Sitton standing tall despite balky back

Bob McGinn
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers guard Josh Sitton during OTA practice inside the Don Hutson Center on Monday, June 6, 2016.

GREEN BAY - Guard Josh Sitton has aspirations of team glory, individual achievement and financial compensation.

To reach them, Sitton has come to understand he must do everything in his power to alleviate the chronic back problems that have bedeviled but never sidelined him during the Green Bay Packers’ past three seasons.

Thus, Sitton dropped about 20 pounds in the offseason primarily to lighten the load on his back. He’s put about 10 back on since spring, and at his current weight of 317 is in the pink of health entering his ninth season.

“I feel really good right now,” Sitton said last week. “Losing the weight really helped.”

The stakes are even higher for Sitton this season. He hasn’t had a raise in five years, and with a contract expiring in March his agent, Jack Reale, could build a case why his client should be the highest-paid guard in the league.

“I remember when I was going to get my deal done last time around five years ago,” Sitton said. “I was focusing a lot on that, and it kind of throws you off a little bit. I try not to think about future stuff.”

Guard T.J. Lang, whose contract also will be up next year, describes his running buddy as a player with rare athletic ability.

“He makes it look easy,”  Lang said. “The rest of us feel we really have to scratch and claw to win every block, and he does it with ease. His recover ability is just something else.”

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Still, even players as gifted as Sitton often start thinking about doing more when they turn 30, which he did in June.

Sitton wasn’t quite as dominant in 2015 as in previous seasons due in part to the back. He missed just eight snaps in 18 games, by far the fewest of the starting offensive linemen, but wasn’t able to practice fully before the last 10 games.

The Packers’ injury report listed the back as his medical problem in the last seven of those games.

Early in his career, the free-spirited Sitton would just kind of do enough to get by in the offseason. Back home in Pensacola, Fla., Sitton embarked on a workout program this year designed not only to keep him playing on Sundays but also allow him to practice during the week.

“When you’re young you can get away with just doing whatever it is you have to do,” he said. “When you start getting older you learn to go and do a whole bunch of things on your own.”

Sitton was taught a stretching and workout routine by his trainer in Florida. He did it five days a week.

“I do all my stuff on my own,” Sitton said. “He taught me basically all the things I do, and there are things I learned here from our staff. When you get to this point in your career the time you spend by yourself is kind of what determines how long you can play.”

Sitton has never had back surgery, and is determined not to have any at all costs.

“It’s all mechanical,” he said. “I don’t have any like nerve stuff that shoots down (his leg) or anything like that. So I’m lucky from that standpoint.”

Sitton has real estate holdings in Pensacola, where he also is co-owner of a construction company. Married this year, his future in business is set.

Don’t get the idea, though, that Sitton ever would walk away from the game. He’s all football player, through and through.

“I’ll play as long as I can,” he said. “I still feel really good so I’d like to play until I don’t.”

According to some veteran players, coach Mike McCarthy takes an enlightened approach when it comes to getting them to opening day. In Sitton’s case, that consists of withholding him from the one-on-one pass-blocking drills for the second straight summer after limiting him to merely two turns in 2014.

In 2009, Sitton moved into the starting lineup at the right-guard spot previously held by Jason Spitz. He held sway there through 2012 before shifting to left guard in ’13.

It wasn’t until the last two years that Sitton was voted to the Pro Bowl. Largely because the vote of fans now is used in conjunction with ballots by coaches and players, the Pro Bowl has lost meaning as an accurate measure of the best players.

The system used by the Journal Sentinel since 1994 to pick the All-NFC North Division team (All-NFC Central through ’01) provides a better barometer of player performance. The team is selected annually by vote of personnel people after 15 games.

Sitton’s dominant play is reflected in his seven straight first-team berths, including the last six as a unanimous choice. In the 22-year history of the team, Sitton is tied with Randall McDaniel among guards for most first-team berths (seven) and unanimous selections (six).

Next in first-team berths was Minnesota’s Steve Hutchinson with five. Hutchinson and Green Bay’s Mike Wahle followed in number of unanimous selections with three.

Certainly, McDaniel would have made the all-division team several more times in the first six years of his 14-year career (1988-’93) if it had been created. McDaniel was voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in ’99.

“The position I play is a tough position to get in there,” Sitton said. “My goals every year are to win Super Bowls, make Pro Bowls and all-pros. It (Hall of Fame) is not something I really think about, to be honest.”

When Sitton was asked if he keeps up with the salaries at guard since signing a five-year, $33.75 million extension on Sept. 2, 2011, he replied, “Of course I do.”

When Sitton accepted that deal, his average salary per year of $6.85 million and his guarantees of $8.5 million were impressive, especially in view of the fact he had another year left on his rookie deal.

Today, excluding the high draft choices still playing under lucrative rookie deals, Sitton’s average salary ranks seventh among guards with second and third contracts while his guaranteed money ranks 10th among guards and 38th among all offensive linemen.

The nine guards with larger guarantees than Sitton are the Raiders’ Kelechi Osemele ($25.7 million), the Cardinals’ Mike Iupati ($22.5M), the Eagles’ Brandon Brooks ($21M), the Chargers’ Orlando Franklin ($20M), the Ravens’ Marshal Yanda ($17.8M), the Rams’ Rodger Saffold ($15M), the Buccaneers’ J.R. Sweezy ($14.5M), the Texans’ Jeff Allen ($12M) and the Vikings’ Alex Boone ($10M).

Only two of those nine players, Iupati and Yanda, have been voted to a Pro Bowl.

Playing with Sitton for seven years, Lang most admires his consistency. “Very rarely do you ever see him get beat, whether it’s a run or pass,” he said.

Statistics recorded by the Journal Sentinel, which include playoff games, confirm Lang’s contention.

Sitton’s yield of 17 sacks in eight seasons includes 4½ in the last three years, and two of those came in January when McCarthy erred starting him at left tackle against the Vikings.

In terms of pressures (sacks, knockdowns, hurries) allowed, Sitton’s total has either been the lowest or second-lowest among the offensive linemen in each of the last six years.

After being charged with a career-high 17 “bad” runs in 2011, Sitton has ranked near the low end of the unit with 6 ½ in 2012, 8 ½ in ’13, 12 ½ in ’14 and 15 ½ in ’15.

Sitton’s lone statistical blot is a career-high 10 penalties (six for holding) last season.

Late in the 2014 season, an NFC North personnel man said, “You look at Sitton’s body, you’re like, ‘How does this guy get it done?’ But he just gets it done. I’d say he’s been playing at a Pro Bowl level the last three, four years.”

Nose tackle Kenny Clark continued to marvel at Sitton three weeks into his first NFL training camp, calling him “by far” the best lineman he had ever faced.

“His pass protection is real unorthodox,” Clark said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s just crazy. He has his own category. He just knows how to use his body.”

If that body cooperates, there’s no telling how long Sitton might play or what honors he might receive.

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