Fri, 03 Feb 2023

Technical master in pass protection overcame devastating injury, selected to two Pro BowlsCliff Christl

Chad Clifton

Inducted: 2016Tackle: 2000-11Height: 6-5; Weight: 320College: Tennessee, 1996-99

Honors:

Pro Bowl Selection (played since 1950): 2007, '10

It was almost as though Chad Clifton was sculpted to the exact specifications required of a left tackle over the last half of Brett Favre's career and the early years of Aaron Rodgers' tenure as Packers quarterbacks.

Starting with the sweeping rule changes of the 1970s to open up the passing game, teams generally put their best pass blocking tackle on the left side to protect the blind side of their right-handed quarterbacks. More than two decades later, when first Favre and then Rodgers became the Packers' crown jewels, Clifton served as their personal bodyguard on that side and ranked among the best in the league for much of his career.

His pass blocking techniques were textbook from his drop-step to his hand placement to his balance. "The biggest thing with Chad is that he's a great technician," teammate and Pro Bowl guard Marco Rivera said after Clifton's fourth season. "He knows how to block, when to block and where his help is coming from. He's a prototypical left tackle."

Drafted in the second round in 2000, Clifton missed three weeks of training camp that summer with a knee injury but still worked his way into the starting lineup by the seventh game. He replaced a struggling Mike Wahle at left tackle in the second half of the previous week's game and quickly entrenched himself as the starter there by allowing only one sack over the 10½ games that he played. In fact, when the season ended, offensive line coach Larry Beightol declared, "Chad has the talent and ability to be a Pro Bowl player."

With Mark Tauscher having taken over on the right side in the third game, their pairing also marked the first time in 48 years that the Packers started rookies at both offensive tackle positions.

Two years later, in the 11th game of the season, Clifton nearly had his promising career cut short by a vicious blindsided block thrown by Tampa Bay defensive lineman Warren Sapp during an interception return. The ligaments in Clifton's pelvis were separated, while he also suffered a badly strained back. Medical personnel attended to him for more than 10 minutes on Tampa's Raymond James Stadium turf before he was carted off and, subsequently, flown back to Green Bay by air ambulance.

"We checked the NFL database and we've never seen another injury like this in the league," the Packers' athletic trainer Pepper Burruss said at the time.

Remarkably, following an arduous rehab, Clifton started all 16 games in 2003 and allowed only one-half sack, despite being the team's only offensive lineman to play all 1,031 snaps. As a result, before the next season, he was ranked the ninth best tackle in the league by Pro Football Weekly magazine in its annual player ratings based on feedback from NFL personnel people. Over the following four years, Clifton was rated eighth, fifth, 10th and ninth.

What was all the more impressive about those rankings was that the careers of four future Pro Football Hall of Fame left tackles - Willie Roaf, Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones and Orlando Pace - overlapped Clifton's during that 2004-08 span.

While Clifton was never overly physical or much of a finisher as a run blocker, he was nearly flawless in pass protection, consistently holding his own in one-on-one matchups against even the most athletic and quickest defensive ends in the game.

"Chad still gets out of his stance as well as anybody in football," Joe Philbin, who worked with Clifton over his final nine seasons as either an offensive line coach or offensive coordinator, said in 2008. "Chad's not perfect but, in pass protection, he's big time."

Clifton was huge, smart, light on his feet and quick to recover if he did get yanked forward or rocked back on his heels in pass sets. Through his first eight seasons, he allowed a mere 18 sacks.

Over time, Clifton's knees from several surgeries and also other parts of his body started to break down. In 2008, the season before he dropped out of Pro Football Weekly's top 10, he allowed a career-high 6½ sacks. Nevertheless, Clifton was still solid and consistent enough as a pass blocker to start all 16 regular-season games and four in the playoffs when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV to climax the 2010 season.

In short order, he was charged with allowing just one sack in the final six games against a daunting run of elite pass rushers - Osi Umenyiora, Julius Peppers twice, Trent Cole, John Abraham and James Harrison - who combined for 53 sacks during the regular season.

Over his 12-year career, Clifton played in 165 regular-season games and started in 160. He also started another 13 playoff games. Even in 2011, when Clifton was plagued by back and hamstring issues, he started the only six games he played in during the regular season and another in an NFC Divisional playoff. He was released in April 2012, having flunked his physical following back surgery.

"He had the quickest get-off I've ever seen," Tauscher, the offensive line's other bookend over the 11 years they played together, said at the time in tribute. "He's such a great athlete. He got in his position before the defensive guy got in his."

Given name Jeffrey Chad Clifton. Born June 26, 1976.

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