GREEN BAY - The first six weeks after knee surgery, Bryan Bulaga said, are most crucial. When the Green Bay Packers right tackle recovered from a torn ACL in his left knee during 2013, the first six weeks were when he bent his knee for the first time, when he first straightened his leg, when he walked.
Those first six weeks, Bulaga said, set the pace for the remainder of a recovery. If it’s difficult to perform the most basic tasks, everything else will take longer. Which is why Bulaga quickly felt optimistic last November about his recovery from a torn ACL in his right knee.
Because he didn’t need six weeks to bend and straighten his leg right.
No, Bulaga said, he was walking in two.
“I feel like right from the get-go,” Bulaga said, “we were doing things from the strengthening standpoint ahead of where I was last time. That was encouraging.”
Bulaga’s recovery started on an accelerated pace. It’s continued to be much quicker than anyone outside the Packers could have imagined.
Bulaga cleared his physical Friday, allowing him to be activated from the physically unable to perform list and practice for the first time three days before the nine-month mark of his injury.
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So this is why the Packers felt no urgency to draft a right tackle with a high-round pick this spring. Bulaga said he hoped to participate in organized team activities this offseason, but Dr. Pat McKenzie wouldn’t clear him. He never doubted being able to return in camp.
Neither did his teammates.
“I think there was some things written or talked about him maybe not being ready for training camp,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said, “but anybody who’s been in the weight room with him was surprised by any of that type of rhetoric. I’m happy to see him out there in his pads. He’s been doing a great job with his rehab and he’s a professional. He’s a pro’s pro. He knows how to play the game. Unfortunately, he’s sustained a couple of tough injuries. But when he’s out there, he’s a rock.
“The sooner we can get the five we think are going to be the first five kind of starting to get a chance to jell together, the better.”
Bulaga was limited in practice, only participating in individual reps. The eighth-year veteran said he needs to polish the rust after playing so long. So Bulaga expects several more practices where he can focus on his blocking technique before taking team reps.
Still, with more than five months until the Packers open their season hosting the Chicago Bears, he’s clearly on track to start Week 1.
“I am very optimistic about Week 1,” Bulaga said. “I really am. It was a goal of mine, and obviously still is. I still have some work to do to get to it, but it’s definitely looking better than it did, say, four months ago. Even though I thought I’d still get to that point, it looks better because of how everything has shaped up and how I felt and how I’ve recovered.”
Bulaga is still wearing a heavy brace around his right knee. He expects to continue wearing the brace through the season. He wore a brace around his left knee during his first year back from surgery in 2014, not discarding it until after the season. Bulaga said he also wore knee braces in college.
Along with the brace, another factor helping Bulaga return so soon is which knee the injury occurred. Bulaga said a torn ACL in the left knee is more problematic than right. As a right tackle, he explained, each snap he’s pushing off his left leg.
“You’re dragging it through the ground and the grass,” Bulaga said. “That’s a lot of pressure put on that joint. I feel like the right one, you do brace on it a little bit more when you’re taking on rushers, you do sit back on it. Those are all certain things. If you’re going to the left, driving that knee through a defender and making sure that feels strong and getting through it.
“It’s just different, but I felt like the left one, for my position, was going to be tough. I was able to deal with it and move on from it and it wasn’t that big of an issue.”
Bulaga noticed how little expectation there was for him to return this soon, particularly outside the team. Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise. He’s already recovered from a torn ACL to play at a high level, not missing a practice.
He’s done it again, albeit in a much shorter window. Bulaga tore his left ACL in early August before the 2013 season. His comeback this time has been three months faster, but Bulaga said he never doubted his ability to return.
“I thought I could knock this rehab out better than I did the last time,” Bulaga said. “There was a lot of chatter that I probably wouldn’t be available until the middle of the season, and that’s just a little bit of fuel. That stokes it. All of those little tidbits kind of go into it.
“So for myself personally, it was just knowing that I could really knock this rehab out, do a good job, and get back as early as possible.”
Ryan Wood and Aaron Nagler give their initial thoughts from an overcast Ray Nitschke Field after Thursday's practice. Packers News