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Right away, Bryan Bulaga considered the calendar. His left knee was shooting pain across his body, the kind that makes a player fear for his career. Bulaga knew it was bad, even before his doctor delivered the three most damning letters in football.

Yes, he'd torn his ACL.

This was not how his triumphant return was supposed to go. Outside the Green Bay Packers' locker room, there was celebration. Fans packed Lambeau Field for the annual Family Night scrimmage. Here was Bulaga's chance to show he was healthy after missing the final seven games of 2012 with a fractured hip.

And then, more road blocks.

His recovery needed a detour. Bulaga could hardly believe it. The game had always come natural. He was a first-round pick. He was the youngest player to ever start the Super Bowl. Now, he was about to spend his second straight season on injured reserve.

"Having to watch," Bulaga said. "I mean, man, I hate having to watch. It's very difficult to watch. I think just when I hurt it, when Doc told me, 'It's an ACL,' I think that's as low as I could've gotten because there's no coming back from that for the rest of the year. You're sidelined. For the first week or so, it sucks."

There is no job security in the NFL. No empty paychecks. A player either makes himself available, or he's subject to being cut. Bulaga knows the game. In August 2013, worst-case scenarios consumed his thoughts.

He wondered how his knee would respond to surgery. He wondered if he'd make it back a second time. He hoped there'd be a job waiting for him.

The uncertainty only makes this week, this season even sweeter. Bulaga will be the starting right tackle when Green Bay travels to Seattle for the NFC championship game Sunday. Quietly, he's been every bit the first-rounder Green Bay hoped it was drafting five years ago.

Offensive linemen mostly go unnoticed when they do everything right, so Bulaga's renaissance season hasn't made many waves. Teammates know. Buddies have no problem showing pride.

"Bryan is one hell of a football player," left tackle David Bakhtiari said. "I can talk about how good he is, but I think his play speaks for itself. He's the best right tackle in the league."

Bulaga is thrilled to be one game from the Super Bowl. Maybe more, he appreciates being healthy enough to play deep into January. This season rewarded two years of hard, thankless work.

It hasn't been easy.

* * *

Play this game long enough, and it's humbling. Even offensive linemen, big and tough and seemingly invincible, have to navigate hard times. When the Packers visited the Seahawks for the season opener in September, Bulaga faced another potential low point.

Early in the second quarter, his assignment was Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril. They were in a stalemate when rookie tight end Richard Rodgers ran into Bulaga's back. Both teammates stayed down on the turf after the whistle.

Rodgers would return to the game. Bulaga was out.

It's impossible to ignore the impact Bulaga's absence had on Green Bay's 36-16 loss. Derek Sherrod, who replaced Bulaga, would later give up a critical sack against Avril on fourth-and-5. Next series, Sherrod gave up another sack — this one to Michael Bennett — that resulted in a fumble and safety.

"Injuries are part of the game. You have to overcome them," McCarthy said Wednesday. "We didn't do a very good job handling that aspect of it."

Sherrod would be cut two months later. Unlike Bulaga, this first-rounder struggled to get past a devastating broken leg.

Inexplicably, here was another scare for Bulaga. The similarities were unnerving. Seattle was Bulaga's chance to show he was healthy after missing all of 2013 with the ACL. His return lasted just four possessions, less than one half.

"Yeah," Bulaga said, "that sucked."

There was no celebrating outside the locker room, but teammates had some relief. Right away, Bulaga knew this left knee injury wasn't as severe. Pain wasn't near as intense, he said.

Still, the challenge of another recovery was getting old.

"There's a lot of thought about, 'Geez, he can't get a break,'" left guard Josh Sitton said. "Extremely tough. It's such a mental freaking debacle."

Tests showed Bulaga had a torn MCL. He was expected to be sidelined two to four weeks, the usual timetable. He missed only one game.

Sitton took another sigh of relief while remembering his teammate's injury this week. Finally, Bulaga caught a break.

"For him to bounce back from that after bouncing back from an ACL, and to come back and jump right back in the lineup and start kicking (butt) again," Sitton said, "that was really big. He missed one game with an MCL. He was out to prove something."

* * *

Bulaga was miserable in 2013. All the "watching" took its toll. Green Bay also had a packed training room, which didn't help.

