Not to sound dramatic, but the Green Bay Packers’ 2020 season has been saved, first and foremost, by three men.
Today we will focus on, and be thankful for, those three guys. We’re talking about offensive tackles Billy Turner and Ricky Wagner, and General Manager Brian Gutekunst of course.
Now saying a 13-3 team’s season needed to be “saved” may also sound dramatic, but it’s hard to win in the NFL. It’s nearly impossible to win without great play from the offensive tackle position.
The Packers’ offensive tackles have been paramount to the team going 13-3 for the second consecutive season. Of all the positions we could highlight for this team, and there are many, offensive tackle has to get the lion’s share of attention.
They make everything else go.
This team wouldn’t have legitimate Lombardi Trophy hopes without these two tackles playing at the level they are. Offensive tackle is one of the premier positions on the football field and these two guys, both on their third teams, both born in the Upper Midwest, hold the Packers’ hopes in their (large) hands.
Think of all of the incredibly fun moments throughout this season; think of how fun this year has been. Then realize that Aaron Rodgers isn’t the MVP without solid play from the tackles and Davante Adams doesn’t tie the Packers’ all-time single-season receiving touchdown mark without the tackles’ consistency. And Aaron Jones certainly doesn’t set the all-time mark for yards per rush for an entire season.
The ball just wouldn’t move as efficiently without their efforts, and this team led the NFL in scoring. Turner and Wagner are that important to this team.
So how about the guy who brought them in?
Third-year General Manager Brian Gutekunst had the foresight to bring in both of these men, giving the Packers three legitimate starting offensive tackles. ‘Gute’ signed Turner in 2019 and brought in free-agent Wagner in 2020.
Together they were counted on to replace the loss of Bryan Bulaga in 2020, who deservedly got a big money contract from the Los Angeles Chargers before the 2020 season.
And boy did they.
If you’ll remember, there was ample talk that the Packers reached and overpaid for Turner. How silly do those takes seem now? I mean, Turner is now legitimately underpaid, even after signing a big contract in 2019.
Then there was the Wagner signing. An ex-Detroit Lion? A guy who has never been close to a Pro Bowl? Yikes. In the end, I guess the fact he was once a Wisconsin Badger — and a damn good one — won out over his affiliation with the Lions.
You could say that Wagner was the initial choice to replace Bulaga as the team’s starting right tackle.
To Gute’s credit, Bulaga played only 10 games in 2020 while dealing with injuries. Once again, Packer management made the tough, practical call of moving on from offensive linemen once they turn 30 years old (with few exceptions of course, like Bakhtiari).
Making moves a year early rather than a year late is a hallmark of ‘Gute’s’ upbringing in the Packers organization. Hello Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson; the lineage carries on.
Moving on from lovable players hurts, but winning truly cures all.
He’s His Own Man
Gutekunst stays true to what he believes in. To his vision. To his interpretation of ‘The Packer Way.’
When others criticize, Gute doesn’t blink. He’s fearless in his decision making and is, oftentimes, correct. The experts haven’t levied a criticism at him since the draft, which they almost unanimously grossly misunderstood.
Gute understands that everything in football starts up front. Other General Managers know this, but fail to internalize it year after year. If you don’t have a solid offensive line in this NFL, you don’t have a solid team. It’s that simple.
Green Bay had the second highest ranked offensive line in football in 2020, per PFF.
Packers fans are blessed to cheer for a team whose roster is constructed by such a strong-willed, forward-thinking General Manager.
As the 2020 regular season neared its end, as the Packers secured the No. 1 seed, things seemed great along the entire offensive line — to Gute’s unending credit.
The season-ending knee injury to potential future Hall of Fame inductee David Bakhtiari was devastating to learn about. At the time, it seemed like a catastrophic injury to many. But, the depth this team has at the position has quite literally saved the Packers.
He is a leader and one of the best ever at his position in Green Bay, but the show must go on.
Bakhtiari missed three games earlier in the season to a lesser injury and Turner admirably stepped up in his absence. Turner stepped up again in Week 17 following Bakhtiari’s brutal knee injury — this time knowing the job was his moving forward.
‘Next man up’ is a way of life in Green Bay and Turner is the next best example.
This disaster only further proved Gutekunst right. He planned for the worst and the worst came true. The ‘what-if’ scenarios involving Turner and Wagner not being in Green Bay are too frightening to consider.
Young guard Elgton Jenkins is, rightfully, praised for his versatility. Something this offensive line as a whole has gotten national credit for. However Turner deserves, perhaps, just as much acclaim for his ability to play multiple positions without an ounce of sloppiness.
Center Corey Linsley was named First Team All-Pro for the first time in his career in 2020. He’s ascended to the top of his position. But still, his impact on this team’s success for the next month is probably not as profound as that of the two tackles.
It’s Turner’s ability to protect Aaron Rodgers’ blindside that let Matt LaFleur keep Jenkins in his rightful left guard position. Because of that, Bakhtiari’s injury only impacted one position instead of two positions. Jenkins has the skill to play left tackle, but thankfully he doesn’t have to abandon his Pro Bowl guard position.
Picture this: In 2019 when the Packers went 13-3 their starting offensive tackles were longtime starters David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga. As reliable and predictable as can be.
Less than a year later, when the team has serious Super Bowl plans, they are without both guys.
But still, the ultimate hope remains. And it remains vital. Not just because Turner and Wagner are the starters, but because they are playing great football. The team will miss ‘Bakh’ no doubt, but his injury wasn’t the death sentence for this team’s ultimate goal like it could have been last year or in previous seasons.
That injury would derail many quality teams that lack depth at offensive tackle.
Gutekunst has made a lot of impressive moves and draft picks in his three short years leading the Packers, but bringing in Wagner and Turner may be his crowning achievement.
