Packers' All-Pro tackle David Bakhtiari has 'ambitious' goals after being activated from injury list
GREEN BAY – In the lowest moments of his 20-month nightmare, when his left knee was swollen and his mind was weary and the football field couldn’t have felt further away, David Bakhtiari’s will was tested.
He had signed a four-year, $92 million extension with the Green Bay Packers six weeks before tearing an ACL on New Year’s Eve 2020, a contract he demanded be the richest annual salary for any offensive lineman in NFL history before putting a pen to it. That was back when Bakhtiari was invincible, the best pass blocker in football. His indomitable spirit kept getting chipped away over the months that followed, as setbacks recycled, surgeries piled and a recovery process that’s supposed to last roughly 10 months almost doubled.
For Bakhtiari, rehab was hell. The fluid in his knee wouldn’t reduce. His return date felt like a blind, moving target. In those moments, Bakhtiari said, he realized how much he loved the game.
No, he wasn’t calling it a career, not until he’d exercised every last option.
“Mentally,” Bakhtiari said, “I was more like I was going to have to be pulled away from my ankles with my nails gripping the ground being ripped off. Because I definitely was not going out without fighting. It definitely tested me. I don’t know if my test is done yet, but it would be more by force than personal decision.”
Bakhtiari’s long road back ended, he hopes, Sunday morning. A day earlier, Bakhtiari met with the Packers medical staff. They decided it was time for him to be activated from the physically unable to perform list.
His first practice came Sunday afternoon on Ray Nitschke Field, a week after the Packers activated Elgton Jenkins and Robert Tonyan from PUP. None of the three are doing team reps yet. That will be the biggest hurdle to clear before deciding whether they can play in the Packers' opener Sept. 11 at Minnesota.
“It’s just we’re going to take it a day at a time,” coach Matt LaFleur said after making it clear expectations should be tempered. “There’s no thought as far as Week 1 is concerned right now. We just want to see how he responds, and when he’s ready, he’s ready.”
Bakhtiari, 30, didn’t back away from big expectations. He said the motivation is “extremely high” for him to return for the opener. “There’s a lot of ambitious things that I want to do,” he said. Of course Bakhtiari, more than anyone, knows how quickly high expectations can fade.
More than once last season, Bakhtiari thought he was back. He returned from PUP last November, but the scar tissue in his knee prevented it from feeling normal. A second surgery was needed to fix cartilage damage. He returned from that surgery to play 27 snaps in the Packers finale at the Detroit Lions, but even then he wasn’t fully back. The Packers shut him down before last year’s playoff loss against the San Francisco 49ers, and Bakhtiari needed a third surgery to clean scar tissue.
The third surgery forced Bakhtiari to miss the Packers' entire offseason program, placing him on PUP until Sunday.
“It’s unfortunate,” Bakhtiari said. “I’d love to be able to sit here and be like, ‘It was so quick. Everything’s smooth. This is great.’ But there were a lot of unforeseen things that I had to go through, and it sucked. It definitely wore me down for sure, but I know I’m not going to quit. I don’t care. You can keep going in there, we’re going to keep freaking turning the engine on, and start in gear one and go up to gear six again. If we stall out in gear three, cool. What’s going wrong? All right, cool. Let’s go back through.
“That’s more of the mental attrition that I had to constantly keep going through. It was when we started ramping up, and then I was like, ‘God, I have to go through this again?’ That was the part that just sucked, and I knew I could sit here and sulk or take it day by day. Sulking is not going to make my knee better.”
At minimum, Bakhtiari’s return from PUP should lead to a spot on the team’s initial 53-man roster. The Packers can not put Bakhtiari back on PUP to start the season once he is activated.
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When Bakhtiari and Jenkins return, a Packers offensive line that has sifted through a lot of uncertainty in the first three weeks of camp will solidify overnight. Bakhtiari is a two-time All-Pro and two-time Pro Bowl selection. Jenkins was a Pro Bowl left guard in his last full season of 2020 and can play all five positions on the line at a high level.
LaFleur cautioned not to expect Bakhtiari and Jenkins to return at full speed immediately after missing so much time on the field.
“You’ve got to knock the rust off,” LaFleur said, “and they’re going to have to work through some things, but certainly they know how to play the game. They know what to expect when they go out there. Just their ability to communicate and see things, their experience kind of speaks for itself.
“So I do think there’s going to be a ton of benefit to when we can get them out there.”
There was a joyous mood around the Packers following Bakhtiari’s first practice. LaFleur welcomed his left tackle to break down the post-practice huddle. Teammates gave Bakhtiari a round of applause.
At his locker, Bakhtiari spoke for the first time since camp’s opening day. Aaron Rodgers tossed a pair of socks at his good friend, startling Bakhtiari.
“Knowing Aaron,” Bakhtiari later said as he picked up the socks, “those are probably dirty.”
It’s now his job to keep his quarterback clean. It’s a responsibility Bakhtiari has never taken lightly, but never quite fully appreciated like he does now. “I didn’t realize how much I loved the game,” Bakhtiari said, “until it was trying to be taken away from me.”
Bakhtiari said being on the field, strapping his shoulder pads, brought him peace. His world has been restored.
This time, he hopes there are no setbacks.
“Stuff that gets taken from you when it’s not by your choice,” Bakhtiari said, “that was something I had a hard time giving up. Basically, my knee saying no. and this time now, I realize that I can not control as much as I want to be in control of my destiny. It’s more like, ‘Hey, what are you feeling like today, knee? How you doing? You holding up well? Just letting you know that we’re in this together, man.’
“That’s been a special moment that I’ve had really to this point, and I’m grateful to be back out there again. Hopefully this is it, no more back and forth. Just positive, daily steps in the right direction.”