GREEN BAY – For those of you wondering what the Packers are playing for on Saturday night in the freezing temperatures at Lambeau Field, let me relay a story.
It was December 2008, a bitterly cold Sunday on which the Packers hosted the Houston Texans. Green Bay had mathematical hopes for a playoff spot at best, but the season was essentially over with a struggling defense spiraling the wrong way.
Second-year middle linebacker Desmond Bishop was given his first career start that day, and what a game he had. The hard-hitting sixth-round draft pick from the prior year posted 12 tackles, two forced fumbles and his first career sack.
Then came Houston’s final drive. In the last minute of the game, with the score tied at 21, the Texans faced second-and-6 from their own 48. Tight end Owen Daniels slipped out over the middle, and Bishop blew the coverage.
Daniels’ catch-and-run gained 27 yards and put the Texans in position to run the clock down and kick a walk-off field goal.
After the game, Bishop was beside himself. I had made my way down to the locker room before the end of the game to set up for some postgame work, which is no longer part of my routine. But I saw the players in the first moments after coming off the field.
It was impossible not to notice Bishop. After the postgame words from the head coach, he walked away from his locker, still in full uniform, into an auxiliary room, near where I was standing (just trying to mind my own business after a tough loss).
I couldn’t make out exactly what he was saying to himself, but it wasn’t pleasant. He was inconsolable. The pent-up emotions were almost too much. I was actually afraid he might decide to turn the cabinets in the auxiliary room to dust.
To his credit, Bishop maintained his composure enough to spare the cabinets, and when reporters gathered at his locker, he answered all the questions professionally and respectfully.
He had played a great game and made one costly mistake, a mistake I have no doubt fueled him the rest of his career.
As we all know, Bishop would go on to become a starter on the Super Bowl XLV championship team when Nick Barnett was lost early on to a season-ending injury. He racked up 121 tackles and three sacks that year before recovering the critical Rashard Mendenhall fumble in the Super Bowl, famously forced by Clay Matthews.
The next year, as the Packers went 15-1, he topped his previous numbers with 142 tackles and five sacks. A horrible hamstring injury in the 2012 preseason opener at San Diego changed his career trajectory, unfortunately, or we almost certainly would be talking about an even more memorable tenure in Green Bay.
But I’ll never forget Bishop’s first start nine years ago. It was an eye-opener into how much players like him care, even without the postseason carrot dangling in front of them, especially young players trying to make a name for themselves in this game. It’s why I refrain from using the phrase “meaningless game,” as strange as it is for the Packers to be in this position.
When I look at Green Bay’s current defense heading into Saturday night’s frigid contest against NFC North champ Minnesota, I see a lot of players, like Bishop back in 2008, still looking to establish themselves in the NFL.
Linebackers Vince Biegel and Kyler Fackrell, for example, or lineman Dean Lowry, or defensive backs Josh Jones and Josh Hawkins, just to name a few. Though more established, other young defenders like Kenny Clark, Blake Martinez and Damarious Randall see every opportunity to play as an ongoing audition for their future role and status on this team.
The offense also has its rookie running backs, plus second-year guys like tackle Jason Spriggs and receivers Geronimo Allison and Trevor Davis, who need to keep proving themselves.
So, what’s on the line these last two games of 2017? No, not the playoffs, but plenty.
“It’s going to show what certain guys are about,” Martinez said this week.
I learned what Bishop was about from a game like this one, and a Super Bowl team ended up better for it.
Remember that, and let’s revisit this conversation in another year or two.