GREEN BAY – From the moment he got the job, Mike McCarthy has insisted that the Green Bay Packers’ biggest challenge – both individually, and collectively as a team – would be handling success.
The reason the Packers ninth-year head coach isn’t worried about Sam Shields in that regard is that he believes the cornerback has so much more success ahead of him.
“It’s like I tell everybody, it’s just the beginning,” Shields said Tuesday.
For Shields to achieve what his coaches are convinced he’s capable of, handling the expectations and accolades that came with his four-year, $39 million deal will be vital.
“We’ve talked about this repeatedly here: The biggest challenge to me for any individual in the National Football League is handling success,” McCarthy said Tuesday, following the team’s final open organized team activity practice of the offseason. “So you see a new contract, that’s a level of success you have to be able to accept, handle. And you have bigger responsibility [as a result].
“You have confidence that he’ll handle that success. I do. I’m not concerned about it. [because he] clearly understands the level of success that he’s [reached], the step that he’s taken. Frankly, we all know there’s so much more out there that we want to accomplish.”
That’s especially true for Shields. His path is well known to Packers fans – after spending three years as a wide receiver at the University of Miami (Fla.), he switched to cornerback as a senior and went undrafted, signing with the Packers for a $7,500 signing bonus – and from McCarthy to cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt to Shields himself, the feeling is that he’s still only scratched the surface of his ability at the position. That the 26-year-old got a $12.5 million signing bonus, will make $15 million this season and $21 million over the first two years of the deal won’t make him complacent, he said.
“Nah, it won’t. I’m going to keep continuing to work my butt off, make plays and hopefully down the line get another one. It’s just the beginning,” Shields told a throng of reporters in his first comments since signing the deal in March. “I still sit back and think about what I went through when I first started, when I switched to D. I sit and talked to my friends and family about it. It still amazes me, like ‘Hey, I’m in this position.’ It’s all a blessing.”
Shields played last season on a one-year, $2.023 million restricted free-agent tender and skipped most of the non-mandatory offseason work in Green Bay on the advice of agent Drew Rosenhaus in hopes of getting a long-term deal. While that didn’t happen, Shields is now the Packers’ third-highest paid player in terms of average annual salary, as his $9.25 million average ranks only behind quarterback Aaron Rodgers ($18.7 million) and outside linebacker Clay Matthews ($11.6 million), who received lucrative long-term extensions in April 2013.
“You’re always happy on a personal note when you see a young man like Sam where he started and what he was able to achieve with his financial opportunity,” McCarthy said. “The reality of it is Sam is now looked on as one of our core players. So he’ll step up and play accordingly.”
Both Rodgers and Matthews still had time left on their existing deals when they signed their new contracts, and it’s likely that wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb will get extensions before getting anywhere near the open free-agent market next spring. That wasn’t the case with Shields, however, as he was on the verge of visiting the Cleveland Browns when the market opened in March.
“Most of the time I was scared, because I wanted to be a Packer,” Shields said of the free-agent process. “You know how that business goes. It’s kind of scary at first, but they came with it. I’m happy to be back.”
Now, he must elevate his game the way Whitt firmly believes he will.
“Sam’s best football is still in front of him. I honestly believe he has two more years of ascending and then he’s going to play at that level for another four years. That’s six years of just really good football ahead of him,” Whitt said. “He might have more. I don’t know what he’s going to have after that, but I see two more years of getting better and four more of holding that type of high quality play.
“When Sam walked into the room four years ago in 2010, he was the ninth guy (on the depth chart) and he ended up starting against Philly in the very first game (as the No. 3 cornerback in the nickel defense). If you work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are. If you work hard and you show that you’re the guy that can make plays, you’ll be given an opportunity.”
Shields now has the opportunity to become one of the league’s elite cover men. After his surprising contributions to the 2010 Super Bowl XLV title team, he struggled in 2011, especially with his tackling, but improved in that area in 2012 and put together his best all-around season last year,
“The reason he had a poor year in ’11 – I told everybody – is because I messed him up. I took him too fast. That was my fault,” Whitt said of giving the still-raw Shields too many defensive responsibilities as a second-year player. “But when he got here in ’10, the knowledge of the position was really low and now he knows it.
“Everybody knows he’s a press (coverage) guy who can make plays in that area. Now, we need to show he’s a complete player – zone, two, three; understands landmarks and drops; and improve the tackling aspect of it. He needs to be a top level corner in every aspect of the game. And he has that ability.”
In 14 regular-season games last year, Shields had a team-high four interceptions last year and was credited in the Packers’ official stats with 64 tackles and 25 pass breakups. According to Pro Football Focus, in 900 total snaps, Shields was targeted 84 times last season and allowed 42 completions for 664 yards for an opponents’ passer rating of 72.7. He missed two games in the middle of the season with a hamstring injury but had what turned out to be one of the biggest plays of the season, an interception that helped the Packers to an enormous come-from-behind victory at Dallas on Dec. 15. His season ended with a high-ankle sprain in the playoff loss to San Francisco that he said would have kept him out for the rest of the year, even if the Packers had won that game.
Now, he’s ready for a greater impact as he matures as a player and has a better grasp on the game.
“There’s a lot more things I’m still learning. And it’s getting better,” Shields said. “I’m getting some more years on me, some more time to learn different things. It’s getting better.
“You know, when I first got here, I didn’t know the difference. It was frustrating. ‘Man, it’s not for me.’ [But] I stuck in there, I kept working. I got it right.”
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.