Revisiting a column originally published on Jan. 25, 2012 that’s timely now given the reporting of Chad Clifton’s release…
As soon as Mike McCarthy and the Packers coaching staff gets back from Hawaii and the Pro Bowl, they’ll get to work reviewing and analyzing the entire 2011 season, every snap, every decision, every play call.
And one conclusion they’ll come to is that Bryan Bulaga needs to be moved to left tackle in time for their first offseason workout in mid-April.
But first things first, it’s time to acknowledge and thank Chad Clifton for the job he’s done as the left tackle of the Packers for the past 12 seasons. He’s a two-time Pro Bowler and did a credible job protecting the backsides of both Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers since the turn of the millenium.
The organization is indebted to him for the job he did during the six-game stretch to end the 2010 season––the final two regular season games and the four postseason games––during the Packers’ Super Bowl run.
Clifton allowed one sack and had only one penalty over the course of those six games, perhaps the best six-game stretch of his entire career, and it came at the best possible time. His induction into the Packers Hall of Fame is a given.
That being said, it’s time for the Packers to move on. Those joints just won’t be able to take a pounding for much longer, his over $5 million salary is prohibitive and the team has several younger players with potential waiting in the wings.
Clifton has the opportunity to go out on his own terms and retire, an event which should rightfully be celebrated in Green Bay. But if not, expect the Packers to part ways with Clifton the way they did with his fellow bookend tackle, Mark Tauscher, cornerback Al Harris, and a laundry list of other former Packers past their prime.
Next comes the choice, who will take over for Clifton?
Marshall Newhouse did an adequate, though far from spectacular job, filling in for Clifton the majority of the 2011 season. It was good enough for the Packers to win all but one game in which he started, but also one that he gave up too much pressure and too many sacks on the quarterback.
Meanwhile, Bulaga has done nothing but improve seemingly every game since taking over as the starter at right tackle midway through the 2010 season.
The beginning of Bulaga’s professional career was up and down, not unlike Newhouse’s: Not bad for a guy getting his first action in the NFL but below the league average.
That was before the four-game playoff run culminating in the Super Bowl where Bulaga played as well on the right side as Clifton did on the left. In other words, Bulaga was a big reason the Packers were able to hoist the Lombardi Trophy a year ago.
And his 2011 season, save for the final two and a half regular season games missed due to injury, was even better. Consider this analysis from Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
His improvement was significant from his rookie season. Bulaga allowed 1½ sacks, 2½ knockdowns and 14 hurries for 18 pressures compared with 33½ pressures in ’10. Also, he cut his penalty total from 10 to four and his “bad” runs from 14½ to a team-low six.
Bulaga is a rising star in the NFL. Newhouse is still an unknown quantity. It’s possible Newhouse will make a huge jump in his development like Bulaga did in 2011, but that’s no certainty.
And so, it’s time to let Bulaga protect Rodgers’ blind side for what’s hopefully the next decade.
But the Packers can’t afford to play the wait-and-see game with Newhouse, only to watch him try and fail during training camp or during the 2012 regular season and then shift Bulaga on over.
They need to make the move by mid-April so he has an entire offseason to make the adjustment to the left side and get used to his new environs. That way Bulaga will have the offseason program, OTAs, minicamp and training camp to prepare himself for the rest of his career.
And it’s not as if making Bulaga the left tackle means giving up on Newhouse. He should be given the first opportunity to start at right tackle. It would benefit his development too by moving him to right tackle as soon as possible and getting him a bunch of reps before September.
Derek Sherrod remains in the picture as well. First of all, he has to focus on getting healthy and overcome his broken leg. But as long as Clifton moves on, Sherrod is probably going to have to be the backup swing tackle, both on the left and right sides.
That may not help in his development where he can focus strictly on one position, but it’s also a necessity when the Packers keep only seven offensive linemen active on game days.
Certainly there are risks to switching Bulaga to left tackle. The skill sets of both Newhouse and Sherrod would seem to fit best on the left, quick side of the line. At the same time, Bulaga would appear to be the best fit on right, strong side, of the those three candidates.
But the need to find a cornerstone left tackle for the next decade, along with Bulaga’s potential to become that person, trump any reservations or concerns about making such a move.