Packers tackle Chad Clifton walks onto the field during training camp practice at Ray Nitschke Field on Thursday evening, Aug. 5, 2010. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
If there was any doubt whether Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher could squeeze out at least one more year as the starting tackles for the Green Bay Packers, it’s gone less than a week into training camp.
That wasn’t a guarantee, because though the two looked fine in offseason practices, they could have struggled once the pads went on.
But Clifton, 34, has been as sound as the Packers could have hoped at left tackle, where they drafted their future starter in Bryan Bulaga in the first round this year.
Tauscher, 33, has been at least as good at right tackle, where T.J. Lang might have pushed for the starting job if Tauscher had proven vulnerable by playing on a left knee that’s endured two reconstruction surgeries.
“I think (Clifton and Tauscher) are in better shape than they were last year,” said Reggie McKenzie, the Packers’ director of football operations. “I don’t see any drop-off in them. As a matter of fact, I see improvement. Attribute it to whatever. It’s a great thing.”
Clifton and Tauscher have been such constant performers for more than a decade that it’s easy to take them for granted in the opening days of camp.
The two have been the bookends of the Packers’ offensive line since becoming surprise starters as rookies in the 2000 draft class. Though they have only one Pro Bowl between them, they’ve always been starters when healthy at the two critical pass-blocking positions on the offensive line, and the Packers have a 95-65 record in their 10 years on the team.
Still, their careers are nearing their end, and it’s not always obvious when age and injury will push players’ performance off the table.
Clifton has been slowly falling apart physically since sustaining a broken pelvis in 2002 and has had three arthroscopic surgeries on both knees and one on both shoulders since; Tauscher had his left knee reconstructed in 2002 and again in 2008.
Yet in the first week of training camp, both are playing more than well enough to hold their jobs. There’s a possibility one or both will decline as the year goes on — sometimes older players don’t show the drop-off until halfway or more through the season.
But barring injury, the Packers will go into the regular season with two proven tackles who the coaches don’t anticipate will need much chip or double-team help to protect quarterback Aaron Rodgers against even premier outside pass rushers such as Chicago’s Julius Peppers, Minnesota’s Jared Allen and Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware.
“Helps your game plan, helps the time you spend in the meeting room,” said Joe Philbin, the Packers’ offensive coordinator. “You have (protection help) in your system, but we go back and tell our guys, the bottom line is you still have to be able to one-on-one pass protect. We can devise chips, we can have guys staying in, backs and tight ends. But if their (blitz) guy comes, what’s your answer (at tackle)?”
Going into the offseason, left tackle was a potential problem for the Packers. Clifton was a free agent, and though he’s missed only seven games since returning from that devastating pelvis injury in 2002, there were legitimate concerns about his health.
Besides the multiple surgeries, Clifton has seen his practice time decline during the regular season, and in the last three years he often practiced only one day a week. That contributed to a decline in his play, especially as a run blocker, which never was a strength and over the last few years has become a liability.
Nevertheless, General Manager Ted Thompson made a strong bid to retain Clifton after the tackle visited the Washington Redskins in March, and quickly signed him to a three-year deal that will pay him $7.85 million this season. That’s a high price for something of an insurance policy, but the Packers didn’t want to go into the draft boxed into selecting a left tackle in the early rounds as a probable starter.
For all his shortcomings in the run game, Clifton has been an excellent pass blocker at the offensive line’s most difficult position. He might not be the athlete he was, but he still has good feet and great technique.
“His pass blocking is special,” McKenzie said. “Since we’ve got a special quarterback — we want to make sure it stays that way.”
It’s helped that Clifton didn’t have any surgeries this offseason and was able to take part in all the Packers’ offseason practices. That’s contributed to his sound play at the start of camp.
However, the Packers won’t know until the end of camp whether Clifton will be able to practice more than once a week in the regular season.
“I like the way he’s looking,” Philbin said. “It appears that quickness we’ve always liked out of his stance in the pass (blocking) is there, and I think his run game’s been a little better.”
Tauscher’s career with the Packers appeared finished last year after he blew out his left knee for the second time in his career late in the 2008 season. The Packers had been developing players behind him and thought Allen Barbre was ready take over as a starter in 2009, so they didn’t try to re-sign Tauscher while he was recovering from surgery in the offseason.
However, when Barbre washed out in half a season, the Packers turned to Tauscher, and he bailed them out. Thompson then re-signed Tauscher in the offseason to a two-year deal that includes $3.2 million in first-year pay, plus up to $700,000 in workout and per-game roster bonuses.
It doesn’t appear Tauscher’s second serious injury to his left knee has precipitated a quick decline. Players often don’t regain full strength after knee-reconstruction surgery until their second year back, and Tauscher might be a little better than he was at the end of 2009 despite his age.
“He feels a little better (than last year), looks a little better,” Philbin said. “I think there’s a little more confidence with his movement — I don’t know if it’s overly noticeable. His awareness obviously is still good. I think he looks good.”