Packers: Why the love for Johnny Jolly?

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- My question to Mike McCarthy, in a few extra words, was this: Why?

Why expend the organizational energy it has already taken to monitor and evaluate the criminal journey of Johnny Jolly, the Green Bay Packers' once-and-perhaps-future defensive end?

Why even consider bringing back a player who has been arrested three times since 2008 for felony codeine possession, once with the added charge of intent to distribute?

Why does anyone think that a 30-year-old lineman, one who is charitably listed at 325 pounds, can play again after a three-year NFL suspension?

The truth is no one knows if Jolly can get any further than he has, which is through one non-contact practice Tuesday on the opening day of the Packers' mandatory minicamp. Indeed, the Packers have no financial risk in letting him practice and 90-man offseason rosters are tempting for reclamation projects.

But the last time Jolly was on a football field was January 10, 2010, a season-ending playoff loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Hundreds of players are discarded every year in the NFL, usually for reasons far less salacious than multiple felony drug arrests. It would have been awfully easy, especially for a franchise that prides itself in utilizing young talent, to have bid Jolly a respectful farewell following his NFL reinstatement.

So I wanted to know: What makes Johnny Jolly so special to the Packers?

From what I can tell, Jolly's low-key but direct personality appeals to McCarthy's Pittsburgh roots and has spurred him to extend every opportunity he can.

"The thing I've always appreciated about Johnny," McCarthy said, "and don't get me wrong because he's obviously a good football player, he was a starter for us and had his best year here his last year. But I always loved his toughness and passion. He has that 'it' when it comes to being a good teammate.

"He was respected in the locker room. He is different than most guys. Comes from a tough background and a tough upbringing, but you always knew where you stood with Johnny. I like direct people. I like the personality where there is no BS and you know where you stand. I always felt that he was an element that fit into our locker room and our culture. There are a lot of good people and good fits that don't fit in certain places. But he was good for us.

"We committed to him as a draft pick [in 2006] and I felt that it was just real important for us to keep our eyes wide open and watch and support him from afar. He got the first part done [court-ordered treatment], but the second part, this is a whole different challenge for him."

To be sure, McCarthy made no commitment on Jolly's future after watching Tuesday's practice. Jolly looked heavier than his listed weight and was held to a predetermined limit of repetitions. But it's clear that the most influential people in the Packers' hierarchy have at least an open mind on -- and in some cases are openly rooting for -- what would be a remarkable comeback.

"If anyone can do it," McCarthy said, "it's him."

I worked with the Elias Sports Bureau and ESPN Stats & Information on Tuesday to quantify how rare it would be for a player to make a 53-man roster after spending three full seasons away from the game. Unfortunately, no one had a database that differentiates between players like Jolly with, say, third-string quarterbacks who never get off the bench. Here's what I can tell you: Most of the players we found with three-year gaps between game appearances were on a roster at some point during that tenure. One exception was place-kicker Justin Medlock, who kicked for the Kansas City Chiefs in 2007 and the Carolina Panthers last season.

Jolly told reporters that he worked out in Houston but made no attempt to convince anyone that he is in football shape.

"Three years is a long time for someone to sit out," he said. "I'm just thankful I was blessed to come back to the same team that I left."

Jolly was a nice player in 2009, knocking down 10 passes at the line of scrimmage, intercepting another one and also forcing a fumble. But in 2009, of course, Brett Favre and Kurt Warner were still NFL quarterbacks. Fred Jackson led the league in all-purpose yards. Darren Sharper was an All-Pro safety. In other words, times have changed.

Being an NFL coach affords the opportunity to change lives, and it seems clear to me that McCarthy is determined to do that for Johnny Jolly. Here's how McCarthy put it: "The football part will take care of itself. It will define itself. He either will be able to do it or he won't be able to do it. But at the end of the day, I want to make sure he gets through the process and makes the most of this opportunity.

"This is a tough way to make a living and he's got hills to climb. I'm just trying to make sure he has the tools to make that climb."

That explains the "why." It's up to Jolly answer the remaining questions.