GREEN BAY — David Bakhtiari gave his rookie compadre on the Green Bay Packers’ offensive line the speech earlier in the week. And given the way Elgton Jenkins later would parrot many of the veteran left tackle’s lines word-for-word in a subsequent conversation about his playoff experience, Bakhtiari’s message has gotten through.
The Packers enter Sunday’s NFC Divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks at Lambeau Field with 31 of the 52 players on their roster having never played in an NFL postseason game. For as much playoff experience as quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Bakhtiari and fellow offensive linemen Bryan Bulaga and Corey Linsley, and cornerback Tramon Williams have, nearly 60 percent of the roster has no idea what it’s in for.
And so, having remembered his own playoff debut as a rookie fourth-round pick in 2013 – “I was foaming at the mouth,” he said – Bakhtiari message to his left guard was impassioned and direct.
“The one thing that I told Elgton was, ‘I better see you literally throwing your body around everywhere. You are young, you haven’t lost any tread off your tires, I want you running around like a banshee. You have to understand, we’re not guaranteed another game – we’re not guaranteed another play. I expect everything you’ve got,’” Bakhtiari recounted Thursday afternoon. “It’s still a game. Yeah, the intensity is up there. Yeah, you’ll have nerves. I’ll be nervous. But if you treat it like any other football game, then there go your nerves and now you’re just playing ball.
“You’ve got to maximize the moment. You’ve got to go out there and have fun and leave it all out there. You should come back in here (to the locker room) and obviously be excited because you won, but so exhausted because you left it all out there. You don’t know if you’ll have another game. Go do your job. This isn’t the season where you have 16 games. You don’t know if you have another game. You have to earn it.”
When asked later what his approach has been this week, it was clear Jenkins had taken Bakhtiari’s admonition to heart.
“I wouldn’t say butterflies. I’d say eagerness,” said Jenkins, who has started the past 14 games at left guard as a rookie second-round pick. “Now, it’s one game at a time. You’re only promised one more game. So you have to make the most of every opportunity you get.
“That’s really what they’ve been harping on – you’re only promised one game. So you have to make the most out of it. Two games, and we’re in the Super Bowl. Just going out there making sure you know what to do in every moment so you won’t be in the film room saying, ‘If we would have made this play … If we had made that play …’ At the end of the day, it’s still football. There are bigger things at stake, but I feel like I’m more even-keeled, just ready to go out there and show what I can do and help the team win and keep advancing in the playoffs.”
From 2009 through 2016, the Packers went to the postseason eight years in a row – meaning that most years, the only players in the locker room without playoff experience were members of the annual rookie class and the stray veteran free agent or two the team might’ve signed. Now, the members of the 2017, ’18 and ’19 classes are playoff newbies, as well as a host of other veteran players – including starting right guard Billy Turner, who never reached the postseason in his first five NFL seasons with Denver and Miami.
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“You’re never quite sure how guys are going to respond, because there is heightened intensity. There’s no doubt about it,” first-year head coach Matt LaFleur said. “But I think the best thing that we can do as a team is just go with business as usual. And that’s why our routine is so important, to get these guys into the same frame of mind.”
That also applies to the head coach, who was the Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks coach in 2016 when the Falcons reached Super Bowl LI and reached the postseason as the Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator in 2017 but has never called offensive plays in a playoff game.
“I think it’s just my mindset, too. Maybe I’ll feel different in the moment,” LaFleur said. “That’s why until you go through it, you don’t really know. But it’s just another game. It’s a great challenge. There’s no doubt about it. This is a really good football team that’s coming in here. And we’ve talked about it all week how they’re 8-1 on the road. So, we’re going to have to play our best ball to come out on top.”
Asked what LaFleur has been like this week, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said the head coach has practice what he’s preached.
“That was the message when we met as the staff: We’re going to be the same. If the players don’t see us doing anything different, then hopefully they can settle back in,” Pettine said. “We kept the routine the same this week. It’s consistent with our preparation. He’s been fine, great in front of the team. Messages have been great. Hopefully the players take heed and it works out on Sunday.”
That all sounds great, but players who have been in the postseason before admitted that there can be overwhelming moments in that first playoff game – even to Rodgers, who threw an interception on his first career postseason pass, at the start of the Packers’ 51-45 overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the 2009 NFC Wild Card playoffs.
“I think that’s what can happen, is you just make it a little bit too big, you try to do a little bit too much more than you have been doing,” said Rodgers, who’s now set to start his 17th career playoff game. “So I think it’s just talking to young guys who haven’t played. Just reassuring him this is, obviously it’s a more important game because it’s win or go home, but the mindset needs to stay the same. So (it’s) reminders about just how important just doing your role is, and doing what got us to this point.
“I was definitely nervous the first one, and I felt like I needed a splash play early and threw a pick on the first play. I felt pretty good after that, but I think that’s just the nerves of so desperately wanting to succeed, instead of what the nerves should be, which is not wanting your teammates down and using that fear of failure to channel that into a positive direction.”
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