GREEN BAY – Jamaal Williams had just produced the first 100-yard rushing game of his career, but as he lingered at his locker Sunday, that’s not what had the Green Bay Packers rookie running back gushing.
Williams wasn’t bragging about fellow rookie Aaron Jones’ game-winning touchdown either. No, it was another Aaron that had him giddy. The Aaron.
Barely 24 hours after watching quarterback Aaron Rodgers practice for the first time in six weeks, Williams was still talking about it.
“That boy,” Williams said, shaking his head, “he came back, and he just flicked it. I was like, ‘Dang!’ I was like, ‘Wow! Are you sure that man is injured?’ I was like, ‘That is far! I couldn’t even do that on my good day.’ I mean, he flicked it. I feel like he didn’t even throw it. He just flicked it.”
Beyond throwing the football, there wasn’t much Rodgers could do in Saturday’s practice. The short, brisk walkthrough was designed to prepare the Packers for Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which they won 26-20 in overtime. It was the first time Rodgers has practiced since surgery to repair his broken collarbone in mid-October.
Rodgers won’t be eligible to play until Dec. 17 at Carolina, and it’s still uncertain whether he’ll be medically cleared by then. Coach Mike McCarthy said Rodgers will not be medically cleared this week. The two-time MVP quarterback will officially be in “trial return” to practice, meaning individual drills and scout-team reps. Backup Brett Hundley will continue getting reps with the first-team offense.
But Rodgers’ return is getting closer. That much was clear, teammates said, when they saw their quarterback on the practice field.
“I can’t tell you how he feels,” defensive lineman Quinton