30 for 30 Shorts: Student/Athlete

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MIchael Weinstein

The Men Who Protect the Man

How the five players on the Packers’ offensive line became the most impenetrable unit in the NFL, and how that could lead them — and their quarterback Aaron Rodgers — back to the promised land

Corey Linsley has a theory about offensive lines. He stumbled onto it this fall, in his first few weeks as the Packers’ starting center. The rookie from Ohio State took over in late August, when likely starter JC Tretter went down with a bum knee. After a few practices, Linsley started to notice that his new line seemed familiar. Actually, it looked just like his old one.

The Packers, in many ways, fit the same mold as the Buckeyes. Right guard T.J. Lang is Andrew Norwell,1 the game-day motivator, “the tough S.O.B.,” Linsley says. Jack Mewhort2 is right tackle Bryan Bulaga — the purebred, a casually talented early-round pick amid a collection of mid-round gems. Josh Sitton, Green Bay’s All-Pro left guard, is in quiet command, the steadying hand. That was Marcus Hall at Ohio State. And David Bakhtiari, well, he’s the cool guy. Bakhtiari has the hair; Taylor Decker had the tats.

As Linsley lays out his theory, four of the five Packers starters — Bulaga is still recovering from a concussion suffered against the Bills a few days earlier — are sitting at a table in the bowels of Lambeau Field. The loss to Buffalo was Green Bay’s roughest outing in months, but it was also the line’s best all season, proof that each week they were only getting better.

The hiccup in Linsley’s theory is that in this group, his own role is the only one he can’t place. Appealing to the crowd isn’t helping, either.

“I was about to say meathead,” Bakhtiari suggests, “but that’s Bryan.”

“I’d take meathead,” Linsley says.

“If you’re arguing to be the meathead,” Lang shoots back, “then you’re the meathead.”

Ted Thompson started scouting offensive linemen around the time Linsley was born. Yet after more than two decades, the Packers general manager has come to the same conclusion. “I think in my lifetime in football, offensive linemen, guys that you’ve been around, they’re all kind of the same,” Thompson says. “They’re like pack animals.”

The personalities may be similar, but as a whole, this collection of Packers stands apart. In July, Mike McCarthy said it had the chance to be his best line in nine seasons as head coach. He was right. Not long ago, Aaron Rodgers was among the most terrorized quarterbacks in football. This year, few have been pressured less,3 despite his tendency to squeeze all he can out of a given play.4 A unit that has spent most of the McCarthy-Rodgers era being maligned has finally earned some respect. “I’ve been through six seasons,” Lang says. “[Josh] has been through seven. And up until this year, all you heard was how bad the offensive line was.”

No single factor has pushed the Packers from the league’s dregs to the top. How they’ve gotten here is how any line might. Bulaga is healthy; the injury storm that usually ravages eastern Wisconsin never hit this year. Linsley has been better than anyone could have hoped. Bakhtiari can barely recognize the player he was a year ago. Time and maturation have morphed Lang and Sitton into one of the best guard duos in all of football. Combine all that with a lot of luck, and we arrive here. These are the men who protect The Man, and they have made the difference for the league’s best offense.

Left tackle David Bakhtiari (foreground)

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images Left tackle David Bakhtiari (foreground)

Linsley’s right about Bakhtiari. He does look like the cool guy — Khal Drogo if Drogo would get off his ass and into the weight room.

The cool guy got his job last season with three marker strokes on a white board. It was a Sunday morning in August. Green Bay had played its annual Family Night scrimmage the previous day, and at a point during the practice, Bulaga needed help getting off the field. He’d been the left tackle all of two months, after McCarthy decided to move his two best players to the prestige side of the line. The team was grabbing its late-night snack when reserve tackle Don Barclay told Bakhtiari the news. Bulaga’s ACL was torn.

Speculation followed. Bakhtiari was in a fight with veteran Marshall Newhouse for the right tackle job, a fight he was confident he’d win. He was also a rookie fourth-round pick — not the sort a team entrusts with an MVP’s blind side. That night, Bakhtiari asked Clay Matthews for his thoughts. The pair had spent the offseason working out in Los Angeles. They were friends before Bakhtiari even arrived in Wisconsin. “Clay told me to my face that they were going to move Marshall back over, and I was going to be the starting right tackle,” Bakhtiari says. “I was like, ‘Thanks for the confidence.’”

