GREEN BAY – Since the moment he arrived, Morgan Burnett has acted like a grown-up.
In truth, he’s still a kid – he won’t turn 24 until next month – but he’s always carried himself in the locker room like a veteran, is a family man (fiancée Nicolette, 4-year-old son Morgan Jr.) and has always exuded a quiet professionalism that others in his age range often lack.
But in the past two years, the Green Bay Packers safety has had to grow up quickly on the field. After being installed as a starter from Day 1 as a rookie third-round pick in 2010 – only to see his season end after four games because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee – he was supposed to be paired with three-time Pro Bowl veteran Nick Collins last season and likely Pro Football Hall of Famer Charles Woodson this season in the Packers’ secondary.
Instead, the Packers lost Collins to a neck injury in Week 2 last year that appears to be career-ending, and Woodson hasn’t played since breaking his collarbone Oct. 21 at St. Louis. Woodson will miss his sixth straight game Sunday night against Detroit.
All the while, the quiet Burnett has been there, playing with an awkward club cast for much of last season and coming into his own this year as the Packers’ leader in the back end while lining up alongside comparative youngsters M.D. Jennings (a second-year undrafted free agent) and Jerron McMillian (a rookie fourth-round pick).
“He’s become the guy out there now,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Friday. “When Morgan first came in, you could tell he was a serious-minded guy, a bright guy, very conscientious. Coaches love those kinds of guys because you know he’s going to attempt to do everything you ask him to do.”
Perhaps to a fault, according to safeties coach Darren Perry.
Former Packers safety Matt Bowen (now a writer for the National Football Post and Chicago Tribune) tells a hilarious story – although it wasn’t at the time – of playing with former Pro Bowl safety Darren Sharper, whose reputation for freelancing and seeking out interception opportunities was well-earned.
On one particular play against the San Francisco 49ers late in the 2002 season, the story goes, the Packers had a blitz call on that required Sharper to take an in-his-prime Terrell Owens one-on-one. Sensing the blitz would lead to a bad pass and possible INT, Sharper ignored his responsibility when the defense broke the huddle, leaving an overmatched Bowen to cover possibly the best receiver in the NFL at that time. Bowen thanked his lucky stars the ball wasn’t thrown to T.O, who was wide open.
That’s not a problem with Burnett.
“He’s very coachable, to the point that he’s going to do it exactly like you draw it up on the board. And he’s not going to freelance,” Perry explained Friday. “He’s not going to say, ‘Hey, I see this, I’m going to go get it.’ He’s going to say, ‘No, coach told me to play it like this, I’m going to play it like this.’ Sometimes you have to let your natural instincts take over.”
Burnett certainly used his instincts on the second of his two critical interceptions on the final play of the third quarter of last Sunday’s victory over Minnesota. Reading and reacting to quarterback Christian Ponder’s pass intended for tight end Kyle Rudolph, making a diving interception that denied a scoring opportunity and led to the 11-minute game-clinching field-goal drive during the fourth quarter. But Burnett made the play because it was he was in the place he was supposed to be, not because he was off on his own.
“He timed it right. His anticipation, when he broke on the ball, stepped in front and made the play,” Capers said. “Those are the kind of plays you like to see those guys make back there.”
The play was reminiscent of one that Collins, who was watching the game on television and Tweeted about it afterward, would have made. According to Perry, Burnett has similar athletic ability to Collins while also possessing terrific size (6-foot-1, 209 pounds). He just needs to trust that he can sometimes go outside the scheme when the time is right.
“I would show him some plays of Nick. Every now and then, Nick might have given up a big one, he might’ve gotten himself out of position because great players, they’re so confident that when they see something, they’re going to go get it,” Perry said. “I think with Morgan, I think he’s seeing things and he’s believing what he’s seeing. And I think if you can do that, you’re goin to make some plays. He’s not going to take as many liberties as a Collins or Woodson would, particularly when he’s playing in deep zones.”
Those risk-taking days might not be far away, though, as Burnett’s confidence grows by the week.
“This year, I think he’s got a lot of confidence. Not only sitting back there and playing the deep ball and covering ground – we’ve seen him do that well – but he’s been coming down there, mixing it up, playing the run pretty well. And, you like his size in playing the run. I just think he’s a really good football player.”
He’s also getting better with his football acumen. Now in his third year in the system – despite his abbreviated rookie year – Burnett has a better grasp of the defense, even though he still doesn’t have it mastered.
“He’s still one of our youngest players, but he’s played quite a few snaps. He’s still growing, he’s still learning the game in terms of what we’re doing system-wise, what we’re asking him to do and what his role is,” Perry said. “I think he’s really starting to understand what we need out of that position in terms of consistency, being a quarterback, a communicator, and making sure we’re all on the same page.”
Added coach Mike McCarthy: “I think that’s a normal path you see with young guys. He’s always been very talented. He’s a great fit for not only the position but with what we ask him to do. He gives us versatility. He’s making more plays. We’ve been blessed, obviously, with big-play production from our safety position. I really see Morgan Burnett developing into one of our leaders.”
For his part, Burnett just feels as though he’s doing what he’s always done, just better. He’s not about to start acting like he has it all figured out.
“You have confidence in yourself – not in a cocky way, but you have confidence in your skills, and you let your instincts take over,” Burnett said. “But at the same time, you humble yourself, because this game throws a lot of humbling moments at you.”
Spoken like a true veteran.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.