GREEN BAY — Injuries may have altered the course of the Packers’ offense in 2016, but it didn’t alter the outlook of the team’s offensive line.
When Eddie Lacy (ankle) and James Starks (knee) were sidelined earlier this season, Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy and his coaches were forced to change the structure of the offense in the absence of a traditional running game.
While Ty Montgomery was converting to the backfield, the Packers relied more on the arm of quarterback Aaron Rodgers to keep the offense afloat amidst the shakeup.
More Rodgers drop-backs meant more work for the Packers’ offensive line, which didn’t balk at the proposition of having to buy its quarterback as much time as possible in an effort to create more big-play opportunities downfield.
The Packers, who finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak, surged back into the top 10 in scoring offense, total yards and passing offense after falling out of the top 15 in all three categories in 2015.
At the center of that productivity was an offensive line that started the season under a microscope. Throughout the course of the season, however, it developed into one of the sturdiest positions on the entire roster.
“I think our offensive line has had an exceptional year,” said McCarthy last week. “We’ve had a very good offensive line here the last couple of years, but this is clearly the best group by far.”
McCarthy and Rodgers have sung the praises of the offensive line for years, but this year was different. In many ways, it was a season of change in Green Bay.
It began during the offseason program with JC Tretter taking over at center in place of two-year starter Corey Linsley, who was forced to start the year on the physically unable to perform list due to a lingering hamstring injury.
The Packers then sent shockwaves through the NFL when they handed the reins at left guard to former undrafted free agent Lane Taylor and parted ways with three-time Pro Bowler Josh Sitton at the end of training camp.
It was a bold move, but Taylor looked the part and soon became an afterthought on the offensive line in playing all but two offensive snaps in 16 regular-season starts to lead the line.
When the front five appeared to be settling in, Tretter injured his knee against Atlanta in Week 8. Coincidentally, Linsley had returned to practice two weeks prior and wound up starting the following week and missed only two snaps the rest of the year.
Veteran guard T.J. Lang missed three games with a broken foot, but returned to help the offense during the latter part of the Packers’ winning streak. With Rodgers extending more plays, it often put the onus on the offensive line to pass-protect to the max.
Nobody complained. Instead, the line only grew stronger.
“Block to infinity. Just however long it takes,” Lang said. “It’s not something that we really complain about because at the end of the day for the most part, we’ve been getting rewarded when we block like that. He always rewards us, and usually it ends up in a big play if not a touchdown.”
Despite the commotion in the interior, tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga didn’t miss a start all season. It’s the first time the Packers had their starting tackles play all 16 regular-season games since Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher didn’t miss a game in 2007.
Bakhtiari, the 10th offensive tackle drafted in 2013, earned second-team All-Pro honors and also became the sixth Packers offensive lineman selected to the Pro Bowl since Mike McCarthy was named head coach in 2006.
Teammates feel Bulaga’s work at right tackle was equally important to the offense’s success even though his position doesn’t garner as many accolades as the blind side.
“I know he doesn’t like to say much, but hats off to him,” Bakhtiari said. “He had a hell of a year. I think honestly he was snubbed out of a lot of stuff. He should have gotten a lot more credit than what’s been put out there. In my opinion, he’s the best right tackle in the league.”
Tretter, who has played every position on the offensive line in his four seasons in Green Bay, echoed Bakhtiari’s sentiments during Monday’s locker room clean-out.
“That guy is the best right tackle in football and I don’t think he gets enough accolades and credit for everything he does,” said Tretter of Bulaga. “I think he gets kind of put down by some people, but I think he plays phenomenally well every game. He shows up. You expect a left tackle to be put on an island and protect the passer. We have two left tackles who can do that and you don’t see that often.”
The Packers signed Bakhtiari to an extension before the season to lock up four-fifths of the starting offensive line for 2017. Lang and Tretter are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents but have expressed a desire to return.
As a team, Green Bay came up short in its Super Bowl quest, but how the offense responded to the adversity this season is what members of the offensive line will remember most.
It was that same group that started the year with several question marks that helped keep the Packers’ playoff aspirations alive down the stretch.
“I think our goal every year is we have a championship-caliber (team) across the board, top down,” Linsley said. “We know our expectation is to win a championship. I think the way we fought back collectively as a team speaks a lot to the character of the guys here. I’d rather the season be known for that.”