Early the next morning, coach James Campen walked to the front of the room and, without a word, started writing the numbers of his starting line. Moving from left to right, “69” was first on the board. Coming into the league, Bakhtiari had had a crude but optimistic plan for his career. He’d spend a season or two at right tackle, easing into the league before flipping to the left side a couple of years in. That plan had just accelerated. Two weeks into his first training camp, he was the left tackle for the Green Bay Packers. At the Packers’ offensive walkthrough that afternoon, Rodgers congratulated Bakhtiari in front of the group, loud enough for everyone to hear. As he leaned in for a hug, he whispered in the rookie’s ear: You better not get me killed.

That wasn’t going to be easy. Green Bay opened against Aldon Smith and the San Francisco 49ers. From there, Bakhtiari faced Washington’s Brian Orakpo, before facing off with the Bengals’ Michael Johnson in Week 3 and Terrell Suggs two games later. “He had a nasty gantlet there of high-end [defensive] ends,” Sitton says. Bakhtiari struggled at times. Smith finished with 1.5 sacks. Johnson added 1.5 more. Only a handful of players got caught holding more last season. But for the most part, he earned what all left tackles crave — anonymity. “There were stretches last year, and then this year, where I have barely anyone talk to me,” Bakhtiari says. “And I take that as a compliment.”

Bakhtiari’s goal coming into this year was to remove the “for a rookie” qualifier from his play. He no longer wanted to be evaluated with a caveat. Sitton saw the jump coming early. Bakhtiari was bigger. He was stronger. Their double-teams were gaining ground.

“Last year, I don’t think he was ever 300 pounds,” Sitton says.

“I was flirtin’,” Bakhtiari responds. “Me and 300, we went on a couple dates.”

They’re married now, with a three-bedroom colonial in a dead-end cul-de-sac for pass-rushers. “I look at film of me last year, and it’s almost disgusting,” Bakhtiari says. “It’s like, ‘I can’t believe that’s me. That’s gross.’ Some of the things I was doing, it’s almost like two different players.”

After a string of compliments are thrown Bakhtiari’s way, Sitton, by lineman obligation, mutes his love with a zing. “Just another classic fourth-round steal from Ted,” he says, lathered in sarcasm. Everyone laughs.

Sitton was a fourth-round pick. So was Lang. Linsley went one round later, after 30 other linemen. No one can quite figure out why. “It’s not like we’re all the same guy,” Sitton says.

Ted Thompson has the same aw-shucks response. “Oh, no, I wouldn’t presume that we think that we have some secret thing that we look at that puts us ahead of other people,” he says. “In our case, I think the fact that we were able to get some good players in the middle rounds was good coaching, but probably a lot of luck.”

Lang guesses that with the exception of Linsley, each came from a college football also-ran. Sitton went to Central Florida. Lang went to Eastern Michigan. Bakhtiari played at Colorado. “And even though it’s the Pac-12 … ” Lang says.

Sitton finishes the thought. “It’s a shitty football program.” The laughs come even harder this time.

Center Corey Linsley

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images Center Corey Linsley

The only light in Corey Linsley’s room at the Westin Bellevue came from his phone. His roommate, wide receiver Jeff Janis, was long asleep. Midnight had come and gone. In less than 24 hours, the Packers would open their season in Seattle, against the league’s most terrifying defense, in front of the entire country. Linsley had been the starting center for a total of 10 days. Earlier that week, Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irvin told reporters he’d be praying for the Packers’ rookie. He wasn’t the only one.

On the field the next day, Linsley remembers, he looked out at the open-ended north side of CenturyLink Field, a sight he’d seen only while playing Madden. “Ariana Grande was singing, and there were fireworks and all this crazy shit,” Linsley says. “The crowd was going nuts. And it’s like, Damn, man, there’s no going back. I’m either about to embarrass everybody I know, or I’m about to have a pretty good game.”

Before the Packers left the locker room, Aaron Rodgers gave a short speech. At some point, he told them, every player has his “I belong” moment in the NFL. He singled out Linsley, Davante Adams, and Richard Rodgers — the rookies on the Green Bay offense. “He told us,” Linsley says, “that tonight, we would have ours.” Linsley’s came on the third play of the game.

As Linsley tells the story, Bakhtiari cuts him off.

“Wait,” Bakhtiari says, “it took you a couple plays into an actual football game?”

“Bro, I had no idea what was going to happen!” Linsley says. “Bruce Irvin’s praying for me. Kam Chancellor’s got that visor, looks pretty cool. I’m like, ‘These guys are going to torch me.’”

Prepping his emotional doomsday bunker is part of Linsley’s routine. His voice is quiet, soft even. It sounds nothing like he plays. “I’m not a confident person,” he says. “That’s just me. I just have that personality, where my mind-set constantly is ‘worst-case scenario.’ Whenever I’ve been confident about a situation, it leads me to be overconfident. It relaxes me. I feel like, if I go out there and think, I’m going to get killed, my nervous system says, Wake up. Or you’re going to get killed.”

