His play wasn’t awful by any stretch. The veteran cornerback had four interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, and broke up 24 passes, a career high. But as Williams watched the Packers defense fall from fifth in the league in total yards in 2010 to last in 2011, he knew he wasn’t the same player, just as the defense wasn’t the same defense.
In the end, he has learned that his shoulder injury probably affected his game more than he knew at the time, as much as he dislikes admitting it.
“It was a whole bunch of things,” he said.
A nasty collision in Week 1 against the Saints forced Williams to miss a game for the first time in his career and required him to play with a harness under his pads, and often in pain, when he returned.
As the pain subsided after several weeks, though, Williams still didn’t feel like himself, the rising star whose three postseason interceptions and fourth-down pass break-up in the Super Bowl made him a playoff hero the year before.
For a while, he wondered if the mental strain of dealing with a significant injury for the first time – going back to Little League, he couldn’t recall ever missing a game in his life when he sat out Week 2 at Carolina – simply took a toll.
“I felt I was focused, putting in the work, putting in the film study, doing everything I was supposed to be,” he said. “But you have to be truly into the game and you can’t be thinking about anything else.
“Once things don’t go right, you try to go back and look at different things and try to see what happened. Those are some of the things I came up with.”
Then, after a month off in Houston this past winter, he learned more. Williams had multiple tests done on his shoulder, and while an MRI indicated it was structurally sound and no surgery was needed, a strength test led his physical therapist to speculate that the injured shoulder was only half as strong as the healthy one.
“I was like, ‘Are you serious?’” Williams said. “He said, ‘Yeah, I would say about 50 percent.’ I was like, ‘Wow, I wonder what I was playing with during the season?’ Because once the pain went away, I felt good, but maybe I wasn’t good. Maybe I was good mentally with it, but physically I was weak. There was a lot going on.”
Whatever the case, Williams is putting it all behind him. He has dedicated his offseason to rehab, and to recapturing what his game needs to make him a difference-maker again.
Since returning to Green Bay last month for offseason workouts, Williams has focused on strengthening his shoulder and watching film of other cornerbacks, like the Jets’ Darrelle Revis and the Texans’ Johnathan Joseph, both of whom he admires.
As the shoulder continues to improve, he’s still waiting for it to fully heal. That part of the process was delayed because Williams continued to play last year rather than shut it down.
“Probably so, but I can live with that,” he said. “I can live with going to battle with my teammates and trying to help them out. I’m feeling much better physically and mentally. I’ll definitely be back to the way I was.”
He’s hoping the same for the defense as a whole, which just received an influx of young talent as the Packers used their first six draft picks on defensive players.
While the draft has been interpreted by some outside the locker room as a message being delivered to those inside it, Williams feels any message was implied from the moment the No. 32 ranking became official.
“I figure if you’re a professional, you understand this business is about production,” he said. “You have to produce, and if you don’t, they’re going to bring new guys in. That’s nothing on the organization, that’s on you. Whether it’s for competition, for depth, or for a guy to make an impact right away, we need help, and I think we got it.
“Last year we just didn’t sync well as a group. Everybody wasn’t clicking at the same time, and that’s what we have to get back to.”
The 2012 season will be a new one for Williams in various ways. For the first time in his career, his locker neighbor and best friend off the field, Nick Collins, won’t be around. Williams said he doesn’t know what Collins’ future plans are, and he believes Collins is still sorting through that himself, but in any case, he’ll miss his good friend dearly.
Meanwhile, as the defense tries to correct what went wrong, Williams is going through an adjustment, too. A career that had steadily been ascending since he first made the roster five years ago slowed its climb, last year, for the first time.
No excuses, though. The focus, in the rehab and film rooms, is forward.
“Let’s just say I’ll be a lot healthier than I was last year,” Williams said. “I know what I’m capable of, so I want to make sure I’m in the right state of mind.”