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Tom Krasovic: Chargers hope tackle Bryan Bulaga is solution to old problem
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Tom Krasovic: Chargers hope tackle Bryan Bulaga is solution to old problem

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Tackle Bryan Bulaga #75 of the Green Bay Packers on the sidelines during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Dec. 27, 2015 in Glendale, Ariz.

Tackle Bryan Bulaga #75 of the Green Bay Packers on the sidelines during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on Dec. 27, 2015 in Glendale, Ariz. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images/TNS)

You couldn't blame Philip Rivers if a few months ago he said, "By golly, what took you so long?"

The question would've made sense in reaction to the Chargers making a big investment in a right tackle by signing Bryan Bulaga, a former Packers standout. The contract, announced March 17, is worth up to $30 million.

Right tackle was never a consistent Chargers strength in the 14 years Rivers started, and in other decades the team's track record at right tackle was spotty.

It wasn't always that way.

The early Chargers stand in magnificent contrast.

In the 1960s, not only did the team find right tackles who could block, these men held the job for a decade or so.

Start with Ron Mix of the original Chargers team in 1960. The diligent former USC All-American dominated opponents for most of the 1960s, leading to his election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

It was Russ Washington's turn soon after Mix moved on, and if Mix's level was platinum, Washington's level was gold.

A converted defender, Big Russ made 148 consecutive starts and earned five Pro Bowl berths. "He was one of the best tackles not in the Hall of Fame," Mix said recently.

Nothing to it, huh?

You find a right tackle, hand him a helmet and direct him to the field. Give him a decade there. Then hire another young guy and watch him shine.

Of course, it is not so simple. And don't the Chargers know it.

There were exceptions, such as Vaughn Parker manning the position for most of eight seasons starting in 1995, and Jeromey Clary's seven-year run through 2013 that coincided with Rivers leading the franchise to four playoff berths.

Mostly after Washington's final season in 1982, the drill was this for a Chargers right tackle: Give us a year or two, maybe three, and move on.

Longevity aside, how well did Bolts right tackles perform in the years long after Mix and Washington had secured the line's right edge?

Parker provided several good seasons, many of them with bad Chargers teams. Teammates called him the Gatekeeper. Ornery veteran Stan Brock started all 19 games for the franchise's Super Bowl team. Shane Olivea never missed a start for the 2006 squad, which went 14-2.

In 1993 Brock brought a surly personality to a Chargers line that a year later helped lead the team to the Super Bowl. Teammates say Brock, in anticipation of facing Packers great Reggie White that December, worked himself into an angry mood. Brock cut-block White to the ground three times that night in San Diego, and White never sacked Stan Humphries despite grounding him three times.

Yet Brock, 36, required a lot of help, and coordinator Ralph Friedgen sent at least two blockers at White on most pass plays.

In 2017 when Rivers carved up the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, a big factor was right tackle Joe Barksdale's dominance of the best Dallas pass-rusher, DeMarcus Lawrence. Barksdale set up fast on his pass blocks, and Lawrence never got going.

What distinguishes the better right tackles is their consistent excellence. There, the Chargers largely have struck out the past four decades.

You have to go back an awfully long time, to Washington's 1979 season with Air Coryell, for the last Pro Bowl season the Chargers got from their right tackle.

So it was interesting that team executives Tom Telesco and John Spanos guaranteed $19.25 million to Bulaga as part of a three-year contract whose risk dips after the 2021 season.

Bulaga's typical season far exceeds the general work of recent Chargers right tackles led by Sam Tevi, the primary starter in 2018 and 2019, and Trent Scott.

Think of Bulaga, 31, as a Pro Bowl Lite regular. While he never made the Pro Bowl's first team he established himself as a good right tackle who started for a Super Bowl winner as a rookie in 2010 and went to three more NFC Championship Games including one five months ago.

Bulaga ranked fifth among all NFL tackles in ESPN's "pass block win rate" the past two seasons. Last year his totals in sacks (four), pressures (21), "bad" runs (a unit-low 5.5) and penalties (six) reflected a top-half right tackle in the NFL, reported longtime Packers writer Bob McGinn of The Athletic.

