Nick Barnett has witnessed both ends of the success spectrum throughout his decade-long tenure in the NFL.
He spent the first eight seasons of his career rooted in Green Bay; one of the most historically successful franchises the league has ever seen. In his eight years with Green Bay the Packers made the playoffs five times and won the Super Bowl in 2010-11; a bittersweet moment for Barnett after missing most that season with a wrist injury.
A former first-round pick in 2003 out of Oregon State, Barnett became one of the NFL’s more productive linebackers immediately upon his arrival, and was eventually rewarded for his efforts; inking a six-year, $34 million contract extension in 2007 that saw him receive nearly $12 million in his first year of his deal.
For Green bay, he was often a bargain. In each of the six years he was healthy Barnett registered at least 105 tackles. He also racked up 15.5 sacks and nine interceptions.
Green Bay signed linebackers A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop to contract extensions after winning the Super Bowl. That, coupled with Barnett due nearly $5 million led to his release on July 28, 2011.
When he left, he did so with the second-most career tackles (787) in franchise history.
He didn’t stay unemployed for long. Barnett visited the Buffalo Bills and signed a three-year deal just three days after his release.
Buffalo had to be culture shock to him—at least in regard to the organization’s national perception. Suddenly Barnett went from playing on a perennial Super Bowl contender to a squad that hadn’t sniffed the playoffs in 11 years, with just one winning season during that span.
Quite obviously, Barnett and his teammates haven’t been able to get Buffalo back to winning ways. The Bills have gone 6-10 in each his first two seasons and the postseason skid has reached 13 years.
Statistically speaking, it’s been a mixed bag of results for Barnett in Buffalo. He had an outstanding 2011; leading the team with 130 tackles (fifth in the AFC and second-most of his career) to go with three interceptions and three interceptions.
Last season as did most his teammates, Barnett took a step backward. Still he managed 112 tackles and a pair of sacks despite playing the Will linebacker in their 4-3 base (more on that later) for the first time in his career.
Trust me; Barnett doesn’t care about his stats. He knows, along with everyone else that Buffalo’s defensive statistically was historically abysmal — a hotchpotch of inexperience, vanilla coaching that often verged on cowardly, and some flat-out underachieving by the players.
That eats away at him, though you wouldn’t know by his attitude. Barnett is as engaging and optimistic about this team and its fans than any player I’ve interviewed in at least a few years.
That’s no exaggeration, either. If Barnett wasn’t a player I genuinely think he’d be a card carrying member of the “BillsMafia” fan club that supports the team. Hell, he probably is anyway.
Lots of players state the only thing they care about is winning the Super Bowl. With Barnett, I actually believe it. He badly wants to be a key player on a squad that ultimately turns a long dysfunctional organization into a franchise playing consequential January football.
His approach rubs off on his teammates, both young and old.
“Not only is he a great player, but he’s a great role model for us young players,” Bills tight end Dorin Dickerson said. “There is a reason why he has played 10 years in the league.”
I spoke with Barnett about his past in Green Bay, frustrations over losing in Buffalo, thoughts on the new Bills coaches and what he hopes for in the latter years of his career.
Buffalo Sports Daily: You’re a 10-year veteran, spending the first eight years of your career in Green Bay, where your teams only had two losing seasons in eight years. How difficult has the losing been for you personally over the past two years, something you’re clearly not used to?
Nick Barnett: It’s been very a difficult situation to deal with. That’s especially true, knowing that we have the talent here, but haven’t been getting it done. Seeing how dedicated this fan base has been through these difficult times, it’s only right that we change that predicament as soon as possible. They deserve more.
BSD: Your final year in Green Bay (2010) you suffered a wrist injury that ended your season after just four games. The Packers went on to win the Super Bowl and despite being unable to play, you were part of a solid foundation for Green Bay that became a Super Bowl winner. As someone who’s seen firsthand a team winning a championship, what besides just talent, propelled Green Bay to get over the hump?
NB: I think it was the chemistry and belief we had in our team. We definitely had great talent and depth, but more importantly we had the belief in each other. We also learned to have the discipline and body of work to back up what we believed in. Before that year (2010), I was on the NFL Network saying it’s Super Bowl or Die for us! That’s how strongly I believed our team was going to make it all the way and win.
BSD: When you were released by Green Bay and became a free agent, what attracted you to Buffalo? Was there a particular person or circumstance that influenced you to sign with the Bills?
