Byron Bell finds just the right fit on Packers' offensive line
GREEN BAY – It wasn’t that long ago that Byron Bell wondered if he’d suit up again on Sundays, or how often.
In May of 2016 he dislocated his left ankle on the first day of organized training activities for the Tennessee Titans, ending his season before it began. A full year of rehab awaited, and as he was laid up in a hospital bed, admittedly overweight, he was uncertain of his future in the NFL.
“I didn’t know really where I was going with my career,” Bell said. “Made enough money, but I just kind of wanted to continue to play. I was kind of — I wouldn’t say down or depressed — but I was anxious, really, to get back out there. I was itching.”
He came back in 2017 as a reserve in Dallas, making two starts at left tackle. Then as free agency began in early March — and continued through April and May — he wondered again about his future. He was now two full seasons removed from the last time he regularly started, which was across multiple positions in Tennessee in 2015.
“I kind of didn’t know where I was going,” he said. “I was talking to my agent, I was scared a little bit, am I going to play? I’m talking to my mom trying to stay upbeat. What my mom always taught me was be patient, keep working, God got something in store for you.”
Signed in late May, Bell said he only placed one expectation upon himself: Earn the respect of the Green Bay Packers locker room.
“Come here, I mean, I wasn’t expecting to play. They had Justin (McCray),” Bell said. “They had the guys.”
Now in early November, the 29-year-old is the starting right guard for the foreseeable future.
“The plan is to continue with Byron Bell at right guard,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said Thursday morning. Season-opening starter Justin McCray initially injured his left shoulder against Washington on Sept. 23.
“Justin McCray is ready to go,” McCarthy said. “He looks good. He’s definitely back from the injury that he had early in the season. You never know. Maybe this week will be the week he can get up (on the 46-man active roster).”
Packers coaches have said Bell has brought toughness and sound technique to the line of scrimmage since taking over for McCray. Bell, now in his eighth year, said he used to get by on pure physical ability but now has drilled into the playbook, techniques and communication.
“He’s given us good, honest effort out there,” Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. “He’s played pretty well. He’s certainly earned it. It wasn’t something that we just handed to him and so far he’s earned the right to keep it.”
Bell was critical of his play against New England on Sunday, saying he allowed too many pressures on Aaron Rodgers, but overall feels he has found his footing between right tackle Bryan Bulaga and center Corey Linsley.
“I’m a guy squeezed between one of the better right tackles and one of the better centers in football. My job is pretty easy,” Bell said with a laugh. “All I gotta do is just sit there and get big. Bulaga and Corey, I just bounce around on them two. It helps my game, I feel like, and it gives me confidence going in that they trust me enough to go out there and get the job done. Whether I’m a natural tackle or a natural guard, I think I’m just a natural football player.”
Having been through free agency before and with three previous teams, Bell said he’s not thinking about a long-term future.
“This is an honor, really,” Bell said of his starting position. “I tell my friends and family, it’s not every day you get to play with Hall of Fame quarterbacks and protect for them.
“Whether there’s a future here; I’d love to be here the rest of my career and I can just retire. Great. If not, I’m just going to treat this year like a special year, and we’re going to get this thing turned around, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
As for McCray, the third-year guard said his shoulder has healed enough for him to shed the protective brace that he had been wearing for the first time this week and said if he’s active against Miami he would likely be able to play without it. But he also understands the numbers game of being active on Sundays when it compares to other positions.
“I definitely want to play every game, but I know there’s a lot of things that go into it more than just me wanting to play,” McCray said. “It’s a little frustrating, but at the end of the day I’m trying to do the most I can do, whatever the team needs me to do to help them win. If that means sometimes I’m not active and somebody else needs to be active, then that’s just how it is. That just means I need to work harder and get better so that I’m always thought of as a guy that needs to be dressed up on game day.”