GREEN BAY — The first time uniforms are handed out, most rookies concentrate on the logo on the helmet or the name on the back of the jersey.
Blake Martinez looks beyond that.
From an early age, the Packers’ linebacker always wanted to wear the defense’s communication headset. Not just because it was cool, but because of what it represents.
It means you’re an essential part of the defense, an every-down player who can be trusted in communicating the coordinator’s calls on the field.
“Ever since I was little, I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to have that in my helmet. That would be awesome,’” said Martinez earlier this week.
That day came last week at practice when the Packers’ coaching staff installed the headset in Martinez’s helmet prior to Sunday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame Game.
Martinez doesn’t read much into the gesture, especially since Jake Ryan (hamstring) and Sam Barrington (foot) weren’t going to play against the Colts, but it was a gratifying moment.
Although the game ended up being canceled, it was a reminder of how far the 22-year-old Martinez has come in his football journey.
“Since I’ve gotten here, I know injuries and things have allowed me to kind of step in here,” Martinez said. “It’s obviously tough to step in because of those reasons, but I’ve tried to take advantage of it.”
There were no communication helmets at Stanford. Every call Martinez relayed as a four-year starter was signaled in from the sideline.
Once he was drafted in May, he knew this was his chance. It’s not only a new situation for Martinez, but also for 65-year-old defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
For the first time, Capers can now communicate directly to the player instead of calling plays down from the coaches’ box to Winston Moss (associate head coach/linebackers) to relay from the sideline.
It’s taken some getting used to on both ends. When Martinez put the helmet on for the first time and heard Capers’ voice, he was slightly alarmed.
“What the heck? Who is talking to me?” Martinez thought.
Like any young player, there’s still things that need to be worked out. This week in practice, Martinez accidentally ran a different defense than what Capers had called over the headset.
The two joked about it afterward, understanding that’s what the preseason and training camp is for. The most impressive thing to Capers is how Martinez responds to his mistakes.
“I think he’s an attention-to-detail guy,” Capers said. “If he doesn’t know, he’s going to ask. There’s going to be errors because it’s the first time he’s seen a lot of things, but he normally doesn’t make the same error twice.”
Traditionally, the communication helmet goes to the dime inside linebacker in Dom Capers’ 3-4 defense because he’s the most likely to be on the field every down.
Barrington started with it last season before his season-ending injury in Week 1. It rotated around from there, eventually making its way to Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews.
It’s way too early to know exactly what direction the Packers will go in 2016, but Barrington has been impressed with how well Martinez communicated in their two practices together.
“Blake, he communicates better than any linebacker I’ve been in there with,” said Barrington, who returned to practice this week.
“Not taking anything away from the guys that I’ve been in there (with) in the past, but that’s what he brings to the table. He’s a great communicator. For a guy like me who’s locked in and who’s looking at everything, he’s like a second voice in my head.”
Martinez is known for his meticulous nature. In less than a month, he filled an entire spiral notebook with details he jotted down during organized team activities and minicamp.
During training camp, Martinez often can be found sprawled out on the floor in front of his locker after practice, already breaking down film and diagramming the entire defense.
It’s similar to what he did at Stanford, only now he’s paying attention to all 11 positions on the field instead of only his own assignment.
The idea came from something assistant linebackers coach Scott McCurley said to him at the start of summer: If you want to be a great linebacker, you have to understand what everyone is doing on a given play.
“I know what I’m supposed to do on each play,” Martinez said. “But now I want to take a step and put it in an advance setting where now you understand what everyone else is doing around you. I feel like that’s the next step each of us have to make as rookies.”
With Ryan still not practicing and Barrington only recently returning to the field, Martinez could get a lot of reps in Friday’s preseason home opener against Cleveland.
Although he didn’t get a chance to wear the communication helmet in Canton, Ohio, Martinez is ready to make the most of his opportunity whenever it’s placed in his hands again.
“You take every practice to get better,” Martinez said. “For the games, I’m going to use each and every one no matter if we had four or five to show improvement each week, and show the coaches I can go out there if they need me to and what role I can provide for this team.”