Josh Sitton. H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette
As a rookie out of Eastern Michigan, T.J. Lang had heard all the horror stories.
The tales about how things change once you’re in the NFL. Unlike college, locker rooms are more tight-lipped, so don’t expect veterans to go out of their way to help you out. Here, it’s business.
That had been Lang’s perception going into his first training camp as the Green Bay Packers’ fourth-round draft pick in 2009. Then, the 6-foot-4, 318-pound offensive lineman met the team’s veteran tackles, Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton.
Suffice it to say, Lang never had the same concerns again.
“I remember being a rookie and hearing stories about how the older guys won’t want to help you because they don’t want you taking their jobs,” Lang said. “It wasn’t like that at all here. The guys were very welcoming.”
With Clifton and Tauscher gone, Lang and right guard Josh Sitton are the two longest-tenured offensive linemen on the roster despite the fact they barely combine for 50 years of age.
A fourth-round pick out of Central Florida in 2008, Sitton came into the NFL the same way Lang did, under the wings of Tauscher and Clifton, from whom he learned to keep things simple and not take the game too seriously.
Since Lang arrived, the two linemen have shared a bond, equipped with similar temperaments. They are prone to do something during practice to always keep things light.
That being said, the absence of Tauscher and Clifton have left serious roles to be assumed in the film room and on practice field, especially this season with an offensive line that entered training camp with an average age of 24.4 years.
“It is funny because we are still young, but that role has kind of snuck up on us,” Sitton said. “With the older guys, Mark and Clif leaving, we’ve had to take it upon ourselves to step up and be the leaders. I think we’re doing a nice job to embrace the role. Even with Jeff (Saturday) coming in and T.J. playing next to him, we take it upon ourselves to do anything we can to help him learn this offense and build that chemistry with the offensive line.”
The maturation of the two guards has been seen throughout the organization, from general manager Ted Thompson down to position coach James Campen, who credited the team’s success over the past few seasons to their continued development.
The Packers are 35-13 in games started by Sitton and 17-2 with Lang on the first-team offensive line. They’ve shown no signs of slowing in camp and are a combined 21-0 during one-on-one pass rushing drills.
Their new roles haven’t changed their outlooks, though.
“I hear stories around the league where rookies, it’s a hard time coming in,” rookie guard Greg Van Roten said. “I’ve never felt uncomfortable asking T.J. or Josh about a certain assignment or how they would take on a bull rush or what they do (in) situations. They don’t give you a hard time, they just tell you this is what I would do or this works.”
Lang last week signed a four-year, $20.8 million contract extension that will keep him in Green Bay through the 2016 season alongside Sitton, who inked a five-year extension last September.
The signing brought everything full circle for Lang, who despite being a consummate teammate on the field had to do some growing up off of it.
Prior to winning the starting job at left guard last year, he spent his first two NFL seasons on the Packers’ bench while going out on the town three to four times per week — sometimes even when he had practice the next morning.
When Daryn Colledge signed with Arizona following the 2010 season, Lang realized there was a starting opportunity available. He also knew if he didn’t make his move soon, he might not have a job much longer.
After welcoming his son, John, into the world last year, Lang decided to get serious and cut back on the social scene to focus on football. He was rewarded last August when he beat out first-round pick Derek Sherrod for the starting nod at left guard.
Today nobody is happier to be in Green Bay than Lang. Well, except for maybe Sitton and Lang’s significant others.
“I think it was really important to my girlfriend, too, because her and Kristen, Josh’s fiancée, they’re like best friends,” Lang said. “They were putting a little heat on me, too, because they didn’t want me going anywhere.
“Not only that, but the first thing I told my agent when we started talking was, ‘I don’t care what happens, I just want to stay here. I don’t want to go anywhere else.’ I’d rather be happy here than test the market, see what’s out there and be miserable somewhere else. That was my biggest thing. I wanted to stay here. I wanted to stay with the group of guys here.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.