Green Bay Packers linebacker D.J. Smith reaches back to intercept a pass during the first quarter of Sunday's game against the Oakland Raiders at Lambeau Field. He is one of several players who have stepped up to fill in for injured starters. Evan Siegle/Press-Gazette
One way to hush a stadium crammed with over 70,000 fanatics who’ve shown they’d gladly empty their wallets to buy non-dividend stock for a team that’s leading by 31 and on its way to its 19th straight victory is to have one of its stars carted off the field with injury.
It happened Sunday, when Green Bay Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings was riding shotgun on a Gator and being whisked to the locker room during the third quarter of a 46-16 rout of the Oakland Raiders at not-so-frozen Lambeau Field.
Turns out Jennings has a knee sprain. How severe? How much time will he miss? No one was saying afterward, though quarterback Aaron Rodgers offered this grim prognosis:
“It didn’t look very good,” Rodgers said. “We’ll see what the MRI says (today). We’ve got a (first round playoff) bye wrapped up, so he really has close to five weeks before our (first) playoff game. So hopefully, we can get him ready for that.”
A season in peril? Time to worry? Nah – just business as usual for a group that has been defined by its ability to withstand and overcome adversity.
“I don’t know the extent of his injury and if he’ll miss time and what it is,” Packers cornerback Charles Woodson said of Jennings. “But guys have to come in and play. It doesn’t matter who it is. There’s somebody behind you that has to step in and play in your role.”
Take D.J. Smith, a rookie inside linebacker who started in place of the injured Desmond Bishop and put a stop to the Raiders’ first offensive series with a leaping, bobbling pick of Carson Palmer.
The Packers parlayed the turnover – one of five produced by a defense more opportunistic than sturdy – into a touchdown and Smith would finish with 10 tackles, which tied safety and teammate Morgan Burnett for game-high honors.
Take Robert Francois, a second-year inside linebacker who started in place of a still-hobbled A.J. Hawk. All he did was produce a stat line of nine tackles, an end zone pick and a forced fumble that was recovered by fellow linebacker Erik Walden and returned five yards for a TD.
Hawk, nursing an injured calf like Bishop, was active but didn’t play. Francois, meanwhile, said his start was a game-time decision. And he – as we’ve seen from so many of the designated reserves on this ever-deepening Packers’ roster – was ready.
“We’re here to make plays, and we hope to get a chance to go out there and show what we’ve got,” Francois said. “Being here on a championship team, we’d like to go out there and contribute to the team.”
Like rookie tight end Ryan Taylor, a seventh-round draft pick whose first career touchdown grab was his first career reception and came on his first career offensive play. No Andrew Quarless? Next man in.
“I think we’ve prepared the past couple of weeks, and we knew we’d have to play at some point, so we’re finally getting our turn,” said Taylor, the recipient of a shaving cream pie in the face from tight end Tom Crabtree. “I’m just glad I have Aaron’s confidence enough that he would throw me the ball, and I think I’ve been building that these past couple of weeks. It felt great.”
This isn’t meant to diminish Jennings and his contributions. He leads the Packers with 67 receptions, is second in receiving yards with 949 and among the game’s top wideouts.
His expected absence is a bummer, for sure. But wide receiver is perhaps the deepest and most talented position on the team, and losing Jennings doesn’t mean an offense that has rewritten team records will suddenly go from Lamborghini to Edsel.
That’s not coach Mike McCarthy’s philosophy. And that’s not the blueprint General Manager Ted Thompson has followed in constructing a champion.
An explosive and historic offense grabs the headlines, and the defense creates one key turnover after another. But the Packers’ backbone is their depth and ability to "coach it up," as coaches are apt to say.
“We just have a lot of guys who are good at handling adversity,” said left tackle Marshall Newhouse, who has ably protected The Franchise (think Rodgers) from that critical back side spot when injury felled veteran Chad Clifton earlier in the season. “You’ve just got to roll with it. No need to whine or moan or cry about it. Just gotta go.
“We just have such high expectations of winning that we’re not going in there to just patch something up. We’re trying to score like we’re scoring and do like we’re doing. That’s just the way it is around here.”
Jennings wasn’t the only one dressed in green and gold that had to leave Sunday’s game. Defensive end Ryan Pickett and promising rookie running back Brandon Saine sustained concussions, raising doubts about their upcoming availability.
But there shouldn’t be any doubts going forward.
Yes, this is starting to feel a lot like 2010. Injuries mounted and adversity became a formidable foe.
But we all know how the story ended.
The Lombardi Trophy is on display in team headquarters for those needing a reminder.
Brett Christopherson writes for The Post-Crescent of Appleton