Former BYU linebacker Poppinga flourishing as a utility knife for the Dallas Cowboys

Four weeks ago, former Brigham Young Cougars linebacker Brady Poppinga was out of football. After playing six seasons for the Green Bay Packers, including the 2010 season when the Packers won the Super Bowl, Poppinga injured his knee and was not brought back for the 2011 season. He popped up in St. Louis the next year and made 51 tackles in 15 games. That wasn’t good enough to satisfy Rams’ management, and he was without a place to play in 2012. Then he got a call from the Dallas Cowboys.

In an interview with Poppinga last week, he called himself a “utility knife” when asked what his role was with the Cowboys. He clarified that statement by saying, “I am used wherever a need arises.”

Those needs have been many in the few short weeks that he has been with the team. His first week, Poppinga did not play. In his second week, the Cowboys found a need for Poppinga on special teams. He didn’t disappoint and made two tackles on kickoffs. By week three, Poppinga had a role in a special defensive package that the Cowboys defense used on the first play of the game. It paid off for Poppinga as he made the tackle on the play.

The coaches must have been impressed with Poppinga’s three tackles in limited action his first two games because he saw a lot more playing time last Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. Poppinga recorded five tackles to reach the 300 tackle milestone for his career.

Playing a role on the field during game day is just part of becoming integrated with the team. Being part of the team in the locker room and beyond is important in such a grueling sport. By joining Dallas 11 games into the season, Poppinga missed out on opportunities to build bonds with the rest of the team during the hot days of training camp and experiencing the ups and downs during the first two-thirds of the season.

The day before he would play his first game, the Cowboys organization would experience a tragedy that helped Poppinga make up for lost time. Jerry Brown, a linebacker on the practice squad, was killed in a car accident. Teammate Josh Brent was charged with intoxication manslaughter. This unfortunate course of events that Poppinga was now experiencing with the rest of the team helped him form bonds smoother and quicker with his new teammates. 

“It helps see people in a different light,” Poppinga explained. “A lot of the barriers that exist in relationships to know people disappear. People become more emotional. It did wonders in breaking down barriers.”

It was a little surprising that Poppinga had to wait until week 12 of the NFL season to join a team. Besides the 51 tackles he made with the Rams, he also had one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, and two pass breakups. Clearly, he had fully recovered from the knee injury a year before.

Poppinga isn’t the only former BYU linebacker to struggle with finding work in the NFL. Other linebackers who have had outstanding careers in Provo, and who have all the measurables that the NFL is looking for have been bouncing around from team to team. It makes one wonder if linebackers from BYU are looked down on by NFL decision makers.  

Poppinga refutes this hypothesis.

“I wouldn’t say there is a bias, but that is not an absolute statement” Poppinga said.

He acknowledged that human nature involves biases in almost all decision making, which would include picking players for a football team. However, he does not think that being labeled a BYU linebacker is one of those human biases in the NFL.

“I don’t think there is anything against BYU linebackers,” Poppinga added. “You would be closing yourself off from really good players” if players from certain schools were automatically eliminated from the evaluation process.

If Poppinga is correct, then that bodes well for current BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy, who may make the jump to the NFL a year early. Poppinga called Van Noy a “good player” who’s game should “translate well” to the NFL, but he also had some reservations.

“He needs to work on physicality at the point of attack,” Poppinga critiqued. “He needs to show he can defeat offensive linemen in one-on-one situations. A lot of his sacks are when he runs down quarterbacks.”

Poppinga hasn’t watched all the top outside linebacker prospects, but he surmised that many of them may need to improve in that same area.

While Van Noy will decide what he will do about his future, Poppinga will be trying to get the Cowboys into the playoffs and make a Super Bowl run. In the final regular season game this Sunday against the Washington Redskins the Cowboys must win to win the NFC East and clinch a playoff berth.

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