NB: Really, it was everything. Coming from Green Bay I got used to being in a city and environment were football was one of the most important things. Being in that town with so many down to earth, cool people really helped my career tremendously in Green Bay. I saw Buffalo as being very similar in environment, so it almost felt a perfect fit. Plus with the defensive talent in Buffalo, I thought it may have my career get prolonged even longer [laughs].
BSD: It was reported that Shawne Merriman helped recruit you to sign with the Bills. Any truth to that?
NB: I think him already being here was more of the recruitment. I have always thought of him as high energy and an explosive player. So seeing that he was on board, as was Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Chris Kelsey up front on the defensive line made me very comfortable playing behind guys like that.
BSD: In your first season in Buffalo, you had an outstanding season statistically. Those numbers somewhat went down this past year. How much did switching linebacking positions have an impact on your game, at least statistically?
NB: Well, there was a big change in the base defense from a year ago in 2011. This season I played the Will (linebacker) position in a 4-3 based defense for the first time in my career. The Will in a 4-3 is not known for making as many tackles and impact plays as the Mike (where he played in 2011.) You have to play a lot slower on runs away from you, being you are the one that has to prevent cut backs by the running back. In 2011, I was a little freer to make plays when we were in our base. That’s a reason for the drop statistically, but that’s just the way it goes. I don’t care about statistics much. The bottom line is we didn’t execute well enough to play consistently.
BSD: One of the biggest criticisms of Buffalo’s defense in 2012 was that the Dave Wannstedt-coached unit was often too vanilla. You guys rarely blitzed and if often seemed opposing offenses dictated what was going on the field. In hindsight, do you think the defensive calls were generally too passive and if so, why do you think that happened?
NB: I think Dave was a great coach. We played with seven or more first or second year players, so we had a lot of growing pains. We would go into one game with the idea of calling blitzes, and have too many mental mistakes throughout. It’s hard to gain the coordinator’s confidence to be more aggressive if we are all making too many mistakes. I think once we got away from it, we never were able to make it back.
BSD: You have one of the most explosive running backs in the NFL in C.J. Spiller and a very steady, versatile guy in Fred Jackson. There were times last year when both were healthy at the same time. Were the moments when even yourself and your defensive teammates were thinking “why the hell aren’t we running the ball more” when Chan Gailey was calling plays?
NB: There were definitely times when we had both of them very healthy and on fire; guys were wondering why we don’t just run the ball a lot more. But I have never claimed to be an offensive genius so it was never my job to second guess anyone. As a player you need to have confidence in all your coaches and even if our record didn’t show it, we all did.
BSD: You’re never going to be the kind of guy that calls out his teammates and your team seems to be a close-knit guys. How do you put a disastrous 2012 campaign behind in the rear view mirror and get back to being a defense that produces turnovers and heat on the quarterback?
NB: Confidence and excitement. I think a year ago in 2011 when we were causing a lot of turnovers, there was a certain excitement in the air and in our step. Even when we were giving up yards we felt like we were always going to create a turnover or make a big play. We need that confidence back. We need to recreate that and take it even further this season. I expect the growing pains our defense as a unit suffered are over, period. It’s time for us to step up and start dropping the hammer on opponents. I’ve never been more confident of anything in my life that we have the talent here in Buffalo to do it.
BSD: You’re one of the most experienced veterans on the team and certainly at linebacker. What’s your take on young linebackers Kelvin Sheppard and Nigel Bradham? What do you like in what you see from them—and what do you think they should and will be working on moving forward to take their game to the next level?
NB: Both have a lot of natural ability and want to win. Instincts are hard to teach and I truly believe both of those guys have those natural instincts it takes to be successful. Obliviously Nigel is half-man and half-deer! [laughs] He’s a fast, quick guy with a ton of physical assets. Shep has gotten a lot better in all-around fundamentals— and is also growing into quite the leader. We’re looking for him to take a few steps forward this year.
BSD: You didn’t miss any games this season. In fact you’ve played in all 32 games since coming to Buffalo, but you battled some injuries this year, particularly your knee.
NB: I had some knee issues but nothing serious enough to keep me out of a game. I think with the new, modified program the trainers came up with for me this offseason, I won’t be having any problems and I’m ready to feel the best I have in years.
BSD: Doug Marrone was recently named as the Bills head coach. What are your initial impressions of him and what kind of early indications do you have that think he can be the guy to help turn this franchise around?
