Barnett's Goals, Motivations Go Beyond Contract


Upon signing a long-term contract extension Tuesday morning in the team's Lambeau Field offices, linebacker Nick Barnett looked out into the Atrium and caught a glimpse of the Ray Nitschke banner that hangs as a tribute to the greatest linebacker in team history.

Barnett couldn't help but think, now that his new contract likely will keep him a Packer for the remainder of his career, whether he'll have a chance to join Nitschke and hang from the Atrium rafters himself someday.

"I was saying, 'Man, I have an opportunity to be on one of those, maybe when I'm retired or something,'" Barnett said during his press conference on Tuesday. "He made his career here, and it would be nice to go down in history as a Ray Nitschke."

Barnett knows as well as anyone there will never be another player quite like No. 66, but No. 56 is certainly on his way to making a name for himself in Packers' lore.

The starting middle linebacker since being drafted in the first round out of Oregon State in 2003, Barnett already has eclipsed 600 career tackles and been the unquestioned leader of the Green Bay defense. He has missed just two games in four years and recorded eight sacks, seven interceptions, and six fumble recoveries.

With his rookie contract set to expire following the 2007 season, Barnett could have played out the final year of his deal and become a free agent. It was a tempting proposition considering the eight-figure-plus signing bonuses that have been tossed around since early March by teams with ample room under the salary cap, which is expected to increase next year as well.

But Barnett wanted to remain in Green Bay to build on the career he has established here, and to challenge himself to continue as a leader of both an up-and-coming defense and a promising group of linebackers that includes 2006 draft picks A.J. Hawk and Abdul Hodge and third-year pro Brady Poppinga.

"It was definitely an option, to hit the market," Barnett said. "But I think being a Packer for my career is more important than getting to free agency. I'm just happy to be here for another six years and being a Packer for life. There's not a lot of players that play on the same team for their career. I'm kind of blessed to actually have that opportunity.

"We've got some good guys. I think all of our starters are under contract for this year coming up. I've got some great linebackers to play with, A.J. Hawk and Brady and those guys. We have great camaraderie on that defense."

Barnett also sees the unit's continuity and momentum as advantages. The defensive surge, climbing from near the bottom of the league rankings to 12th over the final month of 2006, keyed the team's four-game winning streak to close the season, and in Barnett's eyes the goal is to rise to No. 1.

"This is the first year I've ever had the same coordinator for two years, the same scheme, a lot of the same players," he said. "Actually, all the same players. That's the first time that's ever happened for me.

"We've got a lot of consistency going, and their whole goal up there (in the front office) is to keep that consistent core of players, good players with good heart and good personalities, and it seems to be working."

Barnett said he was optimistic throughout the off-season that a contract extension would get done, and with his local nightclub up for sale, he's looking forward to focusing even more on football in the years he has left to play.

{sportsad300}He concedes that the lucrative contract is a "big step" for his family, but he doesn't see it adding any pressure to perform that he hasn't already heaped upon himself.

"I've always put that pressure on myself and always put that on my shoulders, that I have to be the best player I can be and to work hard and harder than anybody (else) that (comes) along," he said. "I've always had that pressure. The money is not the issue. It's just the character that I am. The money doesn't motivate me. I motivate me, winning games motivates me, and that's going to continue to motivate me."

So will any potential postseason honors for both himself and his team. Playing in the same division as one of the league's most dynamic middle linebackers in Chicago's Brian Urlacher has made it difficult at times for Barnett to get due recognition, having been named a Pro Bowl alternate three years running.

In addition, as a rookie Barnett helped lead the Packers into the divisional round of the playoffs in 2003, but since then the team hasn't returned to that stage to make another run at a championship.

For Barnett, those goals hang in front of him as tantalizingly as Nitschke's banner in the Atrium.

"It would be nice to go to the Pro Bowl," Barnett said. "I'll just keep working hard, that's what's next for me. Keep working hard and keep continuing to improve. What's next? Super Bowl, that's what's next. All those things we haven't done that we need to do here."

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