What Turner and Wagner Mean to This Team
Turner specifically is a huge win for this Packers team. He moved from guard to tackle without thinking twice. Amazingly, he’s carved out a leadership role on a team full of leaders.
His very public social conscience is inspiring and you can tell he’s had a positive impact on his teammates. Turner wasn’t afraid to speak up when needed. He’s next up in the long line of Packers to teach Wisconsinites the value of diverse opinions. In 2020, and beyond, all professional sports teams need guys leading that charge and Turner is that for these Packers.
So for him to make an impact both on and off the field just goes to show his true character. Perhaps that is what Gute saw in him that others missed or ignored.
His 6’5”, 310 pound frame makes him an ideal tackle, but he’s athletic enough and has enough bend to play guard, too. Perhaps everyone should have seen that from day one.
Turner let up just two sacks and committed just three penalties all season in 2020. His play speaks for itself.
Wagner is this team’s silent hero.
He has a quiet presence on the team, but he has left his mark. And he knows that all eyes are now on him, just as they were at times throughout the 2020 season, and he never disappointed. He’s only noticed when he is not in the lineup, which means he’s doing his job. Again, he fits into the ‘next man up’ legacy in Green Bay.
He is even bigger than Turner and a more natural tackle. Wagner has taken more snaps in the second half of the season and is, ideally, going to take 100% of offensive snaps for the next month. Depth is only good depth if it can be healthy and ready when called upon.
Wagner is both healthy and ready.
He played less snaps than Turner, but let up only one sack all season and committed zero penalties. His overall grade from PFF was higher, too.
These two tackles, against all of the odds, are ready for this moment.
As others have pointed out, the Packers have had injuries at offensive tackle in the last two seasons they went on to win the Super Bowl. So perhaps, this is just some weird new Titletown tradition. It’s not what we wanted, but it’s the reality of the situation.
Turner and Wagner are every bit as good, if not better, than the replacement tackles that stepped up for previous Packers Super Bowl squads.
All credit to the General Manager. Although offensive line coach Adam Stenavich deserves a shoutout, too, for his contributions this year. This entire offensive line unit has overcome much without sacrificing quality of play.
Disaster, Part II
And they were just dealt some more adversity.
Brian Gutekunst went the extra mile in building depth for this team by bringing in veteran free agent Jared Veldheer — in the postseason. The 33 year old was the perfect fit until (another) disaster struck.
Veldheer was unfortunately diagnosed with COVID-19 and will miss, at least, the Packers’ next game. Just imagine if the team was counting on him to be a starter when he was signed.
Instead, the Packers’ two starting offensive tackles will just have to do what they’ve done for much of this season:
Keep Rodgers’ jersey clean and clear the way for Green Bay’s dynamic backfield. That is their mandate and they, so far, have been up to the task.
It should be noted that the offensive line also followed all COVID-19 protocols during meetings and practices, too, if no one was deemed a close contact. So that shows great discipline and leadership from these guys, too.
Regarding Veldheer’s positive test Billy Turner, during his media availability on January 14th said, “Concerning, yeah… but that’s 2020, 2021. That is this football season… not only for us but the entire National Football League.”
He’s not wrong. It’s just the reality of this season and that is why the leadership on this team, and offensive line, is so important. Turner and many of his teammates don’t lack perspective. They understand the difficult task at hand.
Amazingly, we are still talking about how the offensive tackle position will be counted on to lead this team to a magical season ending. It is still true despite the fact that the two most shocking stories of the Packers’ 2020 season both involved offensive tackles.
Bakhtiari’s injury and Veldheer’s COVID diagnoses both warranted, somewhat frantic, phone calls between us (the two co-founders of this site). I’m sure many Packers fans have similar stories from when they heard the news. Both of our calls were made in utter disbelief.
And still, despite those scary moments, offensive tackle is a strength for this team. Astonishing, isn’t it?
But it wasn’t an accident. This depth was meticulously planned for.
What It All Means
If the Packers go on a run to the Super Bowl, there will be plenty of credit to go around.
Many fans will look at the league MVP Aaron Rodgers, duh. Many will look at head coach Matt LaFleur’s schemes and how good he’s been in two short years. Others will credit Davante Adams and Aaron Jones’ incredible scoring abilities and many will look at Za’Darius Smith, Jaire Alexander and Adrian Amos for helping the Packers put up a top 10 defensive season.
There are 8-10 other guys you could mention, too.
Us? We’ll be looking squarely at Gutekunst first and the two tackles he signed, Billy Turner and Ricky Wagner. We’ll be giving thanks for how they combined to save this already special season.
The Los Angeles Rams are the first hurdle in the Packers’ championship hopes on Saturday. The defense is the clear strength of their team and Green Bay’s tackles will have to prove themselves once again.
What’s amazing is that Rodgers clearly isn’t afraid of being rushed from his backside. That’s how much he trusts Turner, how much LaFleur trusts Turner. The Packers have thrown just as often, and just as much from play-action, with Bakhtiari out this year.
That’s encouraging looking forward, as the offense is the obvious strength of this 2020 Packers team.
To be clear, there would be no (completely legitimate) Super Bowl talk if these two tackles weren’t brought in and weren’t playing so well. If they were duds and weren’t playing like they are, all hope would bring with it a hovering cloud.
But hope remains and the skies are clear.
So if you see Gutekunst at the grocery store, say thanks. If you see Turner or Wagner at the grocery store, stay away, far away, and maybe shout thanks from a safe distance.
Say it with us now, Go Pack Go!
They sure passed that first playoff test with flying colors! thanks for the article. Hiring Gutekunst and LaFleur were masterstrokes by Murphy. Gutekunst learned from Thompson’s strengths and weaknesses to become a better GM.
Agree with you, Keith! Thank you for reading.