Green Bay’s Ty Montgomery has no time to look back — the NFC title game lies ahead
But after an improbable season that included a position change and a starting job, he has a lot to look back on
Sometime soon, Ty Montgomery will look back. He owes that much to himself. After everything the onetime backup has done to help the Green Bay Packers, Montgomery deserves a little self-congratulation. But not now. There’s no time. Not with Green Bay still on the grind. The Packers’ late-season run continues on the road Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game. And Montgomery’s improbable rise has been a big part of their roller-coaster ride to the conference title game.
Montgomery started the 2016 season as a receiver — buried deep on the depth chart for the once-sputtering Packers — but is now an invaluable running back who helped Green Bay rip off eight-straight victories to move within a game of the Super Bowl. That’s the type of feel-good story even the most cynical among us could love. No? Did we mention that Montgomery delivered for the Packers while dealing with an illness earlier this season related to the sickle-cell trait. Yeah, Montgomery has been clearing big hurdles for a minute now.
“I’m just being appreciative of this. I’m just being appreciative of the moment, because a lot of guys never get to this point,” he said earlier in the playoffs. “You don’t think about everything, just focus on what’s in front of you. That’s the most important thing.
“At the end of the season, that’s when I’ll think a little bit on what transpired, what I’ve been through. But again, right now, I’m just grateful. It could have been anyone else in this position. But it’s me.”
Perhaps not anyone, though you get Montgomery’s point. The Packers certainly never envisioned the second-year player having such a prominent role on the NFL’s hottest team. Then again, if the Packers are truthful, they also never expected to be the league’s hottest team. It wasn’t that long ago that the Packers were a hot mess.
In late November 2016, Green Bay’s record stood at 4-6. Superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who’s widely considered the most talented passer of his generation, was in a what’s-wrong-with-him slump if there ever was one. Then there was Green Bay’s running game. Or what the Packers hoped would be their running game.
With veterans Eddie Lacy and James Starks, Green Bay seemed set at running back. Of course, in professional sports’ most dangerous workplace, the best-laid plans are often ruined. After both backs were injured, Green Bay head coach Mike McCarthy didn’t have many options. Montgomery was one. Sort of.
With a third-round pick (94th overall) in the 2015 NFL draft, the Packers selected Montgomery, an All-American kick returner and wideout at Stanford. He was listed at 6 feet, 220 pounds entering the draft, which is good enough size for an NFL back. Starks, for example, is 6-foot-2, 218 pounds. But the Packers drafted Montgomery, at least primarily, to catch passes. Anyone who has a jersey number in the 80s definitely is viewed by coaches as a receiver first. Montgomery wears No. 88. So there you go.
As a rookie, Montgomery, who turns 24 on Sunday, was listed as a wideout. He appeared in only six games before missing the remainder of the season because of an ankle injury. Given an opportunity with the Packers reeling this season, Montgomery helped pull them back together.
He led the team with 457 yards rushing, produced an impressive 5.9-yard average and scored three touchdowns. Montgomery also showed off his receiving skills: He caught 44 passes for 348 yards. In a victory over the Chicago Bears on Dec. 18, Montgomery racked up 162 yards on only 16 rushes and scored two touchdowns. Granted, Montgomery’s overall statistics don’t merit a double take. However, he gave the Packers a lift, “providing that threat out to the backfield, which was exactly what we needed,” wideout Randall Cobb said. When your team is led by a quarterback as gifted as Rodgers, you don’t need much else.
At the Packers’ lowest point, Rodgers said they could “run the table.” Ever since, he has been fire-engine-red hot. During an epic game in the divisional round last week, Rodgers was as good as it gets while leading the Packers to an upset of the Dallas Cowboys. Montgomery scored two touchdowns to help him. “He has continued to step up in many ways,” Cobb said of Montgomery. “To also be able to line up as a receiver and make big plays … we needed that. He really adds a dimension to our team. We knew we could count on him no matter what.”
Nothing tested Montgomery more than his illness. Back in October, he sat out a loss to the Falcons with symptoms that are related to sickle-cell trait. Reportedly he had blood in his urine.
Montgomery was previously diagnosed with the condition, he said, which is the result of one inherited sickle-cell gene and one normal gene, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although people with sickle-cell trait usually don’t display symptoms of sickle-cell disease, they are more likely to experience heat stroke and muscle breakdown when doing intense exercise, such as competitive sports. Not surprisingly, Montgomery would rather not focus on his condition. “It’s not an issue,” he said. “It’s not something that stops me. It’s just some adversity.”
As with everything this season, Montgomery has handled adversity well, his teammates say. “He’s a smart kid,” tight end Richard Rodgers said. “Switching from receiver to running back, stepping up as he has, you have to be smart. We’ve counted on him for a lot. He’s had to deal with a lot. But he knows what he’s supposed to do. That’s why we count on him.”
For Montgomery, earning the Packers’ confidence has been a source of pride. It’s one of the highlights of his season. With two more victories, he’ll add to the list. And then it’ll finally be the right time for a review.