Snow fell on rock hard grass of Lambeau Field. Four seconds remained in the divisional round slugfest between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers.
Lambeau Field fell silent when Robbie Gould’s kick went through the uprights as time expired. Fans and players alike left the stadium stunned, disappointed and crushed as yet another Packers campaign ended in heartbreak.
What was lost in the defeat was the stellar performance of Packers third-year outside linebacker Rashan Gary. A game in which he was unblockable, garnering 2 sacks and 3 tackles for loss. As the Packers defense looks to build upon last year’s incredible season, so too does Rashan Gary.
Gary was selected with the 12th overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. The pick was met with controversy as Gary’s lack of production in college quickly became a talking point amongst fans and media.
In his three seasons at Michigan, Gary played in 34 games (21 starts) and accounted for 136 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and one forced fumble.
Gary never lived up to his upside of being the No.1 football recruit in the 2016 class but Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst saw that Gary’s production didn’t factor in his character and potential.
“Production is just the way you look at it,” Gutekunst said in 2019. “He affected the passer, he affected the game. At times he wrecked it.”
In his first year in Green Bay, Gary saw limited snaps as he sat and learned behind Preston Smith and Za’Darius Smith. Gary finished his rookie season with two sacks, three tackles for loss and seven quarterback hits.
In 2021, Gary was thrust into a starting role at outside linebacker after Za’Darius Smith was sidelined almost all season with a back injury. Gary used this opportunity as a springboard to breakout, finishing the season with 9.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, 28 quarterback hits, eight tackles for loss and 81 pressures to give him the second highest pressure rate in the league.
“If anything, it made me hungry,” Gary said in June. “It made me go back, watch film, see what I put on tape, see areas of my pass rush, my run defense, and things that I could improve on.”
Like the fans, Gary entered the offseason downcast after falling short for the third in a row. However, the loss gave Gary more motivation to dissect the tape and hone in on his craft.
“Going to the playoffs three years in a row and coming up short – especially last year, where I felt like we could have went all the way and won – that hurt,” Gary said in an interview with Sports Illustrated. “That just gave me more motivation to go back and pick my game apart so I come back a better player for this team.”
After the divisional round loss, many Packers players did whatever they could to get their minds off of the loss. Starting corner Eric Stokes played video games for “two or three days straight” to get his mind off the loss, but Gary embraced the pain of the loss by watching the tape repeatedly.
“I probably watched it (the Packers divisional round loss to the 49ers) over 20 times, trying to find ways we could’ve won,” Gary said. “That just tells you football is football. Sixty minutes is crazy, so you’ve got (to) go as hard as you can for 60 minutes. But I watched it over 20 times and it just made me hungrier.”
Entering his fourth year in the NFL, Gary has stepped into a leadership role within the team that was recently vacated by the departure of Za’Darius Smith this offseason.
“Everything that we do as a Green Bay Packer, you’ve got to realize, we wear this helmet for the players that were before us,” Gary said. It’s a historical organization and I want the players to know that, because I had to grow respect and do my history on Green Bay. I feel like the more history and the more you dig into it, the more that you have respect for this team and organization, the harder that you’re going to play for them.”
In both OTAs and training camp, reporters have been raving about Gary and his ability to disrupt the run and the pass by getting into the backfield. Reports throughout training camp have highlighted Gary’s increased speed, size and jump off of the line leading to more pressures, hurries and sacks.
Gary was one of the few bright spots in the Packers Week 1 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Gary finished the day with one sack, two quarterback hits, one tackle for loss and 7 total tackles.
If Gary’s newfound motivation, size and strength are any indicators of the season he will have, he will be in line to win Defensive Player of the Year.