As if anyone in Packer Nation needs reminding, Johnny Jolly has returned from a prison stint and is in the middle of one of the greatest comeback stories of all time, trying to find the magic he had as a defensive tackle before his life was derailed.
We’re all Jolly fans, none more than my fellow CheeseheadTV and Cheesehead Radio partner, Jayme Snowden, who has been clearly driving the Jolly Bandwagon long before his comeback attempt was crystalized. And last night’s performance sent any remaining nonbelievers jumping on that bandwagon, now creaking and groaning under the weight of every Packer fan in the world (as well as nearly all of his teammates).
Indeed, I announced victoriously on Twitter that, after creating havoc in the backfield, tipping away one pass for an interception, then picking off his own on the goal line, that he had made the team. After all, isn’t this what we so desperately missed last season: the Big Play? Isn’t that what we brought him back for: to see if he still had that disruptive force he once had?
Boom. Done deal.
But this is the NFL, and one-game explosions are no guarantee. The Packers have invested heavily along the defensive line, and have a lot of young talent that they would be loathe to cut from the team. For 30-year old Johnny Jolly, he’s going to have to make a clear case before the Packers release a recent draft pick.
And that brings me to my conundrum: is the Big Play enough to make the team?
I recently wrote about the career of Kabeer Gbaja-Biamilia, a Packers HOFer that lived and died by the Big Play. He was a speed-sack specialist, but unfortunately, his sack totals amounted to a very small percentage of the number of downs he actually played.
Mike Sherman made the decision to elevate KGB to a full-time defensive end, and saw the productivity falter at that position during that time. Perhaps Gbaja-Biamilia still got in his 10-12 sacks per season, but the rest of the time he was nearly invisible.
What’s important is that when Mike McCarthy came on the scene in 2006, it was the beginning of the end for KGB. When you’re playing 425 snaps a season, and only making an impact on 10 of them, you’re going to find yourself on the sideline more and more. McCarthy wasn’t going to play around with older vets who weren’t available and accountable.
Which sets the stage for another defensive lineman trying to make the club, with a plethora of young talent already ahead of him on the depth chart. And, I had to realize that, as a fan and an observer, I am smitten with the Big Play. Interceptions, batted balls, dramatic tackles for losses…all of these make us fall in love with a player, and Johnny Jolly did that in spades last night.
The reality is what happens on the other 80% of snaps where Jolly didn’t make a big play. I did my best to observe Jolly when he was in there, and usually saw him holding his block on those “other plays”. But it comes down to the coaches going through the tape and grading out Jolly as to what his assignment was on each play and if he executed those plays properly.
Don’t get me wrong. Big Plays have a way of sticking in coaches’ minds, too. Young, no-name players strive to do something to get the coaches’ attention, and to be certain, Micah Hyde did an awfully good job of that, too. Big-play capability is just as valuable an asset for a player as any other metric.
But, it is just one metric, not the end-all, be-all. How many times have we seen a young running back have an amazing game in the preseason, only to not make the final cut when the roster went down to 53? In the end, what is going to keep Jolly on this roster is going to be the tandem of his disruptive, big-play ability and his down-in/down-out ability to be more valuable than one of the other roster wanna-be’s.
Set in stone are BJ Raji, Ryan Pickett, Datone Jones, and Mike Daniels. This puts Jolly in competition with CJ Wilson, Josh Boyd, Mike Neal, and Jordan Miller, for what will likely be the final two spots. Some are pinning hopes on Mike Neal making the team as a linebacker, but after watching him in space, I’d say Neal getting injured again has a higher likelihood.
On one hand, it makes the odds pretty steep: do you cut the solid rotational guy in WIlson, the lingering promise of Neal, or the draft investment of Boyd for Jolly out of sentiment? No. He is going to have to earn his spot.
But one only has to take a long, hard look at last year’s final three games to see that whatever talent we had along the defensive line wasn’t quite enough to stop Adrian Peterson and Colin Kaepernick. And something will have to change between then and the season opener against the 49ers if we’re going to expect different results.
And suddenly, the Big Play potential of Johnny Jolly has that much more value. I’m no coach or GM, but I’ve already pencilled in Jolly on my Final 53. Time will tell if McCarthy and Ted Thompson will see enough to do the same.
C.D. Angeli is a longtime Packer fan, and a Packer blogger since 2005. You can find his Johnny Jolly-sized articles at CheeseheadTV, listen to him weekly on the Packers podcast Cheesehead Radio, and find him playing good cop over at PackersTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.