MINNEAPOLIS - As the National Football League barrels forward with its 21st-century initiative to promote player safety — silly as such an effort may seem in a game predicated on violence — the harsh reality depicts a sport losing ground in an unwinnable race against mankind. Players at every position are bigger, stronger and faster than they were just a few decades ago, and concurrent enhancements in the way they train have only worsened the weekly collisions across our television screens.
For better or worse, the modern game is a war of attrition handcuffed to the league’s unofficial slogan: Next man up. To put it another way, the healthiest team usually wins.
So how much damage is too much damage? How many injuries must be suffered before an entire season disintegrates, as might be the case with the Green Bay Packers following Sunday’s disastrous loss to the Minnesota Vikings, 23-10.
Is it when the Packers' best player — quarterback Aaron Rodgers — breaks the collarbone attached to his throwing arm? Is it when three of the starting defensive backs are ruled out before kickoff and a fourth leaves the game on a cart never to return? Or maybe it’s when 60 percent of the offensive line is felled by injury, and the replacements include one player from the Arena Football League, another from the practice squad of the Arizona Cardinals, and another who went undrafted last season before spending every week on the practice squad.
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“It’s not going to be the same,” center Corey Linsley said. “Of course it’s not going to be the same. But when you go back and you look at the film you see what adjustments we made, and maybe we didn’t make the right adjustments. Maybe we need to put another guy somewhere, maybe this guy is not playing his best position. So it’s not going to be the same, but that’s the whole essence of the thing. The adjustments that we make need to maximize our potential.”
The Packers’ potential plummeted when Rodgers left the game in the first quarter, the remainder of his season uncertain after a hit from linebacker Anthony Barr planted him on the turf. But if losing Rodgers equates to lopping off the top of a pyramid, the foundation beneath him wound up crumbling anyway.
An impoverished offensive line finally had returned to full strength at kickoff when left tackle David Bakhtiari (hamstring) and right tackle Bryan Bulaga (ankle) started together for the first time all season. It had taken until the sixth game for the Packers to have their preferred quintet suited up to protect Rodgers: Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Linsley, Jahri Evans and Bulaga.
The group that finished the game was far different. Taylor was carted off the field with knee and ankle injuries in the second quarter after Hundley landed on the back of his legs, so Justin McCray filled in at left guard.
“You’ve just got to get in there and if your number is called, play whatever they need you to play,” McCray said.
Bulaga exited the game at halftime and was deemed to have a concussion, so McCray moved to right tackle and Lucas Patrick filled in at left guard.
“We got hit with a lot of adversity in this game,” Evans said. “We kept fighting. We just kept fighting but we weren’t executing well enough.”
Then Bakhtiari’s hamstring gave out in the second half, so McCray moved to left tackle and Ulrick John — signed off the Cardinals’ practice squad in late September — took the field to play right tackle.
Linsley and Evans were the only survivors by the time the clock hit zeroes.
“This is the worst,” McCray said of the injury woes.
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Things were equally bleak in the secondary, where the Packers began the game without starting safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring) and starting corners Kevin King (concussion) and Davon House (quadricep). Things worsened when cornerback Quinten Rollins injured his right ankle in the second quarter and was carted to the locker room shortly thereafter.
The remnants were equal parts inexperienced and unreliable. At cornerback, the Packers were forced to play Damarious Randall, Josh Hawkins and Lenzy Pipkins, an undrafted rookie from Oklahoma State who had zero snaps on defense this season. What began as an unusually populous position in September — general manager Ted Thompson kept seven cornerbacks on his 53-man roster — has transformed into a bare cupboard. There were no more healthy corners to choose from had one of the aforementioned players gotten hurt.
BOX SCORE: Vikings 23, Packers 10
At safety, where the Packers presumed they'd have one of the best tandems in the league, the majority of reps went to Kentrell Brice, Marwin Evans and Josh Jones, two former undrafted rookies and an actual rookie who played in various personnel groupings for defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Veteran Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was the only soothing presence amid an afternoon of chaos.
“You’ve got to know how to play through it,” Jean Francois said. “If we don’t know how to play through it, you might as well go ahead and cut the season short.”
Football is about the next man up. The Packers simply ran out of men.