Monday, August 22, 2016

With Humbleness & Heart: The Tracy White Story (Part 2)

(You can read Part 1 here.)

Released by the Seahawks. Picked up by the Jaguars a Day Later.
In 2005, the Seahawks were retooling their linebacking corps. Chad Brown moved onto New England, Anthony Simmons was released and Seattle moved up in the draft to pick Lofa Tatupu. Tracy White didn’t fit their plans and was released after preseason despite being “one of the best special teams players,” according to then-Seattle special teams coach Mark Michaels, who informed the Ranter.

But Michaels had also moved that year to Jacksonville’s coaching staff (only three hours from Tracy’s home town), and the Jaguars picked up White just one day after being released from Seattle.

“It’s real strange but everything happens for a reason. It brought me closer to home, and I'm excited to play for the Jaguars,” White told the Seattle Times.

In Jacksonville, White played primarily on special teams for 15 games before being placed on IR. The Jaguars did not offer White a contact after the season as once again, he didn’t fit their plans at the linebacking position.

By that time, White had embraced special teams wholeheartedly and went onto make his mark in that area as Michaels told us:

“I feel Tracy was one of the best special teams players that I coached in my 8 years in the NFL.”

Reunited with Ted Thompson
Formerly in Seattle during Tracy White’s NFL beginnings, Ted Thompson was now in his second year as Green Bay’s General Manager in 2006 and picked up the free agent White.

It was an interesting situation at linebacker for the Packers at the time but one that seemed optimistic. Nick Barnett was the mainstay and coming off his best year, and the Packers made moves to further solidify the unit by drafting standout Ohio State Buckeye AJ Hawk with the 5th overall pick. They took it further by taking Abdul Hodge in the third round and the perception was they got great value.
Hodge, the 67th pick in '06

Don Pompeii of the Sporting News gave the Packers 2006 draft an A+ and said at the time:

"With linebackers A.J. Hawk and Abdul Hodge, the Packers have the beginnings of a defense that could dominate the NFC North for years."

Ben Taylor, Brady Poppinga, Roy Manning, Kurt Campbell and the relatively unknown Tracy White rounded out the linebacking competition.

But when fullback Brandon Miree was promoted from the practice squad, White was released. Soon after, DL Kendrick Allen was placed on IR. Coupled with backup linebackers Ben Taylor and Hodge dealing with injuries, White was resigned as insurance.

After making the final cut, White was properly utilized according to his expertise: on special teams. And in just his first season with Green Bay, he became the best at player in that regard on the team as the Journal Sentinel reported. It’s what got him another contract in 2007, where he once again was the Packers’ most productive player on special teams and received a significant increase in snap counts. The Packers had even gone from dead last in special teams to 7th place in 2007.

At the risk of bringing up a painful Packer memory, I would like to quickly revisit the 2007 NFC Championship game. With just over two minutes left in the game  – before the deflating OT loss – the Packers and Giants were tied 20-20. Green Bay was pinned near their own 15-yard line and forced to punt. The Giants were going to get excellent field position and a great opportunity to score. Fans everywhere were on pins and needles. The Packers needed a big play.

Enter Tracy White.

After John Ryan’s short punt, RW McQuarters took the ball at the Packers’ 48 yard line. He went about 10 yards before trying to cut in front of White, who knocked the ball loose. It was a gift from the football gods, but Green Bay sadly couldn’t fall on the ball. What might have been...

The Curious Underappreciation of Tracy White
When he hit free agency in 2008, White visited both Pittsburgh and Denver but opted for Green Bay and was rewarded him with a two-year deal. White had seemingly finally found a football home. Coach McCarthy even called White the best special teams player the last two years. Still at only 27-years old, White was in the prime of his career.

But management had other plans. With Favre now gone and Rodgers taking over at quarterback, the Packers were in the midst of building for the future and had suddenly laid claim to being the youngest team in the NFL. White initially made the cut (they had retained 7 linebackers in August) but on October 8th, the following Milwaukee Journal Sentinel headline appeared.

The Packers had cut Tracy White in favor of 23-year old practice squad linebacker Danny Lansanah. Apparently, Lansanah was being pursued by the Dolphins (he would end up there the next year after being cut by the Packers). At least this is what they told Tracy. Again, from the Journal Sentinel:

“Miami wanted to get him and they (the Packers) wanted to keep him so they had to make a roster move,” White said. “They wanted to stay young. I was told they want him for the ‘long haul.’ Those were the words quoted to me.”

At 6’1, 248 lbs., Lansanah also possessed a more typical size for linebacker. With AJ Hawk uncertain at the time with groin injury, Lansanah was perceived to be somewhat of insurance. It was a story Tracy had heard before.

For the fans who felt the sting, they had only to sullenly fall back on the relatively new Packers’ mantra at the time: In Ted We Trust.

The absence of Tracy White was clearly felt and the Packers special teams thereafter plummeted, finishing 26th in 2008 and 31st in 2009. If you think that's just hyperbole, this is what Bob McGinn had to say in 2010.
The dropoff in special teams even led to the (suggested) retirement of special teams coach Mike Stock from football. But Stock can’t be totally blamed for the fallout. As Tom Silverstein pointed out, “It was by far his toughest (year) given the few veterans he had to work with and the constant musical chairs he oversaw because of numerous injuries.