His teammates weren’t nearly as worried. During the Packers’ first padded practice this offseason, Josh Sitton saw Linsley move left to hit the nose guard before peeling back to a linebacker moving the opposite direction. “It’s called a cross key,” Sitton says. “And it’s not easy to see as a young player. He did that, and I said, ‘OK, he’s going to be the guy.”

When Rodgers took his first snap with Linsley, in the days leading up to the Seattle game, he didn’t know what to expect. “It’s been pleasantly surprising the entire time,” the quarterback says. “He fits in great, personality-wise, and then physically, talent-wise, he’s as good as we’ve had.”

Linsley hasn’t looked much like a rookie, but he does remember the season’s low point. It came during the Packers’ win in Chicago. Two plays after getting called for holding, Linsley was flagged again, only this time, it was after Rodgers had somehow evaded three Bears and heaved a pass across his body and into the arms of Davante Adams in the end zone. It was the play of the year, now lost. As they walked out of the film room the next day, Rodgers told Linsley, in his best Icelandic accent, “Corey, you lost it for me.” When he was met with a blank stare, Rodgers asked Linsley if he’d ever seen Mighty Ducks 2. “[Aaron] was like, ‘I was hoping you would say, “You lost it for yourself.’” I felt like an idiot.”

The Packers’ actual foray into Hollywood started with too many men crammed into an ice bath. For months, the Pitch Perfect soundtrack blared from every speaker, from practice carpools to the line’s corner of the locker room. “The Riff Off,” Bakhtiari says, “we pretty much know by heart.” Bakhtiari was the one who brought the film to the rest of the group, and he was also the one who told them about the sequel. It was decided. They needed to be in this movie.

Some extensive tweeting eventually led to a post on BuzzFeed. Not longer after, at practice, Bakhtiari’s phone buzzed.

@elizabethbanks is now following you on Twitter

The actress is also the sequel’s director, and Bakhtiari spent the next day planning his direct message. “I asked [the O-line] what I should write, and they were just saying complete nonsense.” Eventually, the message was sent, followed by a response, from Banks’s husband and producer, Max Handelman. Months of emails and phone calls later, Bakhtiari, Sitton, Lang, backup tackle Don Barclay,5 and Matthews were off to Louisiana for filming. “They absolutely loved it, as much as they want to say they didn’t,” Bakhtiari says. “They were little girls out there, having a good ol’ time.”

The trip to Baton Rouge was more than a chance to start an IMDb profile. It was a three-day, beer-filled vacation with teammates who’ve become great friends. “I’m just happy to say that some of my best buds are on that offensive line,” Bakhtiari says. “I have so much fun with them. They’re awesome. Last year was tough, being a rookie, doing all the rookie duties. I mean really, this year, I’ve gotten so close to the older guys like Josh, T.J., even Bryan.” Thursday-night dinners happen regularly. Bowling nights too. Rounds of golf, when the Wisconsin weather allows, are common. A group traveled to Kohler to play a few for Lang’s bachelor party. In recent years, Aaron Rodgers has become a regular attendee, and his count of pulled punches is still at zero.

“They’re ruthless,” Rodgers says. “You cannot be sensitive. The first time you show sensitivity to a comment — about a feature on your body, or about something in your personality, or something in your past — they will absolutely pulverize you. Which is how I think it should be in the O-line room. It’s all in good fun, because they really do love each other.”

The way Lang sees it, the bonding is as practical as it is enjoyable. More than any other position, a line is a group of players acting together. A round of golf or a few games of bowling are ways to learn how one’s line mates talk, how they think, and, most of all, what makes them tick.

“The more you care for the buddy playing next to you, I don’t want to say the harder you’re going to try, but there’s a little extra motivation to keeping him safe and wanting him to do well,” Lang says. “If I was playing next to a right tackle whose name I barely knew, why would I go out of my way?”

Right tackle Bryan Bulaga with Aaron Rodgers

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Right tackle Bryan Bulaga with Aaron Rodgers

The word “prodigy” has never been misapplied to Bryan Bulaga. To remember the last time football didn’t come easy, he has to think back to freshman year, when he was called up to the sophomore team at Marian Central Catholic High School in Woodstock, Illinois. “I was getting the crap kicked out of me every Friday,” Bulaga says. One year later, he was a varsity star. After gaining 25 pounds in a single offseason before arriving in Iowa, he started for head coach Kirk Ferentz as a true freshman.

