Spring Back in Clifton's Step

The veteran left tackle bares little resemblance to the worn-down, ailing Chad Clifton of last season. After surgeries to repair both knees and both shoulders, Clifton appears primed for a bounce-back season.

That Chad Clifton who started 15 games at left tackle last season? Not the same Chad Clifton who started for the Packers on Saturday night against Cleveland.

Sure, both wear No. 76. Sure, both protect the quarterback's blind side from left tackle. Sure, both have a hint of that Tennessee drawl despite spending a decade well north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But trust me, this Chad Clifton and that Chad Clifton are totally different guys.

Last year, Clifton looked like an old, beat-up 32-year-old playing the offensive line's most important position. This year, Clifton looks like a younger, 33-year-old version of himself.

Chalk it up to having both knees operated on in January and both shoulders going under the knife in February.

"I feel good," Clifton said after Saturday's 17-0 win. "Honestly, the past couple of years, coming into camp, I would say I've taken quite a few more reps even this year in practice. So far, so good. The knees are holding up very well, the shoulders feel good. I'll keep my fingers crossed and hope it keeps going this way."

Last year, it appeared Father Time had caught up to Clifton. While the only game he missed was because of a bad reaction to medicine, he exited against Atlanta with an injured hamstring and against Jacksonville with injured thumbs. The knees were a problem all year, and coach Mike McCarthy gave Clifton plenty of time off to nurse him through the season.

Because of the aches and pains and decreased mobility, Clifton went from a Pro Bowl performer in 2007 to yielding 7.5 sacks last season. With injuries taking away some of his uncanny ability to mirror even the quickest rushers, Clifton did anything he could to slow down the man in front of him — leading to nine penalties compared to three the year before.

"It was a tough year, no question about it. It was not a lot of fun," Clifton said. "You never want to use injuries as an excuse, but when you're not feeling 100 percent or even close to it, it's tough to go out there and do your job at an elite level."

Four surgical procedures later, Clifton looks like a new man. He's been unbeatable for most of training camp and had no problem handling the Browns' pass rushers on Saturday night. Clifton, who has been getting the mornings off during two-a-days but a full participant in those full-pads night practices, feels so good that he sees no reason why he can't play at a high level for at least a couple more seasons.

Clifton's contract expires after this season, and general manager Ted Thompson's reluctance to offer new contracts to aging players is well-documented. Then again, left tackle isn't just any position. If the quarterback is the key position on offense, left tackle is the key position for the quarterback. As it stands, there are no ready-made replacements on the roster.

Clifton says he "certainly hopes" to continue his career in Green Bay but "that stuff will take care of itself down the road."

Of course, Clifton's ability to hold up through this season will determine his fate for the next season and beyond. Clifton has two matchups with Minnesota's Jared Allen — Clifton dominated the first but was dominated in the second — as well as against premier pass rushers DeMarcus Ware of Dallas, Terrell Suggs of Baltimore and James Harrison of Pittsburgh.

"I think last year more than anything it was a combination of knees and shoulders, but I had other injuries as well," Clifton said. "I had hamstring issues (too). It seemed like last year, a lot of things were wearing down on me a little bit. And it started early. This year, with the cleanouts that I had on my shoulders and my knees, I fully expect those to last throughout the season and hopefully a few more years."

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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.

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