“Daryn Colledge will be our left guard in Philadelphia,” Head Coach Mike McCarthy declared following Sunday’s practice, referencing Week 1 of the regular season. McCarthy essentially stated that Colledge has won the competition with first-round draft pick Bryan Bulaga that began three weeks ago following the Family Night Scrimmage.
It’s been the ongoing refrain of Colledge’s pro career. A solid player, he’s never been consistent enough in the coaches’ eyes to be the without-a-doubt top choice. But every time he’s been forced to compete for his playing time, he’s earned it and proven to be either the better option, the more durable player, or both.
In this case, it was probably a little of both. A left tackle at the University of Iowa, Bulaga was learning left guard while competing for it, splitting reps with Colledge on the No. 1 line. Then Bulaga’s hip flexor flared up on him early last week, forcing him to miss the all-important third preseason game against Indianapolis last Thursday.
But Colledge had been the first man up in the rotation and the starter in games all throughout the preseason anyway, so Bulaga’s injury isn’t the only reason Colledge held onto the job. Colledge felt from the beginning of training camp that if he would be able to focus strictly on left guard – and not have to play left tackle like last year during the regular season when Chad Clifton was injured – then the competition, whether it be from good friend Jason Spitz or Bulaga, would go his way.
“I knew if I had the opportunity to stay at left guard and continue to compete that I would continue to improve,” said Colledge, explaining that the more he can play just one position the more “physical” and “aggressive” he feels he can play.
“I tried not to look at my competition as those guys. I knew what I had to do to be a better player, and obviously I did enough to do that. I still have things I need to improve on and things that I want to take into this season, but for right now I have the opportunity to start on this line, and that’s important.”
Colledge had two significant factors going for him this summer. First, as much as he struggled at left tackle as Clifton’s initial replacement last season, he did finally get to settle in at left guard and at his customary spot was part of an offensive line – the same one the Packers are lining up with now – that allowed only 10 sacks over the final seven regular-season games in 2009.
In addition, Colledge also has proven to be durable, not missing a game in his four years. He has played in all 67 (including three playoff contests) and started 63 of them, a rather remarkable run of longevity for a player who was yanked from the starting lineup following the preseason opener of his rookie 2006 season, benched in a poor showing during a critical 2007 game in Dallas, and then forced to compete with Allen Barbre for the starting job during training camp in 2008.
In the first two instances, an injury thrust Colledge back into the lineup and he played so well that he held his job when others were healthy again. Then in 2008, he flat out won the job in a competition that never really materialized.
The reason for another competition this summer? Colledge admitted to “one bad game” at left guard down the stretch last season, though he didn’t specify which one. He also was responsible for a critical holding penalty during overtime of the NFC Wild Card playoff game at Arizona that preceded the fateful third down sack/fumble. So there were some inconsistencies, though in front of reporters on Sunday Colledge did for the most part defend his play at left guard during the second half of 2009.
On top of that, Bulaga had been impressive as a highly touted rookie coming in this spring. With Clifton entrenched at left tackle, the coaching staff wanted to give him a chance to get on the field, so he was suddenly battling with Colledge at left guard after the first week of camp.
“I don’t think I ever get tired of being challenged,” Colledge said. “I think I’d like to be a solidified guy, but that’s up to me, that’s not up to the coaches. If I can go out there and perform every single week then I don’t have to worry about it.
“But if you don’t like challenges, you shouldn’t be playing this game. It’s going to be every week. I can feel I’m the starter now, but if I start to not perform well, they’re going to have somebody right behind me that’s ready to go again. I’ve got talented players behind me and I’ve got talented players all around me.”
One of those is Bulaga, who clearly was bitten by a nagging injury at the wrong time. He is considered the heir apparent to Clifton at left tackle for the future, but as Colledge said, he’ll also be waiting in the wings if there’s reason to try anyone else at left guard once the games are for real.
“Obviously I’m disappointed I’m not the guy, but I’ve been nicked up a little bit, and that’s the way it goes,” said Bulaga, who wanted to play against Indianapolis but took what he termed a “strong recommendation” from the medical staff to sit out. Bulaga also sat out practice on Sunday, taking part only in the opening jog-through portion, without his pads on.
“Whatever position they throw me in, I’m just going to try to make the best out of it. I’ll take as many reps as I can at tackle and guard and if I get thrown in at both, I’ll just do my job and just go from there.”
Now it’s up to Colledge to help the No. 1 offense maintain the roll it has been on during the preseason. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers hasn’t been sacked, and the starters have produced seven touchdowns in a little more than four quarters of work.
The starters are expected to play just one series in the preseason finale on Thursday at Kansas City before their attention becomes fully focused on the season opener at Philadelphia on Sept. 12.
“I think we’re happy with the way the offense is right now, but we have some things we need to improve on,” Colledge said. “We want to run a little bit better. Our penalties are down, our hits are down, our sacks are down, all that stuff is down. But we’ve got a couple little things that we want to improve. This is a perfection-based offense. We expect a lot out of each other, and this is one more week for us to tune it up and get ready for an extremely talented Philadelphia team.”
It’s also one more week for Colledge to hone in on the physical, aggressive, “downhill” play that allowed him to keep his job yet again. For how long? Colledge himself has always said that ball is in his court.
“I did what I always do -- I focused on my own game,” he said of his approach through these four weeks of training camp. “I knew there was going to be competition from the beginning, whether it was Spitz, Bulaga, Barbre, (rookie Marshall) Newhouse, or whoever they were going to bring in. I knew there was going to be competition. That’s the way it is. That’s football. I expected that. Did I want that? Probably not. I would have rather been the starter from the very beginning.
“But again, I didn’t give up my starts. I got all my starts in this season, I got all the reps I needed, and I’m going to continue to improve. I’m going to work with what they gave me, and obviously I did enough to continue to hold my job. Now it’s for me to continue to get better from this point on.”
Additional coverage - Aug. 29