Green Bay Packers fans’ collective heart skipped a beat on Thursday night when Bryan Bulaga collapsed to the ground and grabbed his left knee. It was a familiar sight, as Bulaga missed the 2013 season with a torn ACL, also in the same knee. Just as the Packers were getting accustomed to having the former All-Rookie Teamer back in action, the training staff was on the field, and an injury timeout was in place. After the game, coach Mike McCarthy called the injury a sprained knee. He minimized the magnitude of the sprain, saying, “We do not fear a major injury.”
Knee injuries are obviously never good news, but the severity of each injury ranges from minimal to “can’t-walk” depending upon which part of the knee is involved, and how badly that part is damaged. The injury is not, “major,” but let’s not be quick to call it, “minor.” There is another adjective in play here, and that is, “moderate.” The only thing we can really take away from McCarthy’s statement is that Bulaga likely doesn’t need surgery.
A knee sprain means, more than likely, a torn ligament in his knee. His ACL, MCL, PCL, and patellar ligaments were all technically a possibility, and the severity of the tear was initially unknown. It wasn’t clear if he had undergone a MRI on Thursday night, but the Packers training staff no doubt performed the Lachman Test on Bulaga to evaluate whether or not he had an ACL injury. Had this manual test indicated ACL damage, the team would have waited for an MRI before ruling out a major injury.
Often times, an MRI cannot be performed immediately, either due to access to the MRI, or to swelling rendering the results unreadable. The afternoon following Bulaga’s injury, it was announced that Bulaga had indeed torn his MCL. He will reportedly miss 2-4 weeks. Bulaga passed on the media availability opportunity Monday night, but sent a teammate to retrieve some personal affects from his locker.
This is certainly a hit to the Packers offense, who are already missing their starting center, J.C. Tretter, for 8 weeks due to a left knee fracture. The team is also missing Bulaga’s backup, Dan Barclay. Derek Sherrod took the field at Bulaga’s position after he left the game, and he struggled at times. On several occasions, Seattle defensive linemen blew by Sherrod completely untouched.
Since having surgery on his left knee, Bulaga has worn a hefty knee brace. Knee braces provide support to the muscles and ligaments that act to keep the body in place. His knee brace essentially acts as a weightlifting spotter for the ligaments in his knee. While braces won’t prevent injuries completely, especially in a sport such as football where the forces on the field are so intense, they can help to reduce the risk of injury, as well as give athletes a renewed level of psychological confidence in their joints following major surgeries. There’s no way of knowing for sure, but it’s definitely possible that Bulaga’s knee brace worked to limit the damage to his MCL, or possibly even prevented damage to his ACL. While these braces may seem uncomfortable or slightly restricting, many players consider them a necessity – specifically those players that know first-hand how much time and money an ACL injury can cost them.
Bulaga has indicated that he thinks he will be able to play next week if practice goes well. The team is saying that he will miss 2-4 weeks. It’s not at all unusual for a player to underestimate his recovery timetable. NFL players are some of the most confident people in the world when it comes to their physical abilities, and rightfully so. That said, it would be surprising to see Bulaga rushed back to the field. Even if he beats the odds and is fully healed by Sunday, the trainers will exercise plenty of caution, considering the seriousness of knee injuries, as well as his own history with torn knee ligaments. Even if he takes the full 4 weeks to return, it’s a much more positive outcome than the initial fears.