Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari grateful after 'long, long journey' to be back at Lambeau Field
GREEN BAY – David Bakhtiari stepped into his gray slacks and slumped into his locker. He was sluggish as he dressed after his postgame shower, laboring, the way a prize fighter might after going 12 rounds.
The fatigue from his first snaps at Lambeau Field since Dec. 27, 2020, was starting to overtake him. Bakhtiari hunched over at his locker, exhilarated but exhausted, his mind fixed on one thing.
“Can you just let me go home,” he quipped, smiling not only because he already knew the answer, but because nothing was wiping that smile away.
Bakhtiari was fueled by pure joy Sunday during the Packers’ 27-24 overtime win against the New England Patriots, the bliss of doing something he once thought might never happen again.
Four days after his last game at Lambeau Field, a 40-14 blowout win against the Tennessee Titans, Bakhtiari’s career crashed when he tore the ACL in his left knee in practice. He was the best left tackle in the NFL the day his knee buckled. The key to a No. 1 seed’s potential Super Bowl run.
That it took 644 days to run out of Lambeau Field’s tunnel again wasn’t lost on him. For Bakhtiari, the wait felt longer.
“I’m just grateful,” Bakhtiari said. “It’s been a long, long journey for me, so I’m just grateful to have the opportunity to go back out there. All I asked for was the ability to compete again. I’m thankful to have that opportunity.”
The Packers have been determined to learn from their mistake last season, facilitating Bakhtiari’s return differently. When Bakhtiari finally made his 2021 debut during last season’s finale at Detroit, they treated him like any other offensive lineman. That meant playing every snap until he couldn’t, leaving the field early in the team’s fourth drive after only 27 snaps.
Packers learned to ease Bakhtiari back into game action this season
Bakhtiari split possessions 50-50 with Yosh Nijman last week at Tampa Bay, preventing the two-time All-Pro from overextending himself in his 2022 debut. He was on the field for 35 snaps. Coach Matt LaFleur planned for Bakhtiari to play a little more Sunday, keeping him on the field for consecutive drives and resting a third.
The Packers ditched that plan when Nijman landed on the injury report Saturday night with an illness. Bakhtiari played the first three drives – their initial possession ended with a Romeo Doubs fumble after only two snaps – before Nijman entered. He played just three snaps during a three-and-out. Bakhtiari finished the game from there.
Hence, the exhaustion.
“We got into halftime,” LaFleur said, “and Dave just said, ‘I’m going.’ And I thought he was playing pretty well, so we let him go."
Bakhtiari didn’t leave the field again after the fourth possession. Not in the second half. Not in overtime. He played 70 snaps (96%) against the Patriots, his most since the 2020 opener at Minnesota.
It was his first true marathon performance since tearing his ACL.
Bakhtiari wasn't as enthused as LaFleur with how he played. He’s an All-Pro. A player Aaron Rodgers once considered on a Hall of Fame trajectory. The standard for him is different. Bakhtiari appreciated the gravity of his return, the journey it took to get back on the field, but isn’t interested in softening his expectations.
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“Personally, for me," Bakhtiari said, "I don’t like where I’m at. I need to be better, but the No. 1 thing I look at from a gratitude standpoint is just, all I asked for is the ability to compete. I want to make sure I can protect myself and my teammates, and I’m at that threshold. That’s what’s most important.
“I just have tremendous standards. So I just have to find ways to get better, and I’ll take the wins that I get out there, and learn from the things I need to clean up. Whether you think they’re good or not, there’s certain things that I see that I want to see differently.”
LaFleur was hesitant to consider Bakhtiari ready to play a full game even after Sunday. He said Bakhtiari’s status will be “fluid,” something that could change week to week as he adjusts to the grind of an NFL season. That grind will be especially grueling this week as the Packers prepare to play the New York Giants in London.
The 7½-hour flight is double the distance to any domestic NFL venue. LaFleur said there are ways to ease the stress on not only Bakhtiari's knee, but also those of offensive lineman Elgton Jenkins and tight end Robert Tonyan. He wouldn't divulge that plan, considering it proprietary information.
“We’ll see where he’s at,” LaFleur said. “I haven’t talked to him today, but we’ll see where he’s at throughout the course of the week. And I do think we’re going to be fluid with that.”
With Bakhtiari back, where does talented Yosh Nijman land?
Whenever Bakhtiari returns, the Packers will need to determine what to do with Nijman. If they’re intent on getting their best five offensive linemen on the field, LaFleur’s stated goal since his first season, it seems inevitable Nijman will slide over to right tackle. That would move Jenkins inside to guard, where he was a Pro Bowler in 2020.
As impressively as Jenkins has moved across the offensive line in his four seasons, his return from a torn left ACL at right tackle has been turbulent. Jenkins allowed two sacks in his first game against the Chicago Bears. On Sunday, he allowed a third-down sack to Patriots linebacker Matthew Judon. On another third down, Judon beat Jenkins to pressure Rodgers into an incompletion. Jenkins was later beaten for another pressure on the Packers initial third down of overtime, forcing Rodgers to throw incomplete.
Nijman’s pass blocking, proven with 10 starts and more than 750 snaps at left tackle over the past year, could bolster protection issues at right tackle. That doesn’t mean it will be an easy transition.
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“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Bakhtiari said. “It depends on the player. There’s a few guys I know who can play all five positions really well, and that’s Elgton. The ability for him to move super quick, and jump from position to position, he’s one of the very few guys I’ve ever seen that at this level of play.
“For Yosh, if that’s what we choose to do, he can get the reps in. But when he was at left tackle, I appreciated him. You can’t talk about me coming back on the field unless you talk about Yosh. I appreciate him always being available and competing out there.”