Silverstein also asked Stock about Tracy White specifically, and Stock “didn’t hide the fact that move affected the units.” As Stock said to Silverstein regarding White:

"He was kind of a quiet leader, because he'd take guys into the video room and sit and talk and discuss the various aspects of the Big Four, if you will, of the return aspects and the coverage aspects of the game with the young guys.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

With Humbleness & Heart: The Tracy White Story (Part 1)

Source: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images Sport
Followers of the Packer Ranter have long known of our affinity toward former NFL Special Teams standout Tracy White (Examples here, here, here, here, and the rest here.). In his short time as a Packer, White developed cult hero status before being released in one of what some consider one of Ted Thompson’s most regrettable moves in an otherwise arguably stellar tenure as Green Bay’s General Manager.  

While we didn’t know where he came from and what we had time at the time, we knew he was special. He always seemed to be around the ball making plays. He was electric, giving maximum effort at all times. In other words, the kind of player that makes it easy for fans to cheer.

Since his departure, I have casually followed his career from a distance, finding his name occasionally in footnotes and comments but always rooting for him. For the first time ever, I decided to dig deeper into White’s history. How did he develop into a true specialist? Why did he bounce around to so many teams?

What follows is a dive into some of Tracy White’s most memorable performances and history throughout his playing career that I could find. I hope you will find it as interesting and surprising as I have…

The Early Years
Tracy White is from a town of less than 2,000 people in South Carolina called St. Stephen. When he was in elementary school, White’s father had to undergo surgery for a brain tumor and essentially lost his vision. Although he was given only years to live at the time, Tracy’s father has persevered to this day and Tracy has often cites him as part of his own inspiration.

As expected in a small school, a gifted athlete such as White dominated in many sports but at one point, thought the Army was his future. Without any appealing football scholarships coming in, he had actually secretly planned to enlist in his brother’s footsteps but when his mother found out, she told him to finish high school first. A good thing she did – White eventually received a scholarship from Howard University.

For the Division 1-AA Bisons in the MEAC, White was simply outstanding. According to several sources, he not only played all 44 games but also became the school’s all-time leading tackler with 500. That’s an average of 11+ tackles a game. That literally almost never happens.

In fact, I was only able to find 5 players since 2000 who have surpassed 500 career college tackles with Tim McGarigle and Luke Kuechly leading the way. (For the sake of comparison, Zach Thomas had 390 career college tackles and former Packers first-round pick AJ Hawk had 394, respectively.)

It’s no surprise White was also two-time MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and the Black College Defensive Player of the Year. He’s also part of an extremely elite club, having earned Black College All-American honors three consecutive times. The other members: Antoine Bethea, Steve McNair and Shannon Sharpe.

Ridiculous Speed
White was projected to be taken in the 7th round but ended up going undrafted altogether. However, Seattle Seahawks linebackers coach John Marshall pushed to the team to sign him and it paid off. White was signed by the Seahawks in 2003 under then General Manager Bob Ferguson and Vice President of Operations (and now Packers GM), Ted Thompson.

Listed at 5-11 ft. and 228 lbs. coming out of college, White was understandably viewed as too small for an NFL linebacker and often mistaken for a secondary player (this would be an ongoing theme in his NFL career). In addition, the Seahawks linebacking corps was stocked with veterans. Thankfully for White, there was one area where he excelled tremendously: speed.

White wasn’t just fast, he was supersonic.

With LBs Chad Brown and Anthony Simmons both nursing injuries early in the season, they needed a replacement. According to SeattleTimes reporter Les Carpenter, “Then it was impossible to miss Tracy White.” Carpenter reported White ran the 40-yard dash in 4.3 seconds and the Seattle Times reported coaches clocked him at 4.4 twice. But let that 4.3 number sink in for a moment.

Here are the fastest times ever recorded by linebackers at the combine.
“Yes, he’s that fast,” GM Ferguson said at the time. “Ohhhh yes, he’s that fast.”

In fact, no quarterback, tight end or safety in history has matched that speed at the combine that was reported with Tracy White. That includes Michael Vick, Robert Griffin III and Vernon Davis. (Trindon Holiday set the record in 2010 at 4.21). Packers speedster Jeff Janis ran a 4.42 at the 2014 combine.

SEA @ AZ, October 24, 2004: White’s First Start at Linebacker
The Seahawks were not only dealing with linebacker injuries to their team’s leading tackler, but they were also coming off a failed comeback against the Patriots the week before. They had lost 20-30 in a game that gave New England the NFL record for the most consecutive regular season wins at 20.

Conversely, the Cardinals were home and hungry coming out of their bye week, having lost a tough OT game to the 49ers in a week 5. That matchup saw Tim Rattay throw for 417 yards and set the 49ers single-season record for most completions in a game (38), breaking Joe Montana’s record of 37.

The Seahawks-Cardinals game would also see its own share of significant history. For one, Arizona’s Emmitt Smith was going against Seattle’s Jerry Rice, who was acquired just days earlier. It was the first time in 20 years the all-time rushing leader and all-time reception leader faced each other. 
Via USA Today
While Rice was quiet, Smith eventually scored the game-winner on a 23-yard run that also earned him the honor of having most 100-yard games in a career (78) surpassing Walter Payton’s mark.

In addition, Neil Rackers would tie Morten Andersen’s record with three field goals from at least 50 yards.

The game itself was won by Arizona 25-17 but it probably shouldn’t have even been that close. Seattle’s offense was atrocious, with Matt Hasslebeck going just 14-41 with 4 interceptions but later owning it. “You can put all the blame on me,” he said.

It was only Seattle’s defense that kept them in the game, led by none other than Tracy White.

Replacing a 1st-round pick and team-leading tackler in Seattle’s Simmons with a 2nd-year undrafted player in White already had Seattle coaches a little nervous. As the Seattle Times reported:

"It's interesting," (Coach Mike) Holmgren said. "You go into the game with Tracy White from Howard University… and we’re all worried about Tracy White.”

That worry would later be transformed into high praise.

The Cardinals seemed to test White throughout the game with their future Hall of Fame running back being led by 265-pound TE Freddie Jones and 381-pound tackle Leonard Davis. But White was having none of it. Their first attempt went as follows: 

White would go on to stuff the stat sheet that day, leading both teams with 10 solo tackles and 13 total tackles – even contributing a sack on another future Hall of Famer and then-Cardinal’s rookie on the very first offensive play of the game.

Once again from Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

"It was a good feeling," White said. "My very first start I get to go up against Emmitt Smith. That's something I'm going to keep in my head."

His performance did not go unnoticed by the staff. 


Hundley, Hundley, Hundley

Friday, August 12, 2016

Farewell, Packer Fans

Thank you all for coming. It is with a heavy heart that I am standing before you all today. While there may be sadness, there is also a sense of hope and anticipation of the unknown.

There comes a time in everyone’s career when they realize that it is time to move on, to pursue other interests, to set new goals and work toward achieving them. I have come to that point. I look forward to waking up on a Sunday and not having to leave my family and go to work. I look forward to exploring new places, trying to new hobbies and, frankly, just relaxing on the couch.

When I think back on my career, I realize how unique it was. People hadn’t seen something like me before. That’s not me being arrogant, that’s just the era that it was. I’d like to think that I brought people joy and satisfaction. That just for a little while, they could forget about their problems be it work, or money, or certainly their health. I did things differently than those before me, I did things my way, and in the end, I think people appreciated that. I want to thank the fans for their support these past two years. I couldn’t have succeeded without them and their hunger for greatness.

Lambeau Field is a special place, and I will always cherish my two years here. I couldn’t have hoped to work with a more professional group of people, people so happy and willing to serve the fans of the Green Bay Packers. I’d like to thank Mark Murphy for giving me the opportunity to be a part of the team. I also would be remiss if I didn’t thank the stadium crew who made each and every game day possible. The professionalism and dedication you displayed is second to none. To the hundreds of concessions staff and volunteers, you are the real pros. You put me in position to succeed and excel, and I can never thank you enough. You will always be in my casing.

In closing, I would say that this is not the end of the ol’ Horse Collar, but rather a new beginning. Packer fans should create me at home, experiment with new toppings, try different cheeses and breads, go crazy….but don’t ever forget the sauerkraut. The 'kraut is what always made me tick. Please keep me in your stomachs and small intestines always because you will have a place in my bun forever.

Thank you. Good eating, and GO, PACK, GO.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Mildly Triumphant Return...and Craig Zelinski

*taps Paul Hornung bobblehead, blows dust off computer, cracks knuckles....gets back up and grabs a beer*

"Okay, Frank, lets get going. It's like riding a bike, you'll get the hang of it again."

Hello everyone. It has been quite some time since I've written anything, but the upcoming Packers' season has me excited, so I felt the need to put some ink to paper....better check my emails first.

Sifting through countless emails from the Packers Pro Shop and brought me to this fairly interesting(?) email:

I knew the Richard Klatt anti-hard count letter-to-the-editor got a fair amount of play, especially when Aaron Rodgers shared his feelings on it, but I never thought it would inspire copycats, certainly not to me. It was a gross oversight on my part that I didn't get to this until now. I could have followed up with Mr. Zelinski's email sooner and picked his brain on Luke Getsy's crazy wide receiver drills and Dom Capers' hair or hair piece and whether the Bengals should change their name to the Cincinnati Harambes. It seems my dereliction of duty to Packers' fans has caused me to miss out on any further nuggets of wisdom from Mr. Zelinski outside of his insights into Sam Shields' speed. In an effort to rectify this, I have reached out to Craig and asked him to share any ideas he may have on the upcoming season or really any topics. Hopefully, he hasn't been offended by my previous lack of communication, as he truly seems like a fascinating Packers fan.

Ask you can probably tell, my attention span is shorter than the time it takes Mike Daniels to turn the opposing offensive line into whimpering children, but I promise that I will keep writing this season...and find Craig Zelinski.

Go, Pack.
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