NB: I have not met him personally yet, but everything I have heard or read about him has led me to believe he is the right guy here. The staff he has put together, especially defensively is very impressive.
BSD: Your thoughts on new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine?
NB: His body of work speaks for itself. I am all about dominating and anytime you can do that at this level is impressive. He wants us to be aggressive and dominate. When you have the type of resume he has, guys buy into whatever you’re preaching and teaching. It’s very similar to me as when Dom Capers came to Green Bay.
BSD: You’ve played various positions in both the 4-3 and 3-4 defenses in your career. What spot do you find yourself most comfortable in, and where do you think you can be most effective?
NB: In a 4-3 I like to play the Mike. It’s the position I have played most of my career. But I can also play the Will like I did last year. With the 3-4, I feel like I can play either inside linebacker position, but like the weak inside depending on what type of front we run. To be completely honest, I am game for anything that will help this team accomplish our goals.
BSD: With 13 straight playoff-less seasons, it’s hard for any Bills player current or recent to grasp how storied this franchise once was. There was a time where winning divisions and conference championships was a realistic expectation. Fans have continued to stick by the Bills, but do you have a sense and feel the frustration of a fan base that hasn’t seen a playoff game this century?
NB: I definitely can feel their frustration and completely understand it. I have only been here two years and I am beyond frustrated myself. Excuses are cheap—It’s time for the Buffalo Bills to return to the postseason. I think that’s what our front office has done— put us in a position to accomplish that goal. It’s on us as players.
BSD: Even in losing times here, you can still feel the energy from the crowd when it’s football season. How important—or special would it be for you personally to be part of the team that is the one to get things turned around and bring post-season football back to Buffalo.
NB: I think that is one of the things that was most appealing to me wanting to come here and be a Buffalo Bill. I want to be a part of that team that turns this around for such an amazing fan base. I can’t express how rewarding that will be for this team to give this city that.
BSD: You have a good sense of the history here. Guys like Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Darryl Talley etc. are still treated like heroes in Western New York, even years after their playing days ended. Have you ever talked to any of the “old guard” about what it was like being in Buffalo during their Super Bowl era?
NB: I have talked to many of those guys and every conversation has been the same. If you win here in Buffalo, you will forever be in the heart of this fan base. It’s so impressive, even after so many down years how strong this fan base remains—just incredible. It’s also impressive how those guys are still around the area to talk to us. It’s very cool to be able to talk to some of your childhood heroes.
BSD: The team announced this week that the Toronto series has been extended for five years. Some players have praised the series, some don’t comment at all while others, especially Eric Wood have been very critical, calling it “a joke.” Understanding the regionalization aspect of it, it’s hard to argue that it essentially costs Buffalo a “true” home game. What’s your opinion about playing regular season games north of the border?
NB: I think of it as a good opportunity for our fans on the other side of the border to get a great chance to see their Bills to play on their home turf. From a marketing standpoint, I think its genius to create an international fan base that’s just right around the corner—the more Bills fan the merrier, right? The only negative, which I also completely understand is that it takes away a game each year from the Ralph. It’s a lot different playing in Toronto than the Ralph. There’s nothing like playing at the Ralph.
BSD: Who’s the toughest player in the NFL you’ve ever went up against?
NB: Adrian Peterson and Steven Jackson.
BSD: 10 years in the NFL for a linebacker is nothing to sneeze at. Do you still feel like you have a lot left to give?
NB: I feel like this will be my best year yet. 10 years is a blessing and I thank God every single day for it. I also continue to pray that I can play this game until I am 50. Knowing that’s not possible, I feel blessed with every year I can play. How many years? Hopefully plenty more and hopefully it’s with Buffalo. I still got a lot to give.
BSD: What’s your favorite moment as a pro?
NB: I have two favorite moments. The day I was drafted (first-round/2003) was probably the most memorable because without it I wouldn’t have been able to experience all of the great things I have and make the mistakes I was able to learn valuable lessons from. I have always believed your mistakes are just as important as your accomplishments.
The second was when we made it to the Super Bowl in 2010. It was a great journey and of course, bittersweet for me being that I didn’t get an opportunity to play in it. But it was just as rewarding seeing the men I shared the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat with, for so many years accomplish our dream at the same time.
My dream wasn’t complete because I didn’t get to play in the Super Bowl, so my goal is to finish it here in Buffalo.
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