GREEN BAY – It didn’t take him long. After more than a quarter century in the NFL, quality is quickly recognized.
New assistant offensive line coach Mike Solari had only begun his film study of the 2014 Packers’ unit when he met with the Green Bay media for the first time last week, but he already knew why Mike McCarthy called it his best offensive line in nine years as head coach.
“Working as one, they built that trust and accountability,” Solari said. “That’s where Coach (James) Campen did a great job last year. You saw that. As you’re watching the film – I haven’t seen all of it yet – you see how that group really came together and played as a unit. That’s so important.”
Solari knows of what he speaks. The upcoming season will be his 27th in the NFL, most of it coaching offensive lines. Most recently, he molded what was widely considered the league’s best offensive line in San Francisco.
Back in 2012, the 49ers had all five starters selected to the Pro Bowl as either a participant or an alternate. From 2011-13, the middle three years of Solari’s five-year tenure heading the unit, the 49ers offensive line set the standard across the league.
The Packers entered that discussion in 2014. Led by Pro Bowl left guard Josh Sitton, Green Bay protected Aaron Rodgers from some of the league’s most active defensive fronts while paving the way for Eddie Lacy’s second straight 1,100-yard rushing season.
The Packers’ group sports different roots than the 49ers’ line of a few years back, though. San Francisco’s 2012 unit had three first-round draft picks (Joe Staley, Mike Iupati and Anthony Davis) and a center with a decade of experience (Johathan Goodwin).
Green Bay in 2014 had three fourth-rounders (Sitton, T.J. Lang and David Bakhtiari) and a rookie fifth-rounder at center (Corey Linsley). Interestingly, the Packers’ lone first-round pick, Bryan Bulaga, is the only starter not currently under contract for 2015. Bulaga will become an unrestricted free agent in March if not re-signed.
That decision isn’t up to Solari, but regardless, working with groups of different backgrounds has never affected Solari’s approach to his craft.
“No, it doesn’t,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what level they start at or where they got drafted initially, you’re teaching. You’re coaching.
“Then, what you want to do as a coach, when you have guy with more experience, is you want to be able to find some things that can help them be a better football player. That’s the exciting thing about coaching.”
Solari is also excited about working with Campen and the Packers’ current staff. He referred to “the people” as the key factor in his decision to come to Green Bay, saying he patiently studied his options and didn’t simply jump at the first opportunity following Jim Harbaugh’s departure from San Francisco at the end of last season.
He’s reuniting in Green Bay with several former colleagues. Coaching as long as he has, his path has crossed those of countless other veteran coaches, including McCarthy with Kansas City in the late 1990s, Tom Clements also with the Chiefs in 2000, and Ron Zook in the college ranks with Cincinnati and Kansas in the early 1980s.
He also recently has endured their current recovery process following a gut-wrenching end to the previous season. Two years ago, San Francisco came within five yards of winning the Super Bowl, only to come up short against the Ravens.
Personally, that was Solari’s first trip to a Super Bowl since winning one 18 years prior. The degree of agony in a defeat such as that, or Green Bay’s in the NFC title game in Seattle, can vary depending on the individual, but what matters is that everyone processes and harnesses the emotions in a constructive fashion.
“You use it as a strength, you use it as a building block for the next year,” he said. “You come back hungrier than ever. You come back to compete as hard as ever, do the little extra, whatever it takes.”
For what it’s worth, experience tells him the players won’t be hindered by any kind of hangover. The Packers have plenty going for them as they move forward.
That’s been easy to see in a few short film clips, too.
“Next year, it starts all over again,” Solari said. “You set your goals and you go after it. It’s something the players are getting over now, and they’re going to be excited to get back in here and get started again.”