Development of Tauscher, Clifton as Rookie Starters Bodes Well for 2006 O-Line

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With the Packers starting two rookies on the offensive line to open the 2006 season, there's understandable uncertainty as to just how well the line will function Sunday against the Chicago Bears.

But judging by the Packers' own history, there's just as much optimism as to what the future might hold for this unit.

The last time the Packers started two rookie offensive linemen was in 2000, when right tackle Mark Tauscher and left tackle Chad Clifton started the final 10 games together. No one knew it at the time, but their emergence was the beginning of an impressive run of productivity for Packer offensive lines that set franchise records for rushing yards and fewest sacks allowed a few short years later.

"Obviously, I think we grew a bunch during that season," Tauscher said of his and Clifton's rookie campaign of 2000. "Then those next three or four years we played together, we had a lot of success."

That's history the Packers are hoping will repeat itself with rookie guards Jason Spitz and Tony Moll, who will make their first NFL start on Sunday. Spitz was a third-round draft choice out of Louisville, while Moll was a fifth-round pick out of Nevada and a converted tight end and tackle.

The scenario isn't exactly the same as 2000, when Tauscher and Clifton weren't opening-day starters and stepped in as the season unfolded. Nor is it the same as the last two times NFL teams started two rookie guards - the 2004 Colts with Ryan Lilja and Jake Scott and the 2003 Giants with David Diehl and Wayne Lucier - which were both mid-season, six-game stretches. (The last team to start two rookie guards for the season opener was the 1996 Bengals, with Ken Blackman and Rod Jones.)

But both Packers veterans can appreciate what the rookies are going through right now. They're adjusting to the speed of the game, learning the complexity of pro defenses, and trying to calm their nerves, all while not knowing exactly what to expect because they've never been in the heat of battle on an NFL Sunday.

As rookies, Tauscher and Clifton had veteran players like Frank Winters and Raleigh McKenzie to answer their questions and help them along. Now, the two tackles are the "all-knowing" vets, helping Spitz and Moll anticipate defensive line stunts and get ready for blitzes.

Their advice for that first game? No one will play perfectly, so don't try to. Just don't let anything slow you down once you take the field.

"Coming from the collegiate level, there's a lot more going on with different defenses, different coverages, different blitzes, it's a big workload," Clifton said. "So at times it can be a bit stressful, especially as a rookie.

"But I just remember Tausch and myself going in every week and playing all-out, really not worrying about the mistakes we might make. Just giving it 110 percent, and I'm sure that's what these guys are going to do."

Spitz and Moll have been complimented on how sharp and level-headed they are, and those attributes will serve them well both this first year and beyond.

Tauscher actually feels this year's rookies are more ready to play than he and Clifton were six years ago because of the team's off-season schedule, which now includes a few weeks of organized team activities (OTAs) in June.

"We had a lot of time together before we even got to training camp, and I think that's been a huge difference with where they are from when we came into the league," he said. "We had one or two short mini-camps and then we were off and rolling."

The situations are different in other respects, too.

Tauscher and Clifton didn't spend their rookie training camp preparing to start, which in some ways worked to their advantage because they weren't scrutinized by outsiders every single practice.

Tauscher also felt that getting thrown into the lineup unexpectedly because of an injury, as he was in the second game of the season when Earl Dotson went down, helped him because he got his NFL baptism without all the hype and build-up.

Meanwhile Clifton didn't become a starter until the seventh game, getting into three prior games as a substitute.

It was in their second start together, at Miami, that they started to show they might be the line's bookends for several years to come.

"They had Jason Taylor and Trace Armstrong, guys both with double-digit sacks, and we went down and played really well against them," Tauscher said. "That's kind of where you say, 'All right, I think we're set here. I think we're going to be all right.'"

As the season continued, the veterans on the line grew to trust the rookies as they became more sure of their assignments and more consistent in their play.

The development continued from there, and the cohesiveness of the offensive line was a key factor in the Packers' four-game winning streak to finish the 2000 season with a 9-7 record.

Some of that progress is being made already, but when it's happening in the preseason and not on Sundays, it can only be described as baby steps.

"That's a key ingredient, to be able to trust each other and know you've got each other's back," Tauscher said. "Like the other night (at Cincinnati), we had a play on that we didn't pick up the first time, and the second time the exact same thing happened and we picked it up.

"Those are the things that you see, and as you evolve, those things will come naturally and you don't have to worry about it. When that happens, you're able to play a lot more aggressively."

How soon the 2006 rookies, and the offensive line in general, can reach that point is anyone's guess. But the process hopefully goes from baby steps to broad jumps starting Sunday.

"It's going to be tough to say," Clifton said. "I think we're making strides right now, we're doing some good things. We still have a ways to go, but as the weeks go along, I think we'll get better and better, no question about it."

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