GREEN BAY, Wis. – On Jan. 9, 2022, Green Bay Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari returned from a torn ACL to play 27 snaps against the Detroit Lions. Two weeks later, he was inactive for the playoff loss to San Francisco.
Exactly 37 weeks and a third surgery later, he was in the starting lineup on Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This time, Bakhtiari said, feels different. “Pumped full of adrenaline” after a 14-12 victory, this could be merely a jumping-off point to the next stage of a brilliant career.
“Physically completely different,” he told reporters in Tampa, Fla. “I know I said out there that once I step between the white lines it doesn’t matter – same thing as today – but, looking back, yeah, I knew what I was going out there with and I wasn’t going to disclose that to anyone for gamesmanship reasons, but night and day difference between this opportunity and that opportunity.”
Bakhtiari and Yosh Nijman alternated series at left tackle. Bakhtiari played 34 of the 60 offensive snaps. Not unlike the game against Detroit, when Bakhtiari didn’t allow a single pressure, he spent the afternoon keeping his man clear of Aaron Rodgers.
“I think it was what I expected on a lot of things, from conditioning, level of play, the talent out there against that good defense, but just thought I liked where we were at,” Bakhtiari said. “We’ll look at the film and see where we’re at with that. But, overall, I think no matter what, regardless of what was going to go on out there, I’m just happy. The win was to get me out there and get me through.”
At least initially, neither Bakhtiari nor Nijman were fans of the rotation, as coach Matt LaFleur acknowledged with a smile. But the Packers have taken a conservative approach throughout the five-time All-Pro’s long and winding comeback path. Given his importance to the team and enormous salary, the conservative approach is the right one.
Said LaFleur: “We didn’t want to go from 0 to 60 [plays] with him in regards to, OK, here's a guy that really hasn’t played in almost two years. Do you load him up with 60 plays in a game? And we didn't think that was the right thing to do.”
Bakhtiari and Nijman made it work, and they will make whatever the plan is for next week against New England work, too. An undrafted free agent in 2019, Nijman started the first two games of this season after making his first eight NFL starts last season. Bakhtiari’s pain has been Nijman’s gain, as he’s gone from a developmental project to a legitimate NFL starter at a premium position.
“Give credit to coach. He stuck to his guns. He called it,” Bakhtiari said of the rotation. “We looked at each other and said we’re going to make the most of it. I think it was positive on both of us. I tip my hat to Yosh. Consummate pro, watching his growth, so much appreciated [of] him stepping in. Obviously, this has been a tumultuous time for me, and seeing him grow and flourish, I’ve been very pleased and couldn’t be happier to have someone to work back in and worth with at left tackle. Sure, there’s a lot of awesome things coming on my end, but you can’t talk about me being out there today without Yosh.”
For Bakhtiari, the initial injury was sustained on New Year’s Eve 2020. That was almost 21 months ago. The entire ordeal has been a “nightmare,” as Bakhtiari put it at the start of training camp. On Sunday, perhaps Bakhtiari woke up to a new reality. When he gets back to Green Bay after the game and puts his head down for a well-earned night of sleep, perhaps he’ll have some pleasant dreams.
“Absolutely,” he said when asked if he cherishes the game more now. “Three surgeries, a lot of questions on it and the ability to answer those questions for myself, that’s the most important thing. And then I think to kind of quiet everything else around. I’ve always enjoyed the left tackle position and, myself, the less conversation we have around me usually means you’ve done a good job.”