A month into his rookie season, Alex Green – to use his words – was on “cloud nine.”
After overcoming a minor Achilles injury early on, Green was starting to find a role on offense for the 2011 Packers. He got three carries as a backup running back in Week 4 against Denver. Then he caught a pass the following week at Atlanta to convert a key third down.
The third-round draft pick appeared to be settling in as a regular contributor on Green Bay’s record-setting offense, until cloud nine suddenly became ground zero.
Green’s season was abruptly halted in the first quarter of the Week 7 game at Minnesota. He wrecked his knee while blocking on a kickoff return, and instead of preparing for third-down blitz pick-ups and swing passes, Green was suddenly staring at surgery and an arduous rehab.
“I had just got my feet wet, like I put my toes in the water and now I’m leaving the pool and I never really got to swim,” Green told packers.com in an interview this week. “It was an opportunity and I couldn’t really seize it because I wasn’t there. We’ll see what happens this coming year.”
Green’s excitement for the coming year is due in part to the notable progress with his rehab. He began straight-line running for the first time this week, and soon he plans to add cones, cutting and all the rest.
He hasn’t been told if he’ll be able to take any snaps when OTAs begin next month, but he expects to be ready for training camp come late July. He said his reps might still be limited at first this summer, but, hopefully, not for long.
“My personal goal is to go now. I want to go right now; I want to play,” Green said with a knowing smile, aware there’s a reason players don’t make these kinds of decisions. “But realistically, by camp I think I should be pretty good.
“I’m past the hard part, which is getting the full range of motion back and building strength. I’m over the hump, but I’ve still got a ways to go.”
The biggest hurdle for Green, as it often is for any player dealing with a season-ending injury, was the mental one. He talked with friends and teammates about how to handle it.
Fellow rookie running back Ryan Williams, whom Green had gotten to know at the combine and during the pre-draft process, had torn his ACL when Arizona played at Lambeau Field in the preseason. He shared with Green what he was going through. Packers teammate Morgan Burnett, who had recovered from his rookie ACL tear, provided some advice, as well.
The messages were all pretty much the same, but Green admitted he needed to hear them multiple times, because he was struggling with the situation early on.
“The hardest part is staying mentally focused and staying mentally grounded,” he said. “I had to keep motivating myself and not get too down. Having a positive mindset was a hard thing for me at first, because (the injury) was a constant reminder – you’re hurt, this is what you do for a living, and you can’t do it.”
It helped that Green waited a few weeks after the injury to have surgery. The doctors advised him to do some pre-surgery work to build range of motion and strength, and that helped him ditch the crutches within two weeks after the operation.
Since then, rehab has been his full-time job, and other than heading home to Portland for a couple of weeks, he’s been a regular in the lower level of Lambeau Field.
Once healthy, Green’s focus will turn to what he can do for the Packers in 2012. The running back situation remains in flux, with the known returnees being James Starks, Green and Brandon Saine, who had 18 carries and 10 receptions last season after being signed from the practice squad following Green’s injury. Veteran Ryan Grant remains an unrestricted free agent and may or may not be back, with the draft and rookie free agency likely to produce additional competition at the position, as well.
Where Green fits this season may not be known for some time. On offense, he might back up Starks and/or handle third downs. On special teams, he could be an option alongside Randall Cobb to return kickoffs (Green worked as a kick returner during training camp and the preseason last year), or he could resume other duties on the return and coverage units that he was learning on the fly as a rookie.
The way Green sees it, there’s plenty of time for his role to evolve. Having never dealt with an injury worse than a shoulder strain in his career until now, Green has had to focus so intently on the last six months that his job description six months from now is a lesser concern.
“All this definitely brought me down from cloud nine to reality,” he said. “You’re in this business, and when you’re hurt you realize at any given moment it can be done.
“Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I’m all for. Whatever they’ve got for me – third-down running back, starting, special teams – whatever it is, I’m ready to take on the challenge of anything they throw my way.”