Does Bulaga profile as the best right tackle to play with the Chargers since Washington retired? It's very close. The edge could go to Parker, a second-round selection of Bobby Beathard's out of UCLA in 1994. Parker, smart and more athletic than Bulaga, started all 16 games in four seasons and 15 in another year.

Here's how a veteran NFL scout described Bulaga to me: "He is still a good player - a smart, steady presence."

___

Yet Bulaga's ability to stay healthy for a full season is in doubt.

"He has an old 31-year-old-body," said the scout, who nevertheless said Bulaga is worth the risk.

In each of the past two seasons, the tackle failed to finish four games because of injury, per McGinn. Bulaga sat out two games in 2018, one in 2019 (illness). In his NFL career, he has had reconstructive surgery on each knee to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

McGinn reported that a scout said Bulaga always seemed on the verge of injury, despite his toughness, smarts and technical mastery.

"I've had my share of some injury blows," Bulaga said in a recent video chat with reporters. "Unfortunate things happen in this league." He added: "I've always played with the mentality of I'm gonna be banged up, guys are gonna be banged up. That's the nature of the league, and if you can do your job and be nicked up, go out there and play. That's what we're here to do - we're here to go out and compete at a high level. Injuries are part of the thing, and everyone has them."

Bulaga said it was Packers' decision to part ways.

Salary-cap implications were evident as Bulaga's replacement, eight-year veteran Ricky Wagner, got $5.25 million in guaranteed money. A mauler who'll turn 31 in six months, Wagner isn't as good as Bulaga.

The Chargers hiring of former Packers line coach James Campen this offseason was a "big deal for me," said Bulaga, who spent all 10 seasons under Campen.

He'll line up next to a Pro Bowl regular in right guard Trai Turner, who has a Pro Bowl alum to his left in center Mike Pouncey.

"I look at schemes and personal fits," Bulaga said of moving west, "and it just lined up really well."

___

These days, the value of NFL right tackles is trending upward because defensive coordinators have taken to sending their best edge rusher at the right tackle, rather than reserving the quarterback's blind side for such treatment.

Mix said in his day, right tackles were held in equal regard to left tackles, if not more so.

"When Russ and I played," Mix said, "the best defensive ends were left defensive ends, and so your right tackle had to be the superior player." In addition, teams liked to run to their right.

Appropriate to the position, the early Chargers invested significant capital to get both Mix and Washington.

Mix said the Chargers offered him more money than the Baltimore Colts did after the Colts took him 10th overall in the 1960 draft.

The new American Football League could bid on Mix, too, and Mix said it was Chargers executive Don Klosterman who topped the Colts' offer.

Eventually, Mix chose to sign with the Chargers, but the team first had to send players to the Boston Patriots to get his rights.

Mix was more than worth it.

"He was the best offensive lineman I've ever seen," Chargers Hall of Fame coach Sid Gillman said in 1990. "There was nothing he couldn't do. When we picked a tackle, we hoped he could do three things: be our lead blocker on the toss to a running back; give pass protection, and fire out and occupy the defensive man in his area. He did all these things so well that he dominated everybody."

Using the fourth pick of the 1968 draft, Gillman obtained a worthy successor to Mix in Washington, a former Missouri defensive lineman who stood 6-foot-6.

Washington moved from defensive tackle to offense in 1970, and missed only one start in the next 10 years. Where Mix abetted several Chargers powerhouses in the AFL - including the 1963 team that routed Boston in the championship game - Washington furthered the Air Coryell offenses.

After Washington retired, things changed.

The Chargers were plunged into a harsh world, one new to them. Shopping for a right tackle became a yearly task. Over the next eight NFL seasons, seven different blockers led the team in games started at right tackle. Other than Gary Kowalski in 1986-87, no one held the job for more than one season. When someone makes a tough job look easy, take note. See, Ron Mix and Russ Washington.

Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com

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