'Grieving' Aaron Rodgers, Packers dealing with David Bakhtiari injury: 'You've got to move on'
GREEN BAY - Matt LaFleur didn't diminish what the season-ending loss of David Bakhtiari means for his team. Yes, a pall fell over Clarke Hinkle Field, where the Green Bay Packers were practicing Thursday afternoon when their franchise left tackle crumpled in a “freak” accident every coach fears.
Bakhtiari, suspected of tearing his ACL, is not only one of the Packers' best players. He is an All-Pro, the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history, having signed his four-year, $105.5 million extension in November. He’s one of the team’s preeminent leaders. A cornerstone to an anticipated Super Bowl run.
Without him, there is a gaping hole on the left side of a Packers offensive line that has reshuffled and recouped to plug leaks all season. This will be the most daunting gap to fill yet.
“Unfortunately, Dave will be out the rest of the season,” LaFleur said Friday. “It’s just one of those unfortunate, freak things that happens sometimes in practice. It was certainly nobody’s fault. It was a freaky deal. It’s tough to replace a guy of his caliber. I mean, you’re talking about a premier left tackle in this league. But you feel so bad for Dave. Just all the work and everything he pours into this job, and he does such a great job, such a great team leader. So you always feel bad for him.
“But like I told our players, there’s going to be nobody that’s feeling sorry for us as a football team. Our standards, our expectations, they don’t change.”
The kind of injury-related loss the Packers are dealing with as they prepare for Sunday’s finale at the Chicago Bears is something every NFL team encounters. Football is a brutal game, and the attrition takes a toll on rosters.
It was only a matter of time before the Packers would experience a major injury. For almost two years, they have had remarkable fortune with their health. Guard Lane Taylor, who tore his ACL in this season’s opener at Minnesota, was the only starter in the past two years with a season-ending injury before Bakhtiari.
Sometimes teams create their own luck. Since being hired as the Packers head coach, LaFleur meticulously crafted his practice schedules around preserving players’ bodies. The Packers never go three hard practices in a row, even during camp. A premium is placed on the long-term goal. From Davante Adams to Aaron Jones, key players have been held out of regular-season games for precautionary reasons, even when they believe they’re ready to play.
Each decision is made to avoid the type of situation Bakhtiari’s injury presents.
The Packers had good reason to believe they’d sidestepped any significant injuries for the rest of the season. They had concluded all their padded practices for the year, left only with light, unpadded sessions. That Bakhtiari’s injury came in a practice designed to avoid injuries could make it only harder to digest.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he got a phone call from Bakhtiari late Thursday afternoon. Hoping for good news, the potential league MVP got something else. Rodgers said he was still “grieving” a day later.
“You’ve got to move on,” Rodgers said, “but right now it’s still a little raw, and we’re still sad and hurting for Dave because that’s our brother, that’s our left tackle and teammate. It’s been a tough time for us, and times that by infinity is probably where he’s at right now.”
The Packers will have right tackle Rick Wagner available Sunday. Wagner has been limited in practice this week because of a knee injury, but he was dropped from Friday’s injury report.
When Bakhtiari missed three games earlier this season, the Packers moved right tackle and guard Billy Turner to left tackle, with Wagner inserted as the right tackle. Although the Packers went only 2-1 in those games, including an upset loss at home to the Minnesota Vikings, the offensive line allowed only two sacks.
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Still, this will be a different challenge. Bakhtiari missed games against the Houston Texans, Vikings and San Francisco 49ers, three teams who finished in the league’s bottom half in sacks. In the playoffs, the challenge will be much more grueling. Four potential opponents that have qualified for the NFC playoffs rank among the NFL’s top 10 in sacks. Washington and Arizona also rank among the top 10 and could secure playoff berths this week.
The offensive line has been a strength of the NFL’s highest-scoring offense, for more reasons than the All-Pro left tackle. The Packers have both depth and flexibility to get creative, with LaFleur saying this week he’d never been around such a versatile offensive line.
Elgton Jenkins, a Pro Bowl guard in his second season, could be an option to replace Bakhtiari. Jenkins got some snaps at left tackle when Wagner left a game against the 49ers. With Wagner expected to play, Turner might be the more likely blindside blocker.
“I think Billy has done a tremendous job,” LaFleur said, “all season long no matter where he’s played: right tackle, right guard, left tackle. You know, he’s got the right mindset, the right attitude. He comes to work every day ready to go. He’s a true pro. And that’s all those guys in that room.
“This is the best offensive line group I’ve ever been around, and I’m not even talking about the players. I’m talking about in terms of just the mindset in that room, how the guys prepare, and then I would say that it’s the best O line I’ve ever been around as well.”
Bakhtiari was the foundation of that offensive line. With him on the field, LaFleur could call any play knowing his quarterback’s blindside was protected. Now there will be an added element of uncertainty.
That disturbing reality was not lost on the Packers as they prepared to travel to Chicago. With a win, they will secure the NFC’s top seed. Get the top seed, and not only will the Packers have an extra week to regroup with the conference's lone bye, but the road to Super Bowl LV will be scheduled to go through Green Bay.
Without Bakhtiari, it will be much harder to stay on it.
“I was really proud of our guys,” LaFleur said, “in terms of how they responded today. I thought the practice was really clean today. It wasn’t perfect. It never is. I thought the guys were into it, there was energy. Any time you have an injury and you see a cart come out on the field, that can be deflating no matter who it is. You just hate to see your teammates go down with something like that.
“I think it did take us a while to refocus yesterday, and I thought our guys came back with the right mindset.”
Defensive lineman Kingsley Keke, who has been in concussion protocol all week following the Titans game, has been ruled out for the Bears game. Guard Simon Stepaniak, who recently came off of reserve/non-football injury after rehabbing an ACL injury sustained in December 2019, is listed as questionable.
Meanwhile, running back Jamaal Williams has been removed from the injury report after recovering from a quadriceps injury sustained against the Carolina Panthers. After rookie running back A.J. Dillon’s two-touchdown performance against the Titans, LaFleur will be tasked with figuring out how to distribute the snaps among a healthy Williams, Dillon and Aaron Jones.
Tight end Jace Sternberger and safety Will Redmond, who were both working through concussion protocol this week, have also been removed from the final injury report and are available to play Sunday.
Sternberger had been in concussion protocol since he was kicked in the back of the helmet in Week 13 against the Philadelphia Eagles. The second-year tight end was also dealing with an illness last week leading up to his third missed game of the season.
On the other side, the Bears will play Sunday without cornerbacks Jaylon Johnson (shoulder) and Buster Skrine (concussion). Safety Deon Bush (foot), safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. (neck), tight end Demetrius Harris (foot), tight end Cole Kmet (shoulder) and kick return specialist Cordarrelle Patterson (knee) are questionable to play.