“We’ve had a pretty healthy amount of really good linemen come through here,” Ferentz says. “Bryan’s the only guy of the group that pretty much walked in and was really accelerated in terms of being ready to play. He was extremely talented, gifted.” Bulaga started for three seasons before the Packers took him 23rd overall in 2010. That February, at 21 years and 322 days, he became the youngest player in history to start in the Super Bowl. When the group golfs, Bulaga wins. He shoots in the high 70s now, after picking up the game only a few years ago.

The game may come naturally to him, but Bulaga’s actual career has been less smooth. He missed the second half of the 2012 season with an injured hip, and the ACL tear cost him all of last season. The hip injury was only a small fracture, “just like having a broken bone heal,” Bulaga says.

“The knee was the harder one,” Bulaga says. “Every day, you’re doing the same rehab. It’s not as much a physical grind as it is a mental grind. I think you could ask any guy that’s had an ACL done, and he’ll say the mental aspect of it is harder than the physical aspect.”

When Bulaga returned this offseason, there wasn’t much conversation about where he would play. “Technically, I’d only ever played right tackle,” he says. The change was who was playing next to him. After spending his entire career next to Sitton, it was his first time working with Lang. A brand-new collection of habits and tendencies had to be resolved. In typical Bulaga fashion, it took two weeks.

Left guard Josh Sitton

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images Left guard Josh Sitton

Leaning back in a leather chair, stuffed into a small interview room at Lambeau, Josh Sitton’s feelings about his fame come through in one giant yawn. “It’s perfectly fine with meeeeeee,” he manages. “I don’t want anybody to know my name, except for the people who vote for the Pro Bowl.” Those people knew it this year. Sitton was just voted there for the second time in seven seasons.

“If we were N Sync,” Lang says, “[Josh would] be Justin Timberlake. He’s Frankie Valli, and we’re the Four Seasons.”

Bakhtiari goes on, thinking ahead an album or two: “If he wanted to, he could go solo, and we’d all fizzle out.”

Sitton is matter-of-fact in the way of someone in total control. But it wasn’t always that way. Game days used to be full of awful jokes, endless chatter, anything to fill the time and convince both him and his teammates that his nerves had been calmed. Now, seven years in, they are. At 28, Sitton is the oldest member of the lot, a title that’s still hard for him to believe.

“It’s crazy to make that transition to the leader of the group, the old guy,” he says. “It’s weird, because I feel like I just got into the league, but I’m closer to retiring than I am to starting.”

There’s no ascending to this level without being physically superior, but what Sitton’s teammates continue to bring up is his mind. There’s no way to put this kindly. Sitton doesn’t fit the physical profile of a genius — not with that hair, or that beard, or that gut. But both Linsley and Bakhtiari mention that his tutelage has helped ease them into the league. “I told him this the other day, he’s the epitome of ‘You’re a lot smarter than you look,’” Bakhtiari says. “He is brilliant, but he looks like a dumbass.

Since he started playing in seventh grade, Sitton has always found pleasure in figuring out football. There’s satisfaction to be found in planning angles, devising the perfect play. Each Wednesday, Green Bay brings its quarterback-center meeting to three dimensions with a walkthrough. The session invariably becomes a proof for Sitton and Lang, each with their own ideas about the best approach. “They’ll study the looks, and they’ll kind of pick each other’s brain, and I’m just sitting there listening to them bounce ideas back off each other,” Linsley says.

When the Packers are in shotgun formations and Linsley’s head is stuck between his legs, Sitton and Lang are responsible for all the line’s calls, and their familiarity with every moving part of the offense creates a constant dialogue with Rodgers. The offense is able to avoid bad plays because they have three players searching for the right one. “Especially at home, they can just tell me if they like the play or not, and we can move forward,” Rodgers says. “They can tell me what blocking scheme in the heat of the moment, whether it’s in the huddle, or on the line of scrimmage, what scheme they would like to use at that point. It makes my job a lot easier.”

Right guard T.J. Lang (70)

Joe Robbins/Getty Images Right guard T.J. Lang (70)

Sitton can’t remember exactly when he picked up the phone. It was in the spring, April maybe, a few months after the Packers won the Super Bowl in 2010. He’d been thinking about the future of the Green Bay offensive line, and he knew the best version of that future involved T.J. Lang. Left guard Daryn Colledge was almost surely leaving in free agency, and the job was Lang’s if he wanted it. The worry was that so far, Lang hadn’t wanted much.

“I told him that we needed him to step up and take his job more seriously,” Sitton says. “We needed him to be the guy. You knew he could be a player. You could see it.”

