It was Friday, Jan. 7, two days before the rookie right tackle would be making his NFL playoff debut. He was preparing for the blitz-happy Eagles defense, knowing the rabid Philadelphia fans and the noise at Lincoln Financial Field would present additional obstacles in the NFC Wild Card game.
Reporters surrounded his locker following the final practice that week, only they didn’t want to talk about the Eagles, at least not directly. Bulaga was still answering questions about his performance against the Chicago Bears five days earlier in the regular-season finale: two holding calls, two false starts; four penalties with the team’s playoff fate at stake.
He thought he had answered all the questions right after the game. The penalties were “inexcusable.” He promised to get back to playing “clean football.” He had been penalized only five times all season prior to that game.
Now, with the playoffs around the corner, Bulaga’s flag-filled nightmare had led many to wonder whether the first-round draft pick out of Iowa was mature enough for the big stage. Would he be a liability on a Super Bowl contender? Would he hit the rookie wall?
The questions kept coming. Bulaga understood, but it was still tiresome.
“It’s natural for people to think, ‘He’s a first-year starter, a rookie, committed his biggest penalty game to date before the playoffs. Is this going to continue all the way through?’” Bulaga said. “But I wasn’t too worried about it. I know that’s not my style of play.”
The confidence was partly rooted in what he didn’t reveal in the face of all those questions, that when he reviewed the film of the Bears game with offensive line coach James Campen, he had actually played one of his best games.
The penalties had marred the performance, no doubt, but as coaches like to say, the film doesn’t lie. It showed Bulaga had held his own against Chicago’s Israel Idonije and occasionally against Julius Peppers, too, when the All-Pro defensive end flipped over to Bulaga’s side.
In other words, despite the penalties, Bulaga felt he was personally carrying some momentum into the playoffs, just as the Packers were.
He couldn’t say that, though. Not then. It wouldn’t have come off right. It would have been interpreted as rookie bravado at best, aloofness and ignorance at worst.
His confidence had a broader foundation than one game film, though. This hadn’t been a typical rookie season. The Big Ten offensive lineman of the year in 2009 as a left tackle, Bulaga spent part of training camp competing for a starting job at left guard.
Then he was thrown into the middle of a game at left tackle in week two, when veteran starter Chad Clifton’s balky knee acted up. Three games later, he was learning another new position, this time right tackle after veteran Mark Tauscher went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Bulaga confessed that was his toughest challenge because he was switching sides of the line and his first assignment was in Washington against Pro-Bowl pass-rusher Brian Orakpo.
“It’s like trying to be a switch-hitter in baseball,” Bulaga said. “It’s flipping all your mechanics around, doing a complete 360 from what you’re used to doing.”
To grow accustomed to the change as quickly as possible, Bulaga didn’t rotate his practice reps like the other linemen. He was glad for Campen’s insistence on that.
He handled it, and the growth came slow but steady.
“I think later on in the season is when I felt like it was just coming to me,” Bulaga said. “I wasn’t having to think of it and then do it. I was just doing it.”
So with everything that had been thrown at him in year one, Bulaga wasn’t going to sweat a few yellow flags, even if they did come in a crucial game. He stuck to the mantra that had worked through all his rookie trials: “Learn from it and move on.”
The week’s worth of questions prior to the playoffs had created the perception that Bulaga was dwelling on the penalties, but in truth he wasn’t, and he proved it.
The trip to Philadelphia was the first of three straight into enemy stadiums, where the crowd does whatever it takes to make an opponent flinch, and Bulaga didn’t commit a single penalty in the postseason. No false starts, no holds. Not even in the Super Bowl when matched up against outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who was just given the franchise tag by his Pittsburgh Steelers.
“We were on the road the entire time but I wasn’t too worried about it the entire playoffs,” Bulaga said of the penalty talk. “It wasn’t in my mind that I can’t jump offsides or do this or that.”
Woodley got a hit on quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the Packers’ first-quarter touchdown drive and posted a sack in a goal-to-go situation in the fourth quarter, one play before Rodgers’ third TD pass of the Super Bowl.
Other than those couple of blips, Bulaga had a solid showing on the biggest stage of all, despite Woodley’s protestations – caught by NFL Films microphones and aired as part of a Sound FX segment viewable here – that the rookie was holding him off and on.
“I thought I played a pretty clean game,” Bulaga said. “I was just trying to play smart, sound football. Hands inside, moving your feet.
“He’s a heck of a player, a heck of a competitor,” Bulaga said of Woodley.
So is Bulaga. He answered that question.
“Walking away with a ring my rookie year, there’s a lot to be said about that,” he said. “It doesn’t happen for many guys. I was very fortunate to be put in the situation I was in, get the opportunity I was given.
“I had ups and downs. I’ll be the first one to say it. But I thought down the stretch I played some really good football, did a lot of good things. It’s hard to say you didn’t have a good year when you walk away with the Super Bowl championship.”