GREEN BAY — David Bakhtiari was — and always will be — an unabashed James Campen fan. He won’t apologize for that.
The Green Bay Packers franchise left tackle credits Campen with helping him go from a little-known fourth-round pick forced into the starting lineup by injury to a perennial All-Pro selection, including a first-team pick this past season.
So when new Packers coach Matt LaFleur decided not to retain Campen, the Packers’ longtime offensive line coach, and hire young, unproven San Francisco 49ers assistant offensive line coach Adam Stenavich to replace him, Bakhtiari admitted he had some we’re-going-from-one-extreme-to-the-other reservations. And those concerns went far beyond his close, personal relationship with Campen, the only line coach he’d had in his six-year NFL career.
“It’s hard to replace what he was able to bring,” Bakhtiari said of Campen. “On and off the field.”
But as disappointed as Bakhtiari was that the 54-year-old Campen wasn’t brought back, he didn’t pout, and he didn’t develop a preconceived notion about the 35-year-old Stenavich, either.
“I’ll tell you what I did do: Once I found out that it was going to be (Stenavich), I hit up Joe Staley, who I’m buddies with who he’d worked with and asked him for (Stenavich’s) number,” said Bakhtiari, who has known Staley for several years. “And I reached out to him just to let him know right away that I’m very excited to get to work, (that) I’ve heard a lot of good things.”
Those rave reviews came from Staley, who told Bakhtiari that despite Stenavich’s inexperience — as recently as 2007, Stenavich was in training camp with the Packers as a player — he knows his stuff and will effectively install the version of the zone-blocking run scheme required to make LaFleur’s offense work.
In fact, Staley, a six-time Pro Bowl left tackle, told Bakhtiari that losing Stenavich was a blow to the 49ers, even though he was an assistant to veteran NFL line coach John Benton.
“Joe Staley gave (Stenavich) a lot of high praise. Honestly, he told me he was sad and kind mad that he was getting the phone call from me letting him know that his coach isn’t going to be there, because he liked him a lot,” Bakhtiari said. “And right off the bat, that made me feel good about where we’re going and that further gives that I can trust that Matt knows what he’s doing.”
Bakhtiari said he and Stenavich spoke for a bit — Bakhtiari was on vacation in New Zealand when the news broke — and that the two have texted back and forth a few times since. He said they “had a good conversation,” and that he let Stenavich “know that I’m excited to work with him, that I can’t wait to meet him and build up a trust with myself, who’s one of the elder statesmen in the room, with our new O-line coach.”
Still, even though he’s keeping an open mind on Stenavich, Bakhtiari admitted it won’t be the same without Campen, whose 15 years with the Packers tied him for the longest tenure of any assistant coach in the team’s 100-year history. Campen was a holdover on Mike McCarthy’s staff from the Mike Sherman era, and Bakhtiari and his fellow linemen were hoping LaFleur also would keep him.
Instead, after a four-hour meeting with Campen, LaFleur informed him he wanted someone who was steeped in the Kyle Shanahan-style zone-blocking scheme. Campen has coached zone-blocking, which the Packers adopted in 2006 in McCarthy’s first season, but the run game has been more of a hybrid in recent years and the zone scheme isn’t Campen’s specialty.
Once LaFleur said he was going another direction, Campen ended up landing with the Cleveland Browns, who hired him as new coach Freddie Kitchens’ associate head coach and offensive line coach.
“Matt LaFleur, the way he’s handling himself over there and trying to do things the right way with being a first-year guy, he’s doing a really good job,” Campen said in an ESPN Wisconsin interview last month. “He’s been up-front and honest, he communicates very well with all the shuffling around and people coming in and out. I’m very impressed with his demeanor.
“Hey, he wants his own people at the offensive line position, and I totally understand that and respect that. But before I got on the plane to go to Cleveland — because I didn’t even know if I could go until they signed the release — I fought like hell to be here (in Green Bay). I did. But I have no hard feelings. He’s going to be very successful. He’s in this position for a reason. He’s going to do just fine.”
Bakhtiari and the Packers linemen whom Campen left behind are now readying for a new regime and feeling a little jealous of their ex-teammate JC Tretter, who joined the Browns as a free agent in 2017.
“Obviously I’m sad. My favorite coach, great man, even better, just a good person,” Bakhtiari said. “I know he’s excited about his new opportunity; I know JC’s over there and he’s excited to have his old coach back, and I definitely know Cleveland got a good coach.”
At the same time, Campen’s departure underscored for Bakhtiari the reality of the NFL: Change is constant. He first learned that lesson when Pro Bowl guard Josh Sitton was unceremoniously cut at the end of training camp in 2016, and after a long conversation with quarterback Aaron Rodgers about the cold-hearted nature of pro football, he’s tried to keep it in mind ever since.
“I talked to Aaron about it: There’s always that one player that makes you realize that at the end of the day, sadly, it is a business on both ends — from player and organization,” Bakhtiari said. “So, I’m more dulled to the idea of guys coming and going the older I’ve gotten.
“I thought a guy like Josh was going to be around forever. I know Aaron said a guy like Charles Woodson, I mean, you can’t cut a Hall of Famer, right? But that’s the business at the end of the day. But for me, I’m just dulled to it now. I get it.”