GREEN BAY — Everything will be so different. He’ll be standing on the opposite sideline. He’ll be wearing Honolulu blue and silver instead of green and gold. And while there’ll still be plenty of folks giving him a polite round of applause, they won’t be full-throat cheering for him the way they did the previous eight years.
Yes, T.J. Lang’s return trip to Lambeau Field — a place he holds very dear to his heart as it’s the place where his late father, Thomas, saw him play for the final time — for Monday night’s game between his new team (the Detroit Lions) and his old team (the Green Bay Packers) will be a new experience for him. But being in the visitors locker room won’t be, thanks to his mischievous nature and the hijinks he and another ex-Packers Pro Bowl guard, old partner-in-crime Josh Sitton, used to get in around the facility.
“You know, I think I might have snuck in there a couple times,” Lang said during a conference call with Wisconsin reporters Thursday. “Josh Sitton and I used to steal some carts in the loading dock and go take tours of the stadium when we had a couple hours off during training camp. I think we made our way back there a couple of times.”
The Packers haven’t had many players quite like Lang, who grew from a knuckle-headed 21-year-old fourth-round pick in 2009 into a highly respected veteran voice in the locker room; who was a bit player on a Super Bowl team who developed into a Pro Bowler; who was terrific with teammates, media and fans alike; who was a legit tough guy both in his nasty and protective on-field attitude and ability to gut it out through injuries that surely would have sidelined others.
“He’s been a fantastic addition. He’s a guy that has great experience and knows how to win,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said when asked about Lang, who signed a three-year, $28.5 million free agent deal in March. “He’s also done a tremendous job in terms of his leadership within the locker room and the offensive line. Obviously, he’s played well for us.”
Lang tried very hard to bite his tongue in response to questions about how the Packers low-balled him on their initial and final contract offers, emphasizing how he was looking forward, not back. He spoke of how his departure wasn’t a “burned-bridges type of split,” of the respect he still has for coach Mike McCarthy, general manager Ted Thompson and president/CEO Mark Murphy.
But while Lang is happy to be playing for his hometown team – making for an easy move for him, wife Laura, son J.J. and daughter Lia – he wanted to end his NFL career in the same place he started it.
The Packers, however, weren’t about to pay top dollar for a soon-to-be 30-year-old guard whose injuries had exacted a physical toll and with other, younger players in line for contracts. So while the Lions’ final offer included $19 million in guaranteed money and averaged $9.5 million in annual pay, the Packers were nowhere close. Their final offer? Three years, $21.5 million, with just $6.5 million in guarantees and an annual average of just over $7 million.
While Lang would have given the Packers a hometown discount – or whatever you’d call turning down your actual hometown team to stay with your adopted one – the money wasn’t even close. Many of Lang’s teammates (including quarterback Aaron Rodgers) and coaches (especially McCarthy and offensive line coach James Campen) were keenly disappointed when they learned Lang was leaving.
“The first maybe week was really tough, having to call a lot of the guys that are in Green Bay and kind of tell them the news. And obviously, a lot of tough goodbyes. I had a lot of great friendships in that locker room with a lot of guys,” Lang said. “But at the same time, I’m not stupid. I know there’s a lot of young guys in Green Bay that contracts are coming up.
“Corey Linsley, starting center, he’s a guy that’s going to need to get paid here soon. Davante Adams, stud receiver, I know he’s a guy that’s going to have to get paid here soon. So I kind of understood that line of thinking, that, ‘Hey, I was a young guy at one time that got rewarded for me play.’ And that’s the way Green Bay likes to do business, reward their own guys, bring them up through the ranks, and when it’s time, reward them for what they’ve done and keep them around.
“I’m not looking back on it. Like I said, it took me a couple days, but I told myself I’m not going to be thinking, ‘What if? What could have been?’ Let’s move forward, I’m in Detroit now, let’s make the most of it.
After losing Lang, the Packers gave six-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans – four years older and past his prime – a one-year, $2.25 million deal when it became evident their young would-be replacements weren’t quite ready. To Evans’ credit, he has been solid, a steady veteran presence on a line beset by injuries. He’s not only been a good value, he’s contributed more than any other member of the Packers’ unusually large veteran free-agent class.
Still, he’s not Lang.
“I’m very fond of T.J. and I’m happy for him and his family,” McCarthy told the Lions media corps Thursday.
Then, speaking to local reporters, McCarthy said of Lang, “I don’t like the colors he’s wearing, but he looks good out there. Boy, I’ll tell you, just the way he jump-sets, particularly in the pass game, I always thought he was the best in the game at that, particularly in pass protection. He’s playing well. And frankly, in our breakdown with the personnel department and as a coaching staff, we feel he’s (Detroit’s) best lineman. He’s having a good year.”
Lang, who missed the Lions’ Week 6 loss to New Orleans when his back unexpectedly locked up on him just before the team’s inactive list was due, says adjusting to a new scheme and new teammates – including ex-University of Wisconsin tackle Ricky Wagner – has been a challenge, and his self-assessment of his play is, “if I’m going to be honest, a little bit inconsistent at times.”
On Monday, Lang hopes to deliver the kind of strong performance the Packers came to expect from him.
Only this time, against them.
“I really haven’t thought about what’s the game going to be like, what’s the crowd going to be like,” Lang said. “Obviously going to be a little bit different there pregame, during warmups and everything. But once the ball is kicked off, hell, it’s football. We’re all professionals, we get paid to go play the game. That’s what my focus is going to be. (I’m) not trying to make it anything bigger than what it is.”
Backup offensive lineman Jason Spriggs, sidelined since suffering a Week 1 hamstring injury, practiced as the Packers used one of their two injured reserve return designations on him. Spriggs will practice for two weeks before being activated to the 53-man roster. … Five players did not practice, including tight end Martellus Bennett, who was listed with a shoulder injury. Bennett, who is considering retiring after the season, was not seen at practice when reporters were allowed to watch, in contrast with defensive tackle Quinton Dial (chest), safety Kentrell Brice (ankle), linebacker Ahmad Brooks (back) and linebacker Joe Thomas (ankle). … Linebacker Vince Biegel (foot) remains on the physically unable to perform list but practiced and is set to practice in pads today. The Packers cleared a roster spot for him when they cut defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois Wednesday.