Are Chad Clifton’s days finished as the Green Bay Packers’ left tackle?
It’s a fair question, considering Clifton’s failing knee, and first-round draft pick Bryan Bulaga’s sound play to date.
The guess here is, yes, there’s a decent chance Bulaga will be the starting left tackle for the rest of the year.
Coach Mike McCarthy pulled Clifton halfway through the second quarter last week against Buffalo because the 34-year-old’s sore knee prevented him from the doing the job. He could hardly run block at all, and though he didn’t get abused in pass protection, he labored there at times as well. The signs were there as early as the game’s sixth play, when defensive end Dwan Edwards, who has all of two sacks in six-plus NFL seasons, beat him on an inside move. Clifton had to use a choke hold to stop him and should have been called for holding.
The Packers are suggesting Clifton might be ready to play as early as this week. We’ll see about that. He struggled while playing through considerable discomfort in the opener and then had to be yanked last Sunday, so the better bet is he’ll need a week or two off, at least, before he’s ready to go.
But either way, to what end? Even if the knee responds and doesn’t need arthroscopic surgery, is there reason to think it won’t flare up when he starts playing again? The Packers took great care with Clifton in training camp, limiting him to one practice on their seven two-a-days, and giving him time off later when the knee got sore. Yet here he was, only two weeks into the regular season and too hobbled to play well enough to stay in the game.
If the Packers had no good alternatives, they’d be in a tight spot. But they drafted Bulaga not only for the future, but for just such a time. Ideally, yes, he might sit a season before succeeding Clifton, but based on Bulaga’s play in training camp and in the final 2½ quarters against Buffalo, he’s good enough to go right now.
He’s a better run blocker than Clifton ever was, and now that Clifton has trouble bending and exploding in the run game, the difference is large. Bulaga doesn’t have Clifton’s uncommonly quick feet – for most of his career, Clifton was a first-rate if underpublicized pass blocker – but for a rookie he’s an unusually sound technician. At this point, there’s probably not much difference in their ability to protect.
So the starting job at left tackle could be riding on Bulaga’s performance this week against Chicago, assuming he plays. The test will be noteworthy, because the Bears this offseason signed defensive end Julius Peppers, a premier pass-rushing talent whose Week 1 sack knocked Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford out for at least a couple of weeks with a shoulder injury.
Peppers is listed as a right end but splits time at both sides. McCarthy can’t afford to have quarterback Aaron Rodgers take any shots like Stafford, so he’ll be ready to help his tackle no matter who starts on the left side, and maybe more so if it’s the rookie.
But if Bulaga plays and holds up well, it’s hard to see why McCarthy would take him out when Clifton’s ready to go. It would be the choice between a rookie who’s playing well enough now and will get better as the season goes on, and a 34-year-old veteran who’s body is breaking down.
The Packers were heartened by Clifton’s play for most of training camp, but it’s a bad sign that his knee has slowed him this much, this early. Maybe it’s something he and the team’s medical staff can manage well after some rest – they have managed it well for several years now. Maybe he’ll return to a starter’s level of play. But maybe Clifton’s body has hit the wall.
So be it. He then becomes an insurance policy, albeit an expensive one. With Washington also in pursuit, General Manager Ted Thompson paid $7.51 million in roster and workout bonuses plus salary to re-sign Clifton this offseason, and there’s at least a chance he’ll get less than two games for the effort. But it’s hard to blame Thompson for that call.
He did the contract on March 6 while dealing with a weak free-agent market and the draft still seven weeks away. There’s a saying in the NFL that the hardest time to find a quarterback is when you need one, and that might apply to other premium positions as well. You don’t want to go into the draft boxed into finding a starting left tackle, especially selecting at only No. 23 overall. Everyone in the league would know you need one, so you’re vulnerable to the machinations of the draft. Will teams leap-frog you for the tackle you like? You can move up, but at what cost?
So Thompson anted up and re-signed Clifton. That gave him a better hand in the draft, where a left tackle he liked was available when he picked in the first round anyway.
It was an expensive decision, but the right one at the time. Even if Clifton doesn’t play another down.
Pete Dougherty covers the Packers for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.