GREEN BAY – Sean Richardson doesn’t consider himself lucky. He feels blessed.
The Green Bay Packers’ second-year safety is starting to see more playing time – and may even be in line to start this week at Dallas – after opening the season on the physically unable to perform list. In January, Richardson underwent cervical fusion surgery that ended his rookie season after five games.
“Just being back is a blessing. It’s all I could ask for – to have an opportunity,” Richardson said this week in advance of Sunday’s game against the Cowboys. “If I play one snap, I’m just happy to be back out there.
The Packers have certainly seen their share of neck injuries over the years, having watched all-pro wide receiver Sterling Sharpe, Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins and others have their careers cut short. Tight end Jermichael Finley’s career is in jeopardy after an Oct. 20 neck injury and subsequent spinal fusion surgery.
Richardson is one of the rare players to come back to play. Richardson herniated the disc between the C5 and C6 vertebrae, and his doctor was Dr. Robert Watkins, who performed a similar procedure on Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, who had a phenomenal year in 2012 after missing the entire 2011 season.
After surgery and while awaiting clearance from the medical team, Richardson was confident he’d soon be back on the field. But he also knew that an early return could prove damaging.
“I didn’t want to rush it. I knew the doctors were going to give me an answer and it was going to be the best for my health. If they didn’t think it was going to be well enough to play, they wouldn’t have cleared me to play again,” Richardson said. “It was a long journey, but I had to patient. Being a real competitor, it was tough at times. I knew waiting and letting the doctors evaluate the results [was the right thing to do]. And when they felt I was ready, they would let me be out there. So I put my trust in them and they gave me the green light.”
Now, after seeing limited action in the last three games, Richardson could make his first NFL start. In the Packers’ victory over Atlanta last weekend, Richardson took over for starter M.D. Jennings in the second quarter and played 38 snaps opposite Morgan Burnett.
“I think you’ll see him play as many, if not more, this week,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said Friday when asked if Richardson will start. “It depends on what personnel group we have out there. These guys, early on, were a big three-wide receiver team on first, second and third down. They’re using more two tight ends, two wide receivers [now]. And Monday night [was] the first time you saw them have a fullback on the roster. They ran quite a few snaps of regular personnel. They hadn’t shown that before Monday night.”
Richardson finished with two tackles against the Falcons, including a solo stop to open up the fourth quarter where he flashed in from the secondary and delivered a booming hit on Atlanta running back Jacquizz Rodgers. The more base personnel the Cowboys utilize, the more Richardson could be on the field.
With the defense drawing widespread criticism this season for its lack of tackling, the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Richardson says that’s something he takes pride in.
“I’m always preparing myself for open-field tackles. What people don’t realize is that open-field tackles are really tough, and it goes unnoticed a lot,” Richardson said. “But as soon as you miss a tackle, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, he gave up a touchdown.’ But it’s really difficult, that’s why every opportunity I get at practice whether we’re in helmets or in walkthrough, I’m always trying to break down, eliminate angles and put myself in the best position to make the tackle.”
Despite opening up the season on the PUP list, Richardson has put himself in a spot to earn more playing time over Jennings because he put his lost rookie season to good use and spent his time wisely at the beginning of this season.
“I did a lot of studying. I took it like a redshirt year,” Richardson said. “I couldn’t play, but I was in meetings every day taking notes as if I was going to be the starter that next game. Knowing I had to sit out at least six weeks (this year), I approached it like I was going to play every day and it helped. So when they called my name I was already prepared, I wasn’t panicking or freaking out. Now my opportunity is here, I’ve been training or studying for this, and it’s my time to take advantage of it.”
Whether Richardson starts or not, he’s going into the game with the same attitude he had at the beginning of the season.
“I’m just taking every day to prepare myself like I always do, even when I wasn’t playing. I’m still going to prepare the same,” Richardson said. “So whenever my name is called, I’ll be ready.”
Josh Golberg works for 105.9 The Hog and ESPN1380 in Janesville, sister stations of 540 ESPN and 100.5 FM ESPN. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/JoshGolberg.