Monday, January 11, 2010

Mark Tauscher key to Green Bay Packers' turnaround

Green Bay Packers tackle Mark Tauscher (65) protects quarterback Aaron Rodgers from the rush of San Francisco 49ers' Parys Haralson during their Nov. 22 game at Lambeau Field. Jim Matthews/Press-Gazette

Three months ago, Mark Tauscher was unemployed and uncertain about his future. By NFL standards, the 32-year-old Tauscher was an old man coming off major knee surgery.

Who would have guessed this gimpy-legged, 316-pound has-been would walk in off the street, slip on his familiar No. 65 jersey, and transform the Green Bay Packers’ offense, and their season.

Tauscher, who will line up as the starting right tackle in the Packers’ wild-card playoff game Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals, scoffs at the notion he is the savior of an offensive line that was drowning at midseason. But it’s true.

“Mark Tauscher has been a big boost for us, just from the day he came back,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy on Thursday. “He deserves a lot of credit for us bouncing back from our earlier days.”

Those dark days — when the Packers stumbled to a 4-4 record and their offensive line resembled a train wreck — seem like a distant memory now.

Tauscher, who tore his ACL last December in the final season of his contract and put himself through a rigorous independent rehabilitation program, saw his hard work pay off when he signed a one-year deal on Oct. 12.

He made his season debut Nov. 8 and two weeks later reclaimed the starting position for good that he had held since 2000. The stabilization of the line coincided almost precisely with Tauscher’s return.

He shored up a gaping hole that contributed to a dizzying sack total in the first two months of the season and almost got quarterback Aaron Rodgers killed.

Tauscher’s veteran savvy, football smarts and leadership skills have rubbed off on his line mates and made a telling difference on offense. After giving up 37 sacks in their first eight games, the Packers slashed that total to 14 in the second half of the season.

No one will accuse Tauscher of being the prettiest player on the field with textbook form. His seventh-round draft status out of the University of Wisconsin is proof of that. But he somehow finds a way to succeed, and his teammates love him for it.

“Everybody makes fun of him and says he doesn’t look like the prototypical right tackle,” starting left guard Daryn Colledge said. “But damn it, he gets out there every time and does his job and blocks guys out and plays the best dudes in the NFL and finds a way to win every single week. And I think he does it because he’s smarter than most guys out there. He knows the game inside and out. Most of the time he seems to know what the defense is going to do before they do it.”

That comes from intense film study and a strong work ethic. You practically have to drag him off the practice field.

“Mark doesn’t want to miss drills, he doesn’t want to miss practice time,” line coach James Campen said. “We have to pull him back a little bit.”

It was that lunch-bucket mentality that carried Tauscher through a difficult, sometimes painful offseason. It was a grind, and there was no guarantee any team would sign him, least of all the Packers, who attempted to move on with younger tackles Allen Barbre, Breno Giacomini and T.J. Lang.

“You know there’s days where it’s tough … mentally when you’re just grinding through stuff,” Tauscher said. “What I always kept telling myself was continue to work and put yourself in position. If it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out.”

Tauscher, who was born in Marshfield and is the only Wisconsin native on the Packers roster, has no idea what he’d be doing if he weren’t playing football. He’s having too much fun now to worry about it.

If the Packers’ younger tackles had performed well, Tauscher no doubt would have needed to find a new team or different occupation. In early October he tried out with the Kansas City Chiefs, but when the Packers came calling at about the same time, it was an easy decision.

Tauscher believes his familiarity with the Packers’ system contributed to a relatively seamless transition after nearly a year out of football.

This marks the sixth time in Tauscher’s 10-year career the Packers have qualified for the playoffs.

“I like the makeup of this team,” he said. “There’s a good vibe and a really good energy about what we’re doing. I think from a defensive standpoint, I don’t think we’ve had a better defense since I’ve been here. Offensively we’ve really, the last six or seven weeks have done a lot of good things. I think we’re as dangerous a team as anybody. If we go out and play well, I think we’re going to be very difficult to beat.”

The Packers can thank Tauscher for that.

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