It may be the end of the line for Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher.
One of the many awful things about the awful 2008 season was how both of the Packers’ starting offensive tackles, the cornerstones of the offense since 2000, began to look like they were nearing the end of their careers. In fact, it is possible that neither of them will be in the starting lineup to open the 2009 season. Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher are both fighting age and injury, and Ted Thompson will need to have a solid plan B in place if one or both of these players can no longer man their position.
It has been a great run for Clifton and Tauscher. Both of them entered the starting lineup as rookies in 2000, and during the next eight seasons, only one team, the Colts, allowed fewer sacks than the Packers. For Clifton, a second round pick out of the University of Tennessee, early success was expected, but that doesn’t mean it’s to be taken for granted--after all, Darryn Colledge was also a second round pick, and he was in and out of the starting lineup during his first two seasons. Tauscher, on the other hand, was a big surprise, as a seventh round pick out of Wisconsin. In college, he had backed up Aaron Gibson and Chris Macintosh, both first-round picks in the NFL, before finally starting during his senior year. At the time, nobody could have guessed that Tauscher would turn out to be the only one of the three to become a legitimate NFL player.
But 2008 may have been the year that it all fell apart. The Packers allowed 34 sacks, 14th in the league, and Clifton allowed 7.5 sacks after having allowed only 18 during his entire career up to that point. This number placed Clifton at 23rd in the league in sacks allowed by left tackles. (Click here for sack stats for NFL O-linemen) Only six left tackles (and four right tackles) allowed more sacks than Clifton did in 2008. Clifton was still dominant at times, as in the season opener against Jared Allen, but he also struggled at times, as in the second game against Jared Allen. An elite left tackle is a player who dominates every week, or very nearly every week, as Clifton has for most of his career. But in 2008, Clifton was not consistent enough to be an elite left tackle, and maybe not even an average one. Was this the beginning of the end for Clifton, or just a bump in the road? It’s hard to tell, but with his chronic knee problems (in both knees) the window may be closing on his career.
Mark Tauscher had a much better season than Chad Clifton, at least on paper, as he allowed just 2.0 sacks, fourth among right tackles. And up until his injury he was still the Packers’ most powerful run blocker. But the ACL tear that landed him on IR with three games remaining in the season has put him in a bad spot. His contract has expired, and typically it takes about a year to fully recover from an ACL injury. Unless he can make an early recovery and be ready to go on opening day, it is questionable whether the Packers will reserve a roster spot for him.
And even if he recovers fully from this injury, how many more good years does Tauscher have in him? Most players who continue to be effective past the age of 32 or so are in superb physical condition. But Tauscher, who will turn 32 in June, does not have the body of a workout warrior. Up till now, that hasn’t been a problem. Some players seem to perform best when they’ve got some fat on them. But Tauscher’s body type is not going to serve him well as he gets older and his natural strength and quickness begin to erode.
So where does that leave the Packers? Badly in need of a good offensive tackle, if not two. The best backup on the roster right now may be Darryn Colledge, who was a tackle in college and has served as Clifton’s replacement when necessary. It’s hard to tell how good Colledge would be as a full-time left tackle, and of course the move would leave the Packers in need of another guard. On the right, there’s Tony Moll, who has never looked impressive, and second-year man Breno Giacomini. The coaches are high on Giacomini, but then, they are high on guard Allen Barbre as well, and he still hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup.
Look for the Packers to pick an OT high in the draft, possibly in the first round, and they might even pick another OT later in the draft. The best case scenario is for both Clifton and Tauscher to bounce back and be effective starters once again. But even if that happens, they may only have another year or two left in them. Due to his injury, Tauscher can only hope for a one-year deal, and Clifton’s contract expires after the 2009 season. The end of an era is upon us, and it may be awhile before we see another pair of tackles as good as these playing for the Packers.