Bulaga needed a narrower focus. He left for Bradenton, Fla., where he trained and rehabbed at IMG Academy. For two months, Bulaga woke up at 6 a.m., arrived at the training facility before 7, and rehabbed straight through the afternoon. He made sure each day was a grind.

"What I wanted out of my rehab was all-day work," Bulaga said. "Rehab, working out, rehab again. I wanted a very rigorous schedule with the rehab, and our trainers here are very busy throughout the year with making sure people are staying healthy on the field. They have a job to do, and then there's guys who are hurt and on IR that they have to take care of.

"So my thought process was, I'm going to go down and make sure that the treatment that I get is one-on-one all the time, I know exactly what I'm getting day in and day out."

Bulaga said it was a "fairly easy" decision. He and his wife have a summer home in Bradenton, so logistics were simple. Together, they weighed the pros and cons. Being 1,400 miles away from his team during the season would be difficult.

Ultimately, Bulaga said, he made the right move for his career.

Teammates weren't surprised when Bulaga left. Ask them why he's become one of the best right tackles in the league, and they'll mention his strength, quickness and awareness. Those attributes always come after his work ethic.

"That's something I see with him no matter if he's injured or not," Sitton said. "He goes to work every day. He left for a few months, and I think that was best for him. He was probably not getting as much work as he wanted here, and that's to nobody's fault. Just numbers-wise, that's how it goes.

"He just wanted to get more, so that's probably a big reason why he left. It's his attitude. He wants to do as much as he can every day."

* * *

His strength was first to return. Then came the rest of his skill set. When training camp opened in July, players reported to knock off the rust that accumulated all offseason.

Bulaga had two years to make up. His biggest hurdle to clear?

"I think it was just the speed of the game," Bulaga said.

Bulaga shot a glance across the locker room. Julius Peppers didn't know it, but the Packers outside linebacker was vital to Bulaga's recovery. Going against the future Hall of Famer every day in practice simulated what he'd face during games, and then some.

Peppers didn't notice more rust on Bulaga's game than anyone else, he said. Informed of Bulaga's gratitude, his eyebrows raised. From the start, Peppers said, the giant right tackle was moving well, playing the game that had always come natural.

"He looked good from Day One," Peppers said. "I didn't notice anything from the start. He's just a big guy. He's a big guy, 6-foot-4 guy. He's very well-balanced and good at both run and pass protect. One of the better that I've played against being able to do both."

Bulaga has been especially solid in pass protection this season. He's allowed only four sacks, which ranks among the NFL's top right tackles, according to ProFootballFocus. No right tackle has allowed fewer than his two quarterback hits.

Most important, Bulaga has started a career-high 15 games. It's the most games he's played in a season since his rookie year in 2010. Twice, he had to return from injuries. The latest came when he was knocked out early in Buffalo with a concussion.

This time, he didn't miss a single game.

Why has Bulaga stayed so healthy this season? His teammates have their theories.

"We say it's because he's fat," Bakhtiari said, half-joking. "He's gotten fat this year. Because when he was skinny, he was getting hurt. This year, he's a big ol' piggy like all of us, and now he's gone uninjured. So I think there's something from the sports science end of it, kind of like having a good steak. A good steak is very marbled throughout. You've got to have some fat through it, and it tastes really good. So I think kind of having him nice and fat has kept him healthy."

Bulaga gained 5 pounds of muscle in Bradenton. Just another way to improve his game.

He picked a good time to have this renaissance. He becomes an unrestricted free agent at season's end. When the signing period begins March 10 — 11 days before Bulaga turns 26 — he'll be one of the top offensive tackles on the market.

"He's going to get himself paid pretty well here pretty soon," Sitton said. "Hopefully by the Packers."

Bulaga isn't focused on free agency. That's for the "people upstairs" and his agent to work out, he said. This week, it's about preparing to win a conference championship. Bulaga wants nothing more than to return to the Super Bowl.

He also has no interest in reflection. There's not enough time to contemplate the big picture.

"It's on to the next game and get ready for the next team," Bulaga said. "At the end of all this, maybe you look back and reflect a little bit, but right now it's playoff time."

And Bulaga is still playing.

— rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.

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