The Green Bay Packers have lost more player practices to injury in training camp this year than last, which has contributed to some disjointed play on the defensive side of the ball.
But in the big picture, they will have made it through training camp in good shape, provided no starters are injured Thursday night in their exhibition finale at Kansas City.
Thirty-four players have missed at least one practice in camp because of injury, and Tuesday the Packers moved the three who still haven’t passed their physicals to the reserve/physically unable to perform list: safety Atari Bigby, cornerback Al Harris and rookie halfback James Starks. They now will have to miss at least the first six weeks of the regular season.
But the Packers have lost no starters for the season, and among their core of key playmakers, only one, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, sustained an injury of note, a pulled hamstring that has sidelined him since the end of the first week of practice, and even he’s expected back next week. So if the starters can get through the one series they’re expected to play Thursday night, the players that matter most will be on the field when the regular season opens Sept. 12.
“The most important part of our injured players is you’re hopeful that none of them are serious or long-term,” coach Mike McCarthy said Tuesday. “For the most part, that’s true. But there’s no replacement for playing in live action (in the preseason).”
Still, things could be much worse, as they are for NFC North Division rival Minnesota. Two of the Vikings’ key offensive playmakers, receivers Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin, have major health issues.
The Vikings on Tuesday placed Rice, who blossomed into quarterback Brett Favre’s favorite target last season with 83 receptions and eight touchdowns, on the PUP list after recently undergoing hip surgery, so he'll miss at least six weeks.
Harvin, who as a rookie last year scored eight touchdowns as a receiver and kickoff returner, has suffered from chronic migraine headaches and missed most of camp. He played in his first preseason game last week, but considering he collapsed and vomited on the practice field earlier in camp, he’s in effect day-to-day for the rest of the season.
The Packers’ key playmakers, on the other hand, are healthy or expected to be for the opener: quarterback Aaron Rodgers, receiver Greg Jennings and tight end Jermichael Finley on offense; cornerback Charles Woodson, Matthews and safety Nick Collins on defense. If defensive end Cullen Jenkins is back from a pulled calf that will sideline him for a second preseason game this week, then the Packers in their opener will have all the starters who took the field on the first team drill of camp.
“Being healthy is the No. 1 key factor in having a successful year, all your key players, your leaders,” linebacker Nick Barnett said. “It’s kind of hard to lead when you’re not out there. We’ve been banged up, but these aren’t serious injuries, these are injuries where you’ll be back playing. Losing a guy like Sidney Rice or Percy Harvin has to be a big blow to (the Vikings). It’s the NFL, guys have to step up when they get their chances to play, but I’d hate to lose Charles Woodson right now.”
That’s not to say the Packers don’t have injury issues of their own, though almost every NFL team can say that.
Among the most pressing is return man Will Blackmon’s problems coming back from knee-reconstruction surgery. Periodic knee soreness has kept him in and out of the lineup all camp, and he won’t play Thursday, so when the Packers make final cuts this weekend they will have to decide whether to roll the dice with him as their return man. They don’t have any attractive options behind Blackmon and thus are giving backup receiver Jason Chery all the returns Thursday night at Kansas City to see if he’s viable.
The Packers also have been without two possible starters all camp, Bigby and Harris, who will remain on PUP for the first six weeks of the regular season. Bigby, who had ankle surgery, would have been the front-runner at the safety spot opposite Collins, though there’s a chance rookie Morgan Burnett would have beaten him out anyway. Harris probably would have been a starter at cornerback, but the Packers knew going into last offseason his injury could land him on PUP.
The greatest impact of these and other more minor injuries has been to retard the cohesion of the No. 1 defense. Matthews will have missed all four exhibition games and Jenkins the last two. Starting outside linebacker Brad Jones (back, then shoulder) has missed most of camp, and Barnett has missed some practice and game time because of swelling in his post-operative knee. That’s meant defensive coordinator Dom Capers has had to mix and match his defense in the preseason.
But Matthews, who had the most serious injury, showed last year as a rookie he could miss extensive time in camp and still play well. He sat out the first three preseason games in 2009 with the same injury and went on to a 10-sack season and No. 3 finish in voting for NFL defensive rookie of the year.
“Hopefully we’re on track to get everybody back (for the opener),” Capers said. “What we need is to get (all the starters) on the field that first week of practice. We just haven’t had them together for a full week, so that will be important for us.”
The Packers have been healthier on offense, especially on the offensive line, where 11th-year tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher have had a limited practice regimen. Clifton probably won’t play in the starting offense’s one series Thursday because of swelling on his knee early this week.
The one problem area has been halfback, where the Packers were projecting Starks as their No. 3. Right now they have only Kregg Lumpkin behind starter Ryan Grant and backup Brandon Jackson. Undrafted rookie Quinn Porter went on injured reserve Tuesday and is out for the season, and Starks now isn’t eligible to practice until after the sixth game.
The Packers will have only a three-week window after Week 6 to determine whether Starks can help them, and they will not have seen him on the field since the final minicamp in June. Running backs coach Edgar Bennett said Starks is doing well in the classroom, but that it would take a leap of faith to activate him in midseason after only three weeks of practice.
“You still have to trust in some of the things that you saw when he was able to practice (in the offseason), as well as what he showed coming from college,” Bennett said. “You just have to get the kid healthy and go from there.”