GREEN BAY – It’s as though 2014 was too good to be true with regard to the health of the Packers’ offensive line.
That year, the starting five of left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton, center Corey Linsley, right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Bryan Bulaga started 17 of 18 total games together.
Bulaga was the only one to miss a start, way back in Week 2 of that year. The continuity and reliability of the unit was evident as the Packers made their best run at the Super Bowl since 2010.
Then came last year. Injuries struck across the board. Only Sitton started all 18 games, and it was a battle to do so. The group missed a collective 11 starts while beginning only eight games together.
The playoff loss in Arizona was like a reunion, with the starting five intact for the first time since before Thanksgiving.
So, what does all that mean with regard to the guys up front in 2016? There’s no way of predicting anything, but a “normal” year would probably be somewhere in between the last two – 17 of 18 starts together was awful fortunate, but seeing that number cut by more than half a year later was like the fates evening things out.
“We would love to be able to play every game together, every snap together,” Lang said. “I don’t think last year was rare, I think 2014 was rare.
“Everybody is going to get injured in this league. You never know when it’s going to come. Sometimes it comes a little bit at a time, sometimes it comes in waves, and last year it seemed like it never stopped for us.”
The efforts to get healthy are not over, but they’re more top of mind than the contract status of three starters in the final year of their deals. Multiple linemen have stated their focus is on this season, not the future.
With training camp still six weeks away, Lang has been rehabbing from shoulder surgery and not practicing during OTAs. Bakhtiari is practicing, but his ankle understandably requires maintenance following a nasty injury in Oakland that cost him three games late last season. Sitton has lost 20 pounds in hopes of alleviating some lingering back issues. Linsley has been sitting out for unspecified reasons.
It’s all a reminder how full health is elusive, if not non-existent, in the NFL. These guys have played banged-up plenty of times, including in 2014 when Lang (ankle) and Sitton (toe) in particular fought through maladies but never missed a start. As a group, they’ve always viewed a difference between being hurt and being injured.
“Even when we do seem fine, we ain’t fine,” Bakhtiari said. “Healthy is a very loose term. It’s very ambiguous.”
So is preserving it. Bakhtiari said there are two main factors. One is physical preparation, doing all the extra things to maintain flexibility, endurance and the like.
“The second thing is just luck,” he said. “It’s not like I did something wrong to have my ankle happen. It’s just a freak accident. I wasn’t dealt a good hand that day, and that’s just how it is.”
If there was a silver lining to all the lineup shuffling last year, it’s that reserves JC Tretter and Lane Taylor got a combined six starts under their belts, performed admirably, and will be even more prepared if called upon again.
With pass protection an issue down the stretch last season in Bakhtiari’s absence, until Tretter stepped in at left tackle in the wild-card playoff, depth there was addressed in the draft as well. The Packers selected two college tackles, trading up for four-year Indiana starter Jason Spriggs in the second round and nabbing two-year Stanford starter Kyle Murphy in the sixth round.
Murphy has missed the offseason work so far due to Stanford’s school schedule, but he’ll probably take a cue from Spriggs, who Lang says has been asking the veterans a lot of questions. The vets welcome the chance to help them learn in a pay-it-forward sort of way, as Lang recalled having Chad Clifton, Mark Tauscher and Scott Wells to talk to when he entered the league as a fourth-round pick back in 2009.
“Myself in my eighth year, it’s something you learn how to pass down to the next generation,” he said. “We’re a tight group of guys in that room. It’s not a room for thin skin, but we definitely care about each other, and that includes rookies, because we’re going to need them at some point to go out and win some games.”
If they don’t, all the better, but you just never know.
“We definitely take a lot of pride in being out there on the field and giving our team the best chance to win,” Lang said. “We feel obviously if we stay healthy as a front five, we can be one of the best units in the league.”