which he said has generated "a slew" of offers for lessons and other suggestions to improve for the next time. Coach Mike McCarthy joked (I think) that he gave Raji "two minuses" on his grading chart on the interception -- one for holding the ball away from his body during the runback and another for the dance.
"The dance is a little bit undesirable," McCarthy said.
So what's next for Raji? Most importantly, the Packers are counting on him to anchor their defense against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that scored 37 points on them during a 2009 meeting. Bleah. That alone would be so boring.
Will Raji get a handoff out of that goal-line set? How about a play-action pass? Clearly he has the skills. And this week marks the 25th anniversary of Perry's 1-yard scoring plunge in the Bears' Super Bowl XX rout of the New England Patriots. At a listed 318 pounds, Perry had the record Raji now owns, according to Elias.
"B.J.'s a very good athlete," Packers general manager Ted Thompson said. "He's the kind of guy that despite his size, he's a pretty good basketball player, that sort of thing. He's blessed with a lot of God-given gifts."
I'm betting that includes the capacity for a better post-touchdown celebration.
"Who knows?" Raji said. "You'll have to see."
The world is waiting, B.J. The world is waiting.
NFL head coaches meet and speak frequently with their team owners, but the discussions take on more public meaning when the team is 0-4 -- and heading to 0-and-who-knows. So it was newsworthy this week to learn that Detroit coach Rod Marinelli met Monday with Lions owner William Clay Ford, a day after the team's 34-7 home debacle against Chicago.
According to Marinelli, there was no discussion about his future with the team. He said earlier this week he would "never" resign.
"I always tell him the truth and what I feel, but I also put it on me," Marinelli told reporters in Detroit. "It's my job. That's what I'm supposed to do, win here."
Marinelli said there were no clues to be gained from Ford's demeanor.
"I never try to read nothing into anything," he said. "I just go in and explain where we're at and what we're trying to do."
The conventional wisdom is that Marinelli will have the rest of this season to prove he should get a fourth as Lions coach. Although Ford already has fired president/general manager Matt Millen, there isn't an obvious in-house replacement for Marinelli to coach out the rest of the season if he fired.
Continuing around the NFC North:
- Former Lions receiver Charles Rogers must pay the team $8.5 million in bonus money, an arbitrator ruled. Tom Kowalski of Mlive.com has details. The team successfully argued Rogers defaulted on his contract when the NFL suspended him for a year after multiple violations of the substance abuse policy.
- Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers said there is "no doubt" he will start Sunday at Seattle, according to Jason Wilde of the Wisconsin State Journal.
- During a conference call with Wisconsin media, Seattle coach Mike Holmgren commented on the messy divorce between the Packers and quarterback Brett Favre. "It was too bad," Holmgren said, according to Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
- Packers defensive tackle Justin Harrell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he will be ready to practice when he's eligible to come off the Physically Unable to Perform list next Monday. Harrell had two offseason back surgeries.
- The Star Tribune learned the identities of four punters brought in for workouts Wednesday. The list includes: Former Denver punter Sam Paulescu, former Seattle punter Ryan Plackemeier, Adam Crossett and Glenn Pakulak.
- Patrick Reusse of the Star Tribune writes that former Vikings coach Bud Grant never would have apologized for a strange victory like the one Minnesota had Monday night over New Orleans.
- A fire in the hometown of Vikings quarterback Gus Frerotte left one building almost completely destroyed. The only thing remaining was a wall painted with a mural of Frerotte, according to Sean Jensen of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Frerotte is trying to help the displaced families in Ford City, Pa.
- The Chicago Bears will force rookie quarterback Matt Ryan to beat them Sunday in Atlanta, according to David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune. The Bears won't let tailback Michael Turner do it and will use safety Kevin Payne near the line of scrimmage to reinforce their run defense.
- Bears defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek said teammate Tommie Harris looked "great" in practice Wednesday, according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times. Harris rejoined the team this week after a one-game suspension.