T.J. Lang on free agency: 'I want to be back'
GREEN BAY - It wasn’t the pain in his foot that right guard T.J. Lang was thinking about late in the third quarter Sunday as he sobbed into a white towel on the Green Bay Packers' sideline.
After Lang’s left foot smacked into center Corey Linsley’s right cleat, the pain was familiar. Lang said he has played through a broken bone in his left foot since first injuring it at Tennessee in late November. At the time, doctors thought Lang’s broken foot might cost him the rest of his season.
He returned three weeks later. Missed only two games. That’s how T.J. Lang rolls. Arguably the toughest player inside the Packers' locker room kept playing through that broken foot, until he reinjured it Sunday.
Hunched over on all fours as trainers evaluated him on the field, that pain was bearable.
“It felt similar to the first time I did it,” Lang said.
During his slow walk to the sideline, finality hit him. The suddenness of the Packers' 44-21 loss in the NFC championship game was hard for every player to stomach.
For a Pro Bowl guard who becomes a free agent this spring, the possibility of playing for anyone other than the team that drafted him in the fourth round eight years ago was wrenching.
So Lang grabbed a towel and cried.
“That’s the first thing going through my mind after I hurt my foot again,” Lang said. “I’m just hoping it wasn’t the last time I get to put on that helmet. It’s tough, man. Obviously, I’ll take some time, take a couple days, to rest up and recover and see what happens. I think everybody in this locker room knows that this is where I want to be.”
Lang won't get the opportunity to wear his Packers helmet once more this season. His foot injury knocked him out of Sunday's Pro Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Lang will be replaced by Chicago Bears guard Josh Sitton, his close friend and former teammate with the Packers. It's Sitton's fourth Pro Bowl.
The Packers' offensive line, one of the best pass-protection groups in football this season, still will be represented this weekend. Left tackle David Bakhtiari, already a second-team All-Pro, was selected to his first Pro Bowl as a replacement for Philadelphia Eagles tackle Jason Peters.
Lang doesn’t know where he’ll be next season. He hopes it’s the Packers. He knows there’s a possibility — maybe a high possibility — it’ll be with another team.
General manager Ted Thompson did not prioritize negotiations with the veteran guard this season. If Lang returns, it wouldn’t be surprising if the first-team Pro Bowler who signed a four-year, $20.8 million contract in 2013 is required to take a hometown discount.
The Packers have offensive line depth to withstand Lang’s potential departure, though maybe no perfect solution.
They traded up in the second round last spring to draft tackle Jason Spriggs. While Spriggs provides depth at both tackles, it seems unlikely Thompson made an aggressive draft move for Spriggs to be a backup player. With right tackle Bryan Bulaga having one of his best seasons, it’s also unlikely the Packers would want to move him inside to guard.
The Packers could also consider JC Tretter lining up at guard, but he's better at center and also becomes a free agent this spring.
So the easiest — and potentially expensive — solution would be to re-sign Lang. He is a key leader in the locker room, both verbally and by example. He was also among the NFL’s best guards this season.
Lang made it clear his preference is to remain in Green Bay.
“I think everybody in this locker room knows that this is where I want to play,” Lang said. “It’s been eight years now. I don’t want to go anywhere. I’ve been saying that since the beginning. I love this team, I love Green Bay, I love everything about being a Packer. I love representing the city and the team. I want to be back. It’s not up to me. This is where I want to be.”
Yet Lang knows he might have played his last game as a Packer on Sunday. A blowout loss. A game where his team fell 60 minutes short of the Super Bowl.
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He was still emotional at his locker, thinking about his uncertain future. The pain in his foot, and the aching disappointment, were a lot to absorb.
“Yeah, I don’t feel great right now,” Lang said. “My foot never really — I never really gave it the time to completely heal. The past six, seven games, it’s been hurting pretty bad, but good enough where I could play. Today, just set me back all the way to the beginning.
“Obviously, that doesn’t help on top of the loss.”
If it was his last play with the Packers, it would be fitting to end on a broken foot. Lang has given the team that drafted him everything he had for eight seasons.