For Tramon Williams, return to Packers is about mentoring — and producing
GREEN BAY — The decision was hardly a decision. It was more of a confirmation of what both men already believed.
Back in the spring, coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Brian Gutekunst got together on the third floor of their Lambeau Field offices and watched a little bit of film on a free agent cornerback with whom they were familiar.
They perused his work with the Arizona Cardinals last year, and his stint with the Cleveland Browns before that. They talked briefly about whether they believed the 35-year-old could still play one of the NFL’s most demanding positions, despite his advancing age. What they didn’t have to discuss was what he’d mean to the locker room — they knew exactly the impact he’d have in there.
And that was that. The Green Bay Packers were going to make a run at bringing back Tramon Williams, the popular veteran cornerback who in his eight seasons in Green Bay (2007-14) had grown from unknown practice-squadder to key contributor to top-flight cover man and locker room leader.
“The conversation about Tramon, it was short,” McCarthy recounted after Williams’ pick-6 interception return for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage of Thursday’s preseason win over the Pittsburgh Steelers seemingly corroborated what he and Gutekunst had thought all along.
“We had the cutup (video) of his play in Arizona. He played very well. Saw him a few times in his Cleveland experience. But as a person? There wasn’t any hesitation.
“It’s just great to have him back. He hasn’t looked like he’s aged at all. He’s just a tremendous asset to our football team.”
After enduring another difficult season on defense — particularly against the pass, where the Packers ranked 23rd (236.8 yards per game), 31st in scoring defense (and managed a measly 11 interceptions) — Gutekunst and McCarthy, along with new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, knew personnel changes were in order.
Former first-round pick Damarious Randall, who was never truly a corner to begin with, was jettisoned to Cleveland. Cornerback became their primary draft priority, and the Packers selected Louisville’s Jaire Alexander in the first round and Iowa’s Josh Jackson in the second. Davon House, another veteran who’d spent the early part of his career in Green Bay, was brought back for another year.
“I don’t know how to compare this year to last year — it’s a bunch of different guys in that room and some guys that are veteran guys that have gone through seasons and understand how to take care of their bodies and have kind of weathered storms before,” Gutekunst said last week, referring primarily to Williams. “(So) I feel good about our depth in the secondary.
“I think experience in this league is very valuable. Obviously, you’re always weighing the player vs. that (experience) part of it and you’re looking for the guys who can compete and produce. But I do think there’s something to having guys like that in our locker room, who have been through those situations before that give something back to the younger players as they move forward.”
‘Do the right thing’
Williams isn’t here just to mentor Alexander, Jackson, 2017 top pick Kevin King or any of the other younger players in the cornerback room. That’s purely a value of having him back on the roster. He’s still as competitive as ever — as evidenced by the way his perma-smile evaporates when asked if he’s concerned that he is grooming his replacements and that his playing time could wane as the season progresses.
“No. I’ve never feared that a day in my life,” Williams said. “I actually embrace it, because ultimately, we’re going to need those guys at some time during the season. I feel confident in my ability, to where I can still show somebody all they need to know and still take care of my business. That’s never been a fear of mine.
“I’ve just always looked to do the right thing. Sometimes, the right thing is sometimes the hard thing to do. That’s not really hard for me to do. I’m that confident in my ability that I can show all of these guys all they need to know, get them ready for what they need to get ready for but still take care of my business. I just feel like my experience enables me to do that. It’s not very hard for me.”
Nor, apparently, is defying age. Playing both inside and outside throughout camp practices, the only time Williams hasn’t been on the field with the No. 1 defense has been when Pettine or defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt has rotated in young players to see what they would do with the starters.
“You just watch the way he moves fluently through the drills — I mean, hell, he looks younger,” McCarthy said. “Tremendous athlete, whether you’re watching him in the weight room on the platform lifts or on the field. He has that expertise of having played that position at a very high level.”
Asked if he would have predicted Williams would still be playing at this level back in 2015, when he was coaching Williams in Cleveland, Pettine replied, “No, no. Because it’s rare that you see a corner play for as long as he’s played. Just watching film from last year — I got to see the Cardinal film a bunch — and it was like, ‘Wow, he’s still playing at a high level.’
“I mean, that’s amazing. That’s a tribute to him, to how he’s taken care of his body. He’s the ultimate professional. He’s very aware of what he puts into his body and his workout regimen. It’s not by accident that he’s been able to play as long as he has.”
‘I feel great’
Williams, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal with the Packers, won’t put any limits on how long he might play.
One of his closest friends and former teammates, two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Al Harris, used to say he wanted to play beyond age 40, like Pro Football Hall of Famer Darrell Green did with the Washington Redskins.
Harris, now the Kansas City Chiefs secondary coach, played his 14th NFL season at age 37 with the St. Louis Rams in 2011 despite his Packers career ending two years earlier because of a catastrophic knee injury — which led to Williams becoming a full-time starter.
Asked if he thinks 40 is realistic, Williams smiled.
“You never know what the next year is going to bring, so I take it a year at a time. But I know this: I feel great. Great,” Williams said. “I don’t know when I’m going to slow down. If you ask me, I’d probably say, ‘I’m never going to slow down,’ I feel like I age slowly. But I feel really good.”
Williams’ tale has been told enough that most Packers fans can recite it by rote. He walked on at Louisiana Tech after sitting in the student section as an 18-year-old freshman at his first game — watching Tech’s pass defense get shredded by Boise State — and went on to a standout career there. (That’s also where he met his wife, Shantrell, a member of the Lady Techsters basketball team.)
After going undrafted, Williams signed with but was later cut by the Houston Texans. After weekly tryouts with a host of NFL teams, he was signed to the Packers’ practice squad on Nov. 29, 2006. After a breakout performance in the annual Family Night Scrimmage during the 2007 training camp, he made the roster — only because the team kept one extra defensive back than it normally did — and by season’s end, he was the defense’s third cornerback in its nickel defense. By 2010, when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, Williams had blossomed into one of the NFL’s top man-to-man cover corners.
‘A great leader’
While he may no longer be in his prime, Williams certainly didn’t show his age against the Steelers. On the first play from scrimmage — and his first play back in a Packers uniform after he was among the veterans given the opener off — Williams recognized the call from his film study, broke on quarterback Mason Rudolph’s pass to wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey and intercepted it, returning it 25 yards for a touchdown for the first points of the game.
Heyward-Bey was running a simple stop route to the left sideline, and Williams knew it from his pre-snap read. Afterward, he went so far as to absolve Rudolph of blame, saying there wasn’t much the rookie could have done about it.
At the same time, Williams seemed as happy about Jackson’s pick-6 to start the second half as he was about his own touchdown. Having taken Jackson under his wing during the spring, Williams — despite his insistence that he’s back in Green Bay to be a big contributor, not just a big brother — clearly is enjoying doing both.
“I look up to him,” Jackson said. “I just ask him as many questions as I can. He’s a great leader.”
And, a natural one.
“I think with my personality, it’s natural. Guys tend to gravitate toward me, because they know the route that I took to get here. And I don’t shy away from it,” Williams said. “I’m looking to get these guys better, because we’re going to have count on these guys day-in and day-out and week-in and week-out during the season. They’re going to have be at their best and I’m going to have to be at my best.
“Over the past few years, you always hear the secondary come up (as a problem). We’re trying to get it back to where it belongs. We’ve had some great players over the years here, and I tell them stories about Charles (Woodson) and Nick (Collins) and all of those guys and what we did. Not to live in the past, but to give them a little history lesson, and to let them know that we can surpass this.
“We’re here to be great, so that’s what I’m going to instill in them. I’m just doing my job.”