GREEN BAY - Confetti fell inside Cowboys Stadium one February night when a rookie offensive tackle turned to his veteran teammate and heard words he hasn’t forgotten five years later.
The Green Bay Packers had just won Super Bowl XLV, and Bryan Bulaga was lost in the moment. He soaked in the celebration from field level. Somewhere in the swarm, left tackle Chad Clifton pulled his bookend aside.
“After we won,” Bulaga said, “he looked at me and said, ‘This doesn’t happen all the time.’”
He didn’t understand at the time. How could he? Bulaga won a Super Bowl in his rookie season. No, he said, it didn’t feel easy while he was doing it. The Packers marched through Philadelphia, then Atlanta, then Chicago and finally the Pittsburgh Steelers. They were a sixth seed making miracles happen every week.
But, Bulaga admitted, it was natural to assume he’d return.
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Instead, one Super Bowl in one season has turned into one Super Bowl entering his seventh season. He’s a veteran now, the fifth-longest tenured Packers player among nonspecialists. Years of devastating playoff exits have shaped his perspective.
Inside the locker room this week, Bulaga had a keen appreciation for what Clifton told him as the confetti fell in Dallas. Indeed, that sort of celebration does not happen all the time.
“Next season,” Bulaga said, “we went 15-1 and lost in the second round against the Giants. Haven’t been back since. We got to the NFC championship game against Seattle, and that happened. So it just kind of reminds you that it’s not easy. It’s very tough.”
That would be the collapse. You remember. The Packers were on the doorstep of Super Bowl XLIX, a 16-0 halftime lead, a 19-7 lead with the ball and five minutes left, before somehow losing in overtime.
Those wounds seem fresh. In the life cycle of an NFL locker room, they’re faded. On the Packers' newest 53-man roster, only 27 players were with the team in Seattle. A lot changes in 20 months.
Even more changes in five years.
They have the same quarterback, the same right tackle, but the Packers enter Sunday’s opener at the Jacksonville Jaguars an entirely different team than the group that fitted their ring size. Fewer Super Bowl champions are inside their locker room with each passing year.
One by one, they made their exit this offseason. James Jones wasn’t re-signed. B.J. Raji retired. John Kuhn signed with the New Orleans Saints. Josh Sitton was released. Same for Tim Masthay.
Their departures left only 10 players who were on the Super Bowl roster. The final 10. Together, they form the Packers’ core.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers never hesitated to grab the leadership reins. Now, he has no choice. The Packers' goal is to go back to the Super Bowl. Only a handful of players on their roster know how to get there.
“I think in the league there can be a correlation between experience and respect,” Rodgers said, “and that’s how you add to your leadership. The more years you have in the league, most of the time there’s a higher level of respect for you initially, and it gives you an opportunity to speak more freely in meetings or in the locker room.”
There can be bliss in inexperience. An unawareness of the moment that melts nerves, keeping players loose in tense situations.
Outside linebacker Clay Matthews points to that Super Bowl XLV roster. Nobody in their locker room had won a championship, until they did.
“At the same time,” Matthews said, “it almost seems like an eternity ago. We’re hungry. It’s about winning the games when it counts.”
Each passing year, Bulaga said, the urgency to return grows. The 2014 NFC championship game only intensified that hunger, he said. Yes, it took a lot of time to move on from that fourth-quarter collapse.
“The longer you are away from it,” Bulaga said, “the more you want it.”
Matthews amends only slightly. It’s not the urgency that increases, he said, but the appreciation.
Back then, only 24, it was hard for Matthews to fully grasp what the Packers accomplished. Now that he hasn’t been back? That moment with confetti falling all around means even more.
“To have that success in my second year,” Matthews said, “you don’t appreciate it as much. Every year you fall short in regard to winning the Super Bowl, I wouldn’t say it increases the expectations or the drive for it – it’s the ultimate goal. Once you start over, and it’s Week 1 again, it’s great to have that opportunity to come back and do it again.
“Hopefully, it’s us this year.”