Tom Silverstein and Ryan Wood discuss the Green Bay Packers' decision to keep Eddie Lacy and Sam Shields on injured reserve, ending their seasons. (Nov. 23, 2016)
GREEN BAY — It sounded much worse than it was Wednesday when Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy revealed that running back Eddie Lacy and cornerback Sam Shields would not return this season.
In some people’s minds, one of the two was going to recover from long-term injury just in time to save the Packers’ season.
The reality is that it was a long shot and neither the coaches nor the players had given much thought to either of the two premier performers resuming their positions in the starting lineup. They were on injured reserve, which for years signified that a player was out for the season.
But teams now have the ability to bring back one player from injured reserve after eight weeks and the Packers decided to use their designated-to-return option on rookie cornerback Makinton Dorleant, ending any option for Lacy or Shields to return this season.
“It’s unfortunate for Eddie and it’s unfortunate for Sam, but based on all the medical information and the conversations to this point, that’s where we are,” coach Mike McCarthy said.
Lacy had surgery on his left ankle on Oct. 19, three days after reinjuring it in a 17-carry, 65-yard performance against the Dallas Cowboys. As recently as two weeks ago, Lacy still had the ankle bandaged and was using a knee scooter to get around the facility.
On social media he had expressed hope that he might be able to return this season, but the Packers’ medical staff would have had to clear him and with just six games left in the regular season, they apparently felt it was a long shot.
Shields has been out since suffering a concussion against the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1, the fifth known concussion of his career. The Packers waited until Oct. 18 to put Shields on injured reserve, at which time the veteran corner said through his agent that he “would like to return to play in eight weeks.”
After eight weeks a player on injured reserve is eligible for the designated-to-return option, which in this case would have been Dec. 13. Shields has been at his offseason home in Florida and hasn’t spoken publicly since the injury.
Asked if he knew whether Shields had decided never to play again, McCarthy said, “I do not. Really, the conversation with Sam, I know particularly mine with him is he needs to get healthy for himself and his family. That needs to be his focus and it is his focus. That’s what we’re focusing on."
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In Lacy’s case, general manager Ted Thompson gambled by keeping only two running backs on the 53-man roster when the season began. He lost both Lacy and James Starks (knee surgery) to injury before half the season was over and the Packers’ ground game died.
McCarthy has tried to use receiver Ty Montgomery at halfback, but circumstances have led to him never carrying more than nine times in a game. Thompson traded for Knile Davis but he was cut after two weeks, and brought up practice-squad running back Don Jackson, who injured his knee in practice last week.
The Packers rank a respectable 19th in rushing, but it is only because Aaron Rodgers ranks fourth among quarterbacks with 259 rushing yards. Starks came back two weeks ago and former Seattle Seahawks starter Christine Michael was claimed on waivers, so the position finally has a little stability.
Michael, who arrived in town Nov. 17, didn’t play last week, but expects to see action against Philadelphia Monday night.
The loss of Shields has been every bit as devastating as the loss of Lacy. Without their top corner, the Packers don’t have someone who can cover the other team’s best receiver and not get beaten like a drum. Before he got hurt, 2015 first-round pick Damarious Randall tried to fill that position, but he was knocked around badly against Minnesota and Detroit before being sidelined with a groin injury.
Quinten Rollins, a second-round pick last year, has suffered a crisis of confidence due to a groin injury and a severe beating against Washington’s receivers, and undrafted free agent LaDarius Gunter has done the best he can despite a lack of speed.
Micah Hyde, who also lacks speed, has had to play the nickel position and has been mismatched against quick receivers the last couple of weeks. Speedster Demetri Goodson blew out his knee against Washington just as he was establishing himself as a starter.
Through it all, everybody in the secondary knew the seriousness of Shields’ concussions and weren’t counting the weeks until he returned.
“You've got to play week in and week out like Sam's not going to be here and obviously he hasn't been and he's not going to be,” Hyde said. “All we can do is pray for him. We talk to him here and there. He seems to be doing fine. He's with his family. I'm just praying for him.”
Though Dorleant had a strong offseason and some good moments during training camp, he’s not a savior for the secondary. He took part in just nine practices and two exhibition games because of a hamstring injury and participated in his first regular-season practice Wednesday.
"He plays with great energy," McCarthy said. "I liked his toughness. I thought he did some really good things on special teams. He was injured pretty much the whole training camp but fought through it and did some good things. It will be good to get him out there and see where he is."
The future for both Lacy and Shields is unclear.
Lacy is in the final year of his contract and will be a free agent in March. His hopes of signing a big contract may be out of reach given he's going to have to prove to teams he's both completely healthy and in shape. It may be easier for the Packers to sign him to a lower-cost, one-year deal, but Lacy is likely to test the market first.
Shields is in the third year of a $39 million deal. He is due $8 million in base salary, a $500,000 per-game roster bonus and a $500,000 workout bonus in 2017. The Packers would be able to gain $9 million in salary-cap space if he retire and would carry $3.125 million in dead money based on the remaining pro-rated portion of his $12.5 million signing bonus.
Although either player would have been a nice addition to a final stretch of games that quarterback Aaron Rodgers said Green Bay potentially can sweep, the reality is the Packers were forced to move on and aren’t surprised with the news they won’t be back.
It has been that kind of season.
“Unfortunately with Sam’s injury early and obviously Eddie’s injury, those are two big contributors for us,” Rodgers said. “But we haven’t had them around here for a long time. Eddie’s been in the building a good amount, it’s good having him around, but you feel for Sam, having a lot of concussions.
“The head injury is just such a thing you’ve got to be careful with and obviously feel bad for him. He’s a good friend, and a great competitor and player for us. So we’re definitely thinking about both those guys.”