Even without Aaron Rodgers, Packers not without hope
MINNEAPOLIS – When the visiting locker room doors swung open Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, you likely knew more about the hit that changed the Green Bay Packers' season than the players inside.
They didn’t see replay after replay on the television and Internet. Most claimed not to have seen the hit even once. When quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw his pass to tight end Martellus Bennett, scrambling right to avoid pressure like he so often does, eyes traveled with the football.
Bennett’s drop in the open field? Yeah, everyone saw that.
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Behind the play, Rodgers remained on the ground. Writhing in pain, he soon was carted to the locker room. Rodgers’ first-quarter exit from the Packers' 23-10 loss to the Vikings left a team searching for answers not just this week, but perhaps the rest of the season.
“I did not see the hit,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I did not see a replay of the hit. Everything I saw was the stills (pictures), the things you get after the play. So I really don’t have a real understanding of the hit. I know the ball was thrown, my eyes went with the football, and then obviously something happened after the throw.”
Yes, something definitely happened. In a blur, a Packers season headed to the playoffs with perhaps a prime NFC seeding — and after that, who knows? — suddenly crashed. Things changed so fast, it almost didn’t seem real.
The Packers could have been forgiven Sunday morning if they entered U.S. Bank Stadium, home to Super Bowl LII, feeling confident they’d return in February. They left with an entirely different question hanging over them: When will this team win again?
They certainly hope it comes before Rodgers returns.
Rodgers’ right shoulder was diagnosed with a broken collarbone. He missed seven weeks in 2013 with a broken collarbone in his left shoulder, an injury that isn’t as problematic because he throws with his right. A team spokesperson said the Packers could be without their two-time MVP quarterback for the rest of 2017.
In the locker room, Rodgers’ teammates tried to rationalize what’s left of their season without surrendering hope.
“Everyone knows,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said, “the presence that 12 brings to the football field — his IQ, his athleticism, his arm — but football isn’t won with one player. We have a rare locker room, a bunch of good guys. So we’re going to go in there, and we’re going to definitely evaluate and play to our strengths. No one knows the extent of how long this thing is going to last, but no one in their right mind would ever think, ‘Fold your hand right now.’
“We have a long, long road.”
It’s a longer road without a franchise quarterback, one the Packers rarely traveled in the past 25 years. They’ve been spoiled to have one Hall of Famer follow the other, riches almost no other franchise receives.
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The Packers learned in 2013 the cost of losing Rodgers for an extended period. They started that season 5-2, another year heading for a prime NFC playoff seed. After Rodgers’ injury, their next win didn’t come for six weeks. They ultimately went 2-5-1 with the Packers shuffling their starting quarterback job between backups Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien.
If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the Packers not only made the playoffs in 2013, but that their backup quarterback job is much more stable this season than it was then. There is no question who will start in Rodgers’ absence. They traded up in the fifth round three years ago to draft Brett Hundley precisely for this possibility.
Hundley finished 18 of 33 for 157 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, struggles that could have been expected without a full week to prepare for one of the NFL’s top defenses on the road.
“Last time it happened in 2013,” center Corey Linsley said, “they were cycling through backups, and we didn’t really have a firm backup. Now, with Brett getting a full week of practice in with Aaron by his side showing him everything to do, teaching him, educating him on the game plan specifically, it’s just Brett learning the game plan as it goes.
“I mean, that’s going to be a benefit for us.”
BOX SCORE: Vikings 23, Packers 10
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Yes, preparation can help, but it won’t turn Hundley into the best player in the league. When healthy, that designation likely belongs to Rodgers. He’s at least the Packers' best player, filling the game’s most crucial position.
Without him, the Packers can expect a rough road ahead.
“It’s frustrating,” linebacker Clay Matthews said, “because you know how much he means to this team, let alone the offense. Anytime he goes down, you hope it’s nothing too serious, but not seeing him come back out there is pretty disheartening. I’m not sure what it is right now. I hear rumors, but we hope for the best and a speedy recovery. We’re going to need him out there, so hopefully he can heal up."