GREEN BAY — The nickname was bestowed before Bryan Bulaga arrived. But the Green Bay Packers veteran right tackle knows the story behind it, and he’s completely fine with the comparison — even if it isn’t necessarily the perfect fit.
“I don’t take offense to it,” Bulaga said with a chuckle. “But I do know the story, yes.”
For those who don’t: In the twilight of Packers longtime Pro Bowl left tackle Chad Clifton’s career, the team’s coaching and medical staffs put him on a modified practice schedule — both during training camp and during the regular season — in an effort to keep him healthy after sustaining a myriad of injuries earlier in his career.
Somewhere along the way, perhaps with a smidge of jealously, Clifton’s linemates — led by ringleader Mark Tauscher, Clifton’s closest friend and fellow 2000 draft classmate — began calling him “The Big Lamborghini.” Tauscher is credited with coining the moniker, which really was apropos: Like the famed sports car, Clifton was expensive, required regular maintenance to keep him finely tuned and was too valuable to take out of the garage for anything other than a Sunday drive.
Bulaga, the Packers’ first-round pick in 2010, was teammates with both Tauscher (one season) and Clifton (two). He suffered season-ending injuries midway through the 2012 season (hip) and again during the 2013 training camp (torn left ACL), then suffered a torn right ACL in November 2017. Coming back from that injury last season, Bulaga wasn’t on top of his game early in the season but ended up starting 14 of 16 games, missing only two mid-December games with a knee injury.
So in an effort to keep him on the field all season at age 30, he’s now on a similar — but not quite as restrictive — practice schedule as Clifton was.
“‘Cliff’ was a pretty good player. So, I definitely don’t take any offense to it,” Bulaga said as the Packers transitioned from their season-opening 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears last Thursday to prepping for Sunday’s Week 2 game against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field. “I understand my injury history, and making sure I am available on Sunday and I can play at a high level on Sunday is the priority. I get it.”
If anyone needed a reminder of what Bulaga is capable of when healthy, it was on full display against the Bears, when he shut down Bears All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack on each rush Mack had against him.
Mack completely wrecked the Packers’ offensive game plan during the 2018 season opener as he was involved in the sack of quarterback Aaron Rodgers that caused Rodgers’ left knee injury, had a strip-sack of backup quarterback DeShone Kizer and had a pick-6 interception for a touchdown against Kizer before Rodgers came back and rallied the team to a 24-23 victory.
“He’s been a rock for us for years,” Rodgers said of Bulaga.
At least when he’s been healthy, he has been — which is the reason why the Packers limited Bulaga’s training camp work and would like to be smart about his in-season practice time.
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“It’s definitely been a good thing,” said first-year offensive line coach Adam Stenavich, who played with Tauscher and Clifton in 2006 and 2007 as a practice-squad and training-camp lineman. “I kind of had experience with it when I was in San Francisco with (left tackle) Joe Staley — an older veteran guy that knows what to do. Give him his reps, but don’t overwork him. It’s kind of the same deal. It’s been great.
“Bryan, I’m sure, is feeling as fresh as he could be. With him, he’s a really intelligent guy. He understands football really well so it’s not like he needs a lot of mental (reps); like you have to go out there and just do these things because you don’t know what you’re doing. He’s extremely smart, so that helps. It’s just a matter of making sure his footwork’s good and he’s comfortable with everything.”
That’s the balancing act Bulaga is facing. While he understands limiting his practice work is smart, he also said he needs his during-the-week work to feel ready for game day. Last week, with a Thursday game, he wasn’t slated to take part in Sunday’s practice, which was a Wednesday-style practice. But he did, feeling he needed the work to be ready for Mack and the Bears’ top-flight defense.
“That is the goal every week, to make sure that my body is feeling as good as it possibly can when we get to Sunday and I can perform at as high a level as I can on Sunday,” Bulaga said. “But at the same time, I do need X amount of work in a work week to feel like I’m able to go out there and do my job.
“Because if I just don’t do anything and I’m just in the ‘Hut’ (the Don Hutson Center indoor practice facility) conditioning or running or doing whatever, I’m not seeing looks, I’m not getting live-speed reps. There’s a lot that I feel like I need to see not only just for getting the looks of the defense down, but that nervous system firing, picking up blitzes and stunts and pass rushers.
“There’s a lot more that I like to get out of practice than just going out there, seeing the defense we’re going to face and practicing against that. There’s more to it than just that. Working on technique, things like that that I find important.”
Bulaga conceded, though, that as the season goes on, he might have to be less aggressive with his practice approach and sit more sessions out. That’ll be up to coach Matt LaFleur, head athletic trainer Bryan “Flea” Engel and Stenavich, but Bulaga might need them to protect him from himself at times.
That said, Bulaga acknowledged the lighter training-camp schedule had him exactly where he needed to be for the Bears.
“It feels good to come into a season fully healthy. Because that’s a big deal,” Bulaga said. “But there’s still a lot of things on tape that I need to get better at, a lot of things that I see that I can clean up and do better and refine a little bit to get to where I want to be.
“I think as we get into the season, we’ll see how I’m feeling — any nicks and bumps along the way where if I need a day to get that bounce back, then great. But as of now, it’s practicing and doing what I need to do to get ready for the game in practice.”