Commentary

Players from bottom of roster rise up

Some previously unheralded Packers shine, proving that every spot matters

Originally Published: February 8, 2011
By Ross Tucker | ESPN.com

Jarrett BushRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesGreen Bay cornerback Jarrett Bush wasn't exactly a household name before he intercepted a Ben Roethlisberger pass in Super Bowl XLV.
Frank Zombo. Jarrett Bush. Doug Legursky. Howard Green.

These are the names of some of the players who came up big for their teams when it mattered the most in Super Bowl XLV. Yet, you have to think that at least 95 percent of the record-breaking television audience that watched another thrilling Super Bowl had never heard of any of them before Sunday evening.

Sure, stars such as Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings and even Ben Roethlisberger made their share of plays. That is to be expected. But Bush, not even the Packers' nickelback but rather their dime (4th cornerback), making a great break on a ball for a key interception and then harassing and taking down the toughest quarterback in football later in the game? Um, no.

Should it really come as a surprise? Not at all. Not in an era in which relative unknowns such as Tracy Porter pick off Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in back-to-back games and special-teams guy David Tyree makes a once-in-a-lifetime helmet catch to help knock off the previously undefeated Pats.

It has become a cliché to say football is the ultimate team sport, but it really is. Would the Packers have won the Super Bowl without the play Green made on Big Ben as he released the ball in the first half, leading to a Nick Collins interception return for a touchdown? Probably not. And that is why Green, a career vagabond who was jettisoned by the Jets midway through this season, is another fantastic story in a sport that continues to have plenty of them.

[+] EnlargeJames Starks
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJames Starks had his greatest impact in the playoffs.
How about Packers rookie running back James Starks? Maybe a decent chunk of the fans had begun to learn more about him over the course of the last month of the playoffs, but that doesn't make his stellar performance against the Steelers' run defense any less impressive. The Niagara Falls, N.Y., native, who didn't play his senior year at Buffalo because of an injury and really didn't do much of anything in the 2010 regular season, made his 11 carries count, gaining 52 yards for a 4.7 yards-per-carry average.

So what is the lesson that should be learned by all of the other teams in the NFL, if they don't know it already? That the spots at the bottom of the roster, from 40-53 on an NFL team, are extremely valuable. That means everyone needs to pay attention, whether it comes to the last couple of rounds of the NFL draft or the final cuts in August.

The players on the fringe of the roster may not warrant high draft choices or big free-agent dollars, but the players that a team decides to keep in those spots can really make a gigantic difference. Just ask the Packers.

From the inbox

Q: What are your thoughts on Juan Castillo becoming defensive coordinator of the Eagles?

Larry from New York

A: Like a lot of people, I was very surprised when I first heard the news. I've never previously heard of moving an offensive line coach to the other side of the ball to become defensive coordinator. At a minimum, it opens head coach Andy Reid up to a tremendous amount of criticism if it doesn't work out. But does that really matter? Reid is going to start to feel the heat and be under heavy scrutiny if the defense doesn't get better, no matter who the defensive coordinator is.

There are some teams, such as the Patriots, that like to cross-train guys on both sides of the ball, so maybe that is what Reid is going for. I do like that they now have arguably the best offensive and defensive line coaches in the league in Howard Mudd and Jim Washburn. That should pay immediate dividends.

Q: As a Packer fan, of course I felt that Clay Matthews was deserving of the Defensive POY award. Don't get me wrong, Troy Polamalu is one heck of a player and seemingly a sure HOF player when his career ends, so take nothing away from what he has accomplished, he's well-deserving. My question is, coming from someone who's been inside the huddle, does NOT winning one of these awards motivate a player even more? Clay has seemingly always come from behind in his career, and I feel as though he did it again during Super Bowl XLV.

Kevin from Milwaukee

A: Well, I was never even in the stratosphere of any awards like that, Kevin, so I wouldn't personally know. I can tell you, however, I have had several teammates that took things like a Pro Bowl snub very personally and used it to motivate them all year long. Things like that can add just a little extra fuel to the fire, and I wouldn't doubt that Matthews wanted to prove in the Super Bowl that he was the best defensive player on the field. I know he teased one reporter in the locker room after the game for picking Julius Peppers over him for the award, so whether he downplays it or not, it is on his mind.

Q: Ross I'd love for you to comment on the Jay Cutler controversy. It seems that Cutler was removed from the game because with an injury (major or minor) he would have hurt the team had he played at less than 100%. Now we hear the sad news that Eagles kicker David Akers played after hearing that his daughter had cancer. Should Akers have been withdrawn by the Eagles management for the game because nobody could play at 100% after hearing that news?

David from Cape Town, South Africa

A: Pretty tough to compare those two, David. Let's start with Cutler. I still have several questions regarding his injury, and those questions mainly revolve around how it was treated after he came out of the game. It wasn't. I really don't understand that. If he had an injury that was bad enough that they said it would have made him questionable for the Super Bowl, why was he standing on it on the sidelines instead of getting off his feet and icing it? And why would he be walking the streets of Los Angeles just two days after the game instead of getting treatment for his Grade 2 MCL tear? Doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me.

As for Akers, I think it would probably be on him to let the team know he didn't feel he could perform because of a personal issue. There are a lot of players out there who compete with heavy hearts if they feel they are up for it. Favre famously did that on a Monday night against the Raiders after his father passed away. That doesn't mean Akers should have, it just means that the player probably knows himself the best and knows whether or not he can handle it. To Akers' credit, he has never used it as an excuse for missing those kicks.

Q: I would like to hear your thoughts on an 18-game schedule in regards to this one thing that isn't being mentioned by ANYBODY. Rushing yards, passing yards, touchdowns, etc. In an 18-game season these records are going to be shattered. I just hate the thought of an above-average player finishing his career with identical statistics to that of Hall of Famers such as Ray Lewis and Dan Marino, etc.

Tim from Toronto

A: I understand where you are coming from, Tim, and I'm sure there are others who feel the same way, but I am not a big stat guy. Never have been. I think they are already skewed by weather, system, teammates, coaching philosophy, rules of the game, etc. Numbers can and often do lie, but the film never does. And keep in mind the season has already increased from 14 games to 16 once, so all of the records have a certain level of taint to them.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams in his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com.

Ross Tucker, who played on the offensive line for five teams during his seven-year NFL career, writes regularly for ESPN.com. Tucker, who also hosts ESPN.com's Football Today podcast, graduated from Princeton.