Ruettgers took back seat to no one

Solid left tackle played part in Packers' return to prominence

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Former Packers T Ken Ruettgers

Ken Ruettgers

  • Inducted: 2014
  • Tackle: 1985-96
  • Height: 6-6; Weight: 295
  • College: Southern Cal, 1982-84

Ken Ruettgers had one of those star-crossed careers where good never seemed to be good enough; yet, on the other hand, no matter how much scrutiny he came under, his play usually eclipsed it.

Selected with the seventh overall choice in 1985 after the Packers swung a draft-day trade to move up seven spots to grab him, Ruettgers was expected from day one to become a fixture at the vital left tackle position for a decade or more; and, essentially, he met those expectations.

But mixed in were multiple surgeries on both knees, five lengthy holdouts over contract disputes, carping about his run blocking, a lack of postseason recognition and the shadow cast by the "The Incredible Bulk: … The Best Offensive Line Prospect Ever," after the Packers drafted Tony Mandarich before Ruettgers' fifth season.

What does one make of all that?

In the eyes of Ron Wolf, from 1987 when he first interviewed with the Packers until 1991, when he was hired as general manager, Ruettgers was clearly more a linchpin than a lightning rod. "One thing I remember very vividly is when I came in here the first time for an interview with Judge Parins, (Ruettgers) was the best player on the team," Wolf said in a 2011 interview. "When I came back five, six years later, he was the second-best player on the Packers' team – (Sterling) Sharpe being the best. That's pretty good."

Ruettgers also fared well in ratings compiled by Joel Buchsbaum, a well-sourced draftnik and pro personnel evaluator first hired by Pro Football Weekly in the 1970s and whose memorial service following his death in 2002 started with a eulogy by Bill Belichick and was attended by 12 NFL general managers and roughly 60 scouts. From 1987 through 1996, before Ruettgers' injury-shortened final season, Buchsbaum ranked him among the league's top 10 tackles four times and among the top 15 four other times.

Ruettgers was a good athlete, not great; smart, conscientious and technically sound; and, yes, a better pass blocker than run blocker. In the run game, he lacked explosiveness and leverage. But as Packers Hall of Fame center Larry McCarren once put it: "He was an effective pass protector and that's what (left tackles) get paid to do. He did that well for a long time."

As a rookie, Ruettgers missed almost a month of training camp over a contract dispute and backed up veteran Karl Swanke for most of the season, starting only the first and last games at left tackle.

In Ruettgers' second season, he started all 16 and allowed only four sacks, even shutting out future Pro Football Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor when the latter had a shot at setting a single-season league record for sacks in the final game. After that year, Buchsbaum gave Ruettgers his highest ranking ever, sixth out of 56 starting tackles. Ruettgers started all but one game over the next three seasons, 1987-89, and continued his solid play, although he had shoulder problems in 1988 and allowed more pressures than normal.

The following spring was when the Packers took Mandarich, arguably the most ballyhooed offensive lineman in the history of the draft, with the expectation that he'd be handed Ruettgers' job, hold it for however long he wanted and then, as soon as he was eligible, have his bust sculpted for Canton.

As it turned out, Mandarich held out for 44 days before his rookie year, didn't make a single start and was soon rechristened, "The Incredible Bust." Meanwhile, Ruettgers kept his left tackle job and again played at a high level.

"Outstanding year as a pass blocker," Charlie Davis, offensive line coach of the Packers from 1988-91, said before the 1990 season. "A very, very bright guy. He's not a physically dominating run blocker."

Thereafter, knee and hamstring injuries sidelined Ruettgers for 17 games in 1990 and '91.

Nevertheless, when Wolf started rebuilding the roster in 1992, Ruettgers loomed large in the coaches' plans. "I've always liked him," first-year offensive line coach Tom Lovat said before that season. "He's a good athlete with good feet. He lacks that big anchor in the running game, but he's got some snap. If he plays on all cylinders, he definitely is capable of making the Pro Bowl."

As the Packers started their ascent from the dregs of the NFL to Super Bowl champions over a five-year period, Ruettgers missed one game in four years. Although he wasn't viewed as a particularly physical player, his resolve to play through pain those years and play well was beyond reproach.

Ruettgers graded out as the Packers' best offensive lineman in 1992, played at a similar level the next two years and still received better than passing grades in 1995, although his knee problems flared again that year and his body showed signs of finally breaking down at age 33.

After undergoing offseason surgery on his left knee before the 1996 season, Ruettgers played in only four games, started only one and announced his retirement with five regular-season games remaining. "All of this is based on the fact that he established a standard of play his whole career, and he was very honest with us that if he couldn't play up to that level, then it was time," coach Mike Holmgren said then of Ruettgers' decision.

As it turned out, the Packers climaxed that season by winning their first Super Bowl in 29 years, and Ruettgers watched the game from the stands at the New Orleans Superdome. Over 11 seasons, he played in 156 games and started 140.

Born Aug. 20, 1962. Given name Kenneth Francis Ruettgers.

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