When Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy said 2015 provided quarterback Aaron Rodgers “the most adversity he had to play through” since becoming the starter, it sounded like exaggeration.
This was a quarterback two seasons removed from missing nine games with a broken collarbone. In 2014, Rodgers limped down the stretch with a severely strained calf muscle, practically playing on one leg. Rodgers has known plenty of adversity over the past couple years. A season in which he appeared on the injury report exactly once – and only because of a sore right shoulder – didn’t appear to match.
Now, it makes more sense.
Rodgers apparently was playing on a knee that wasn’t quite right, requiring surgery days after the Packers' season-ending loss at the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC divisional round, according to an ESPN report late Friday night. The surgery was described in the report as a “minor scope” to clean up an “old” injury.
It forced the two-time MVP quarterback to withdraw from this weekend’s Pro Bowl, but Rodgers told ESPN he is “doing well” and is recovering on schedule. He figures to be ready for the start of the Packers' offseason program in April.
There’s still plenty that isn’t known. When did the injury happen? How much did it limit Rodgers on the field? These are questions Rodgers can answer at a later date. What ESPN’s report was able to do is shine a different perspective on Rodgers’ season. Maybe it was the most adversity he ever has faced.
There were already peripheral frustrations in 2015. No Jordy Nelson. No rhythm in the passing game. An offensive line shuffling and reshuffling its lineup. An overweight and out-of-shape running back. Any one of those issues helped explain why Rodgers struggled.
“He’s that great player that plays at such a high level the competition is usually with himself trying not to do too much,” McCarthy said, “and I think he was really challenged this year more than ever with what he was trying to pick up for with Jordy and so forth. Just the way we kind of came together here at the end of the season, that’s why I felt really strong that we were going to have a great opportunity to make a run here. I thought he handled the adversity of all the things around him very well.”
It’s worth noting Rodgers had the best September of his career. He threw 11 touchdowns with no interceptions in his first four games, the most TDs with no picks he ever has thrown to open a season.
There was a minor hiccup in Week 5. Rodgers’ NFL-record home streak without an interception snapped with two against the St. Louis Rams, but the Packers entered their bye week with a 6-0 record. At that point, Rodgers was playing at an MVP level.
The Packers had an absurdly difficult schedule exiting their bye week, traveling to Denver and Carolina in consecutive weeks. The postseason showed just how difficult that stretch would be for any team. In a week, the Broncos and Panthers will meet in Super Bowl 50.
Rodgers didn’t play well after the bye. He threw an interception in six of his final 10 regular-season games, and the Packers went 4-6 in that stretch.
It's uncertain when the knee injury occurred, but Rodgers complained of soreness after taking a hit to his left knee from Detroit's Ziggy Ansah in a Week 10 upset loss to the Lions at Lambeau Field. He was listed on the injury report the next week, but it was for a right-shoulder injury. He was limited in one practice but otherwise was a full participant.
While Rodgers had at least a 99.0 passer rating in five of his first six games, he hit that mark only once in the final 10 (Dec.13 vs. Dallas). In hindsight, it seems his knee injury at least partially could explain his late-season struggles.
Still, other metrics suggest it had a limited affect. Rodgers had 344 rushing yards, the second most of his career. His signature plays of the season often came courtesy of his mobility. Rodgers’ successful Hail Marys in Detroit and Arizona were some of the best throws of his career, but they wouldn’t have been possible without him first using his legs to escape the pocket and avoid pressure.
So how much Rodgers’ knee injury bothered him on the field remains a mystery, at least for now. What’s clear is the Packers quarterback faced adversity in more ways than one.