GREEN BAY, Wis. — The tussles usually happen in the dog days of training camp, when guys get tired of slamming into one another and tempers get testy.
But Phillip Merling, who had been in Green Bay all of four days, was pushin’ and shovin’ guard Grant Cook in an off-season practice that no one will remember next week, much less in August.
“Aw, that was just love taps. We were just having a conversation,” Merling said afterward.
When you’re starting all over, you have to start somewhere.
Merling was once a known prospect, the 32nd-overall pick in the 2008 draft out of Clemson, but after an up-and-down four-year stint with the Miami Dolphins, he was cut in April.
Signed last week to play in Green Bay, he’s now just another hungry player in the auxiliary locker room of undrafted rookies and tryout guys who fill out the bottom half of the 90-man off-season roster.
The Packers could desperately use some help on the defensive line and took a low-risk gamble by picking up the 6-foot-5, 315-pound defensive end. But he knows he was not brought in as a highly-touted, free-agent signing.
“You can take it for granted, getting drafted pretty high. Things are kind of handed to you and right now, shhh . . . — nothing is handed to you,” said Merling. “I’m working from the ground up. I like it though. It’s a challenge and I’m ready to step up to it.”
Merling started out well as a rookie in ‘08, playing in all 16 games and getting 26 tackles. He still has, in his home, the football he intercepted from the New York Jets’ Brett Favre for a 25 yard touchdown.
In 2009 he had 33 tackles and three passes defensed, with the highlight coming against Atlanta when he had five tackles and a sack.
But in May 2010, Merling got into an argument with his girlfriend, who also was pregnant at the time. In a domestic dispute, he was arrested him for aggravated battery, but he said police were just following protocol.
“In the state of Florida, if a police officer comes to the house, no matter what, you have to go to jail,” said Merling. “We had an argument; she called the police, they came and I got arrested.
“It wasn’t . . . I didn’t beat anybody or anything like that. We got in an argument. She thought it was like South Carolina where you are just escorted off the premises.”
The case was dropped when she moved back to South Carolina. But things did not get better for Merling. He tore his Achilles tendon in August.
Merling wasn’t shut down for the year — and perhaps a testament to his resolve — he returned to play the last five games of the 2010 season, even if he wasn’t 100 percent.
“I played well. I wasn’t rushing the quarterback as well, of course not, but I was holding up the run pretty well with one leg,” said Merling.
Merling saw his playing time diminish in 2011, starting just one of 10 games played. And then earlier this year, he missed some of the Dolphins off-season workouts.
“In and out,” said Merling. “I worked out with them, I did the team meeting and stuff like that. It just didn’t go the right way. Yeah, I missed a few days — I guess that could have helped out.”
On Tuesday in Green Bay, Merling complimented the Miami staff and appears to leave with no bitterness. He said he left one historic franchise for another, and he credited former Atlanta Falcons defensive lineman Chuck Smith for helping him train for a career comeback of sorts.
“He did a lot on and off the field as far as tutoring and mentoring young men and he’s a great man,” said Merling. “I matured a whole lot from when I got released until now.
“You start to put things in perspective and football is important to me. I’m going to do my best to continue to keep playing the game.”
Merling said he now has two children with the woman and “we’re best friends.” Asked if they sought any counseling, he said he did through their two families.
He said he and the mother of his children agreed that she would remain back at home and go to school while he concentrated just on football.
Then the question became, where? A “street” free agent can look for a new home for a long time, but Green Bay needs a pass rusher to get after Drew Brees, Matthew Stafford and even Matt Flynn.
“I had some other visits and I declined them when I came here,” said Merling. “I felt like I was home. Great staff, everyone was friendly, great teammates. I was supposed to go home and I didn’t. I said let’s sign it and get it over with.”
It is unknown if Anthony Hargrove’s eight-game suspension for the Saints’ bounty scandal will hold up. If it does, Green Bay needs a defensive lineman and there is competition for Merling in draft picks Jerel Worthy and Mike Daniels, as well as Daniel Muir.
“I am just finding my way,” said Merling. “I just know it’s a little more athletic; coach preaches to me to be a little more athletic and I love that.”