GREEN BAY—The pause was long, but understandable and telling.
When asked recently if he could think of another rookie cornerback making an impact similar to Casey Hayward’s, future Hall of Famer Charles Woodson had to think for a while.
He eventually came up with only two – himself, with five interceptions in 1998, and Champ Bailey, who matched those five picks in ’99.
Hayward has six interceptions to lead all NFL rookies with one regular-season game to play in 2012, and he is squarely in the running for the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year award, as selected by the Associated Press.
Sunday’s regular-season finale at Minnesota is Hayward’s last chance to make a final impression on the voters. One more interception could tie him for second among all players in the league. Chicago’s Tim Jennings has eight, while three other players sit at seven.
“The ball just seems to find the kid,” Woodson said, unable to hold back a smile. “I joke with him like, ‘Man, they make it real easy.’ But he’s played great.”
Two things could prevent Hayward from winning the award. One is that he’s not technically a starter, because Tramon Williams and Sam Shields are the Packers cornerbacks in the base defense.
But the Packers play nickel a large majority of the snaps, and in that package Hayward mans the slot corner position, generally considered veterans’ territory and a more difficult assignment.
“I think I’ve been using my instincts, but the first thing is just focusing,” Hayward said of making such a big impact early in his career. “Coach (Joe) Whitt has done a great a job with me, teaching me this playbook. The coaches said I’d have my opportunities coming in.”
The other factor potentially working against Hayward is a legitimately strong field of candidates for the award.
Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly is among the league leaders in total tackles, plus he has two interceptions and three fumble recoveries. Seattle linebacker Bobby Wagner is one of the best all-around defenders on the league’s fourth-ranked defense, with a tackle total near Kuechly’s, plus two sacks and three interceptions.
Wagner’s teammate, Bruce Irvin, leads all rookies with eight sacks, and Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David has 17 tackles for loss in the run game, more than Houston standout J.J. Watt, who is being talked about for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
It’s a crowded competition, but Hayward takes a back seat to no one. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Hayward has not allowed a touchdown pass, been called for a penalty or missed a tackle this season. The Packers coaching staff has credited him with 23 passes defensed, tops on the team, and with one more he’ll match the highest single-season total for any Packers defender since Woodson had 26 in 2006.
“I think he’s building a reputation as a guy a quarterback is going to have to show a little bit more respect, as far as throwing the ball where he’s at,” Woodson said. “He understands the game and has great instincts. Those couple things together make him special.”
There’s obviously far more at stake in Sunday’s game than Hayward’s final pitch for the rookie award. The Packers are playing for a first-round bye and a second straight NFC North sweep, while the Vikings are playing to get into the playoffs.
If Minnesota wins, there will be a rematch between the Packers and Vikings the following week in the wild-card round at Lambeau Field, unless both San Francisco and Seattle lose on Sunday.
“You never, never want to let a division opponent sneak into the playoffs if you can help it,” fullback John Kuhn said, knowing what the Bears found out two years ago when they tried and failed to keep the Packers out of the postseason, only to have to face them again in the NFC title game.
But Hayward’s quest is intriguing nonetheless. The last Packers player to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year was cornerback Willie Buchanon in 1972, and only two cornerbacks have won the award since then – Kansas City’s Dale Carter in 1992 and Woodson in ’98. In ’99, Bailey lost out to Tennessee defensive end Jevon Kearse.
“People talk about it, so you have no choice but to have it cross your mind,” Hayward said. “If I win the award, it would be great. I think there are a lot of worthy guys out there, but if you want to go strictly off numbers, I feel like I have some of the better numbers.”
Certainly better than any rookie cornerback in a while. Just ask Woodson.
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