On Thursday, James Campen sounded a little bit like John “Hannibal” Smith, the leader of those 1980s TV soldiers of fortune, The A-Team.
All the Green Bay Packers offensive line coach was missing was George Peppard’s signature line: “I love it when a plan comes together.” That’s how good he and the rest of the Packers’ coaching staff was feeling about the first week of padded practices for the offensive line.
“You know, I think that quite frankly it’s exceeded what I thought it would be at,” Campen had said when asked to assess how the reconfigured offensive line had jelled during the first week of training camp. “I think they’ve done a very good job with their footwork. They took advantage of the OTA (organized team activity) periods to get adjusted to it. I think they’re over that hump. It’s just a few little things, new footwork they’ve got to work on, but I think they’ve adjusted very well.”
So much for that.
With an NFL source confirming that left tackle Bryan Bulaga suffered a season-ending knee injury during the team’s annual Family Night Scrimmage, the Packers now must decide what to do with their renovated offensive line without the guy they felt was the answer to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ blind side.
Just three months ago, as the team was starting individual position work sessions in their offseason program, coach Mike McCarthy informed Bulaga he was moving from right tackle to left tackle. Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton moved from right guard to left guard, T.J. Lang moved from left guard to right guard and Marshall Newhouse, who started 28 games (including playoffs) the past two seasons at left tackle, moved to right tackle.
The source confirmed multiple reports that Bulaga suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee. The mystery is that it’s unclear exactly when Bulaga was injured Saturday night. He took all the first-team snaps at left tackle during the scrimmage and was also on the field-goal protection unit at the end of the practice. The injury wasn’t discovered until team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie examined him on Sunday after Bulaga complained about the knee.
The Packers would appear to have two options at left tackle: They could move Newhouse, who took over for injured veteran Chad Clifton during the 2011 season, back to left tackle; or, they could insert promising rookie fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari there. Bakhtiari, a starter at left tackle the last two years at Colorado, impressed during the first week of practices in pads and had injected himself into the right tackle competition with Newhouse and Don Barclay.
“(Bakhtiari) is a very good athlete No. 1. He’s very smart, he doesn’t have mental errors. Hasn’t had one all camp. He’s done a very good job with that,” Campen said last week when asked for a scouting report on Bakhtiari. “And not every one of our plays are mirrored on each side, so he’s done a very good job with that. He’s a tough kid, too. He’s a physical kid that’s young, he’s only a junior coming out like Bryan was, and he has a big upside. How far he’s going to go with it, that’s up to him. He’s a guy that challenges himself to go and get the job done. I think one of his biggest assets is he’s a realistic person, he understands there’s a process, and he takes advantage of every rep.”
When Bulaga suffered a season-ending hip injury last November, Barclay started the final six games (including playoffs) at right tackle but has been working at center and guard as well in camp. When he wasn’t taking snaps with the No. 1 offensive line at right tackle, Newhouse worked with the No. 2 line at left tackle during the scrimmage.
Reporters would have gotten a look at how the Packers planned to proceed on the line at practice on Monday afternoon, but the team canceled the workout Monday morning. According to a team spokesman, the practice was canceled for a private team function, and was unrelated to Bulaga’s injury or any of the other injuries the team has sustained in training camp. The practice had been scheduled to be closed to the public but open to reporters.
It seems unlikely that the Packers would move their other offensive linemen to their original positions if they moved Newhouse back to left tackle. McCarthy had said previously that he moved Sitton to left guard to put the team’s two best offensive linemen together on the same side of the line, protecting Rodgers’ blind side. Sitton and Bulaga had also played next to one another since the 2010 season.
That approach would also lend itself to the coaches giving Bakhtiari the first shot at the left tackle job, since it would mean a change at only one position. Asked about playing left tackle during the scrimmage, Newhouse, apparently unaware of Bulaga’s injury, gave no indication that it was anything other than extra work.
“It’s good that I’ve gotten a lot of work in OTAs and stuff at right, and now these left tackle reps are really good refresher, muscle-memory type stuff to get my explosiveness, keep it where I know it’s been at,” Newhouse said. “Even with all the gains I’ve made in the offseason, to transfer that over to the left side, from this time last season, I’m in a different place as a player and I’ve progressed.”
The other problem the Packers have is that they still can’t count on 2011 first-round pick Derek Sherrod, who remains on the active/physically unable to perform list, yet to be cleared from the broken leg he suffered in December 2011. McCarthy has said on multiple occasions that Sherrod was “close,” but no timeline has been given for his return, and it’s hard to predict how effective he’ll be after a 20-month layoff.
The current linemen, meanwhile, must figure out where to go from here, just when they were starting to get in sync.
“We’re getting better and more comfortable, our feet are in the ground quicker. It’s a progression. I’d say we’re climbing the hill now,” Campen had said on Thursday. “With communication and feel, people always refer to a good, broken-in baseball mitt. It feels good in your hand. … That’s the stuff that we’re seeing now. Those exchanges, twists, combination blocks, you can see the mesh points are coming.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.