In his first two years, Lang’s affinity for Green Bay’s bars outweighed his affinity for football. There aren’t many, but there were enough. “If they were serving beer,” he says, “I was there drinking it.” Lang grew up in an Irish family where gatherings meant a steady flow. Without much else to do in Green Bay, Lang continually retraced the few hundred feet from his downtown apartment to the nearest stool. There were plenty of days when he rolled into practices on a few hours’ worth of sleep.

The sound of Sitton’s voice staggered him, but the sounds of his own life are what finally pushed him to change. There was the silence of that summer. The lockout meant no football for months. Lang was left staring into what his days would be without the game. And then there were the imagined coos of his first child, due to arrive in August. It was time to grow up.

“He’s gone from a party animal who didn’t give a shit about football,” says Sitton, “to being one of the best guards in the league.”

If Sitton is the line’s brain, Lang is its voice. In a conversation with the group, Linsley and Bakhtiari defer to him on nearly every question. On Sundays, his words dominate.

Those small but telling contrasts are what define a relationship around which the rest of the line is built. When Sitton made his phone call that spring, he wasn’t doing it only as a teammate. He was doing it as a friend. Sitton stood in Lang’s wedding party this summer. They’ve vacationed together.

“It’s almost like we’re the same person sometimes,” Lang says. “There will be times when coach will be talking in the meeting, and him and I will blurt out the same exact thing at the same time. I dunno.”

With his short stint at left tackle last preseason, Bulaga is one of the few players who has lined up next to both guards, and he says their on-field ticks mirror who they are off it. As a pass-blocker, Sitton concedes more ground, content to let rushers come to him. It allows him to survey the field and to rely on his powerful lower body to anchor down against bull rushers. Lang is more aggressive. It’s not impatience, just a desire to establish control. He wants to end the play before it starts. It’s a combination that defines what the entire line has come to be.

The nuances of the Green Bay guards define Bulaga’s game. Different pass sets mean having to alter his depth, too. One step forward or one step back allows a twist stunt inside to work, or gets another lineman picked by a slanting tackle. More than individual talent, continuity is the most important factor in any line’s success. The tiniest details become vital.

“I think it’s everything, to be honest with you,” Bulaga says. “When you can play that much next to a guy, and you can understand what he’s doing, or how he’s going to set an angle up for you, that’s huge. Not having to talk and understanding what the guy next to you is going to do is very important.” When a turned ankle sent Lang to the sideline against the Saints, some of the non-verbal cues necessary in the Superdome were lost on his replacement, Lane Taylor. During away games, the dialogue at the line of scrimmage becomes a mix of sign language and choreography, and shuffling players in and out can end in toes being stomped.

By keeping the same five linemen almost the entire season, the Packers have been able to build their vocabulary into an entire language. “We’ve got so many dummy calls,” Sitton says. “Half the shit we say doesn’t mean a thing. It’s pretty cool when you can evolve within the season, learning a whole new thing.” In past seasons, the line has been a band forced to replace its drummer or bassist every week. The entire offense goes from writing songs to relearning chords. This year, they can riff, take chances. They can be a 1,500-pound Radiohead.

“When you get a hodgepodge line that’s changing week to week, you just kind of have to go by the base rules on a lot of plays,” Rodgers says. “The base rules are decent, but when you can incorporate your own creativity to the plays at the offensive line positions, you can really enhance them. So the communication has been amazing.”

One of the few stretches when the group wasn’t intact was late in the loss against Buffalo. Bulaga’s concussion sent him to the sideline, and Tretter, the old starting center, replaced him at right tackle. When Mario Williams beat him for the game-ending sack, it was the first Green Bay had given up all game to the best pass-rushing team in the league. “I think as a whole, we played well, but it’s hard to take pleasure when you don’t win the game,” Lang says.

Green Bay rushed for 6.6 yards per carry against a stout run defense, but on this team, there’s no comparison between a big day on the ground and a sack-free game. “When you play for the Green Bay Packers,” Bakhtiari says, “you choose sackless.” There have been a few of those this year. Lang says that now there’s a reputation to uphold, a new standard that has been set.

“Offensive line isn’t an individual position,” Lang says. “When people look at you, they say, ‘Is your offensive line good or bad?’ They don’t say, ‘Well, the left guard’s good, the right tackle’s not good.’ They look at you as a whole.” This year, the whole adds up to more than it ever has. 

Filed Under: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers, Ted Thompson, Josh Sitton, 2015 NFL Playoffs, Bryan Bulaga, David Bakhtiari, Corey Linsley, T.J. Lang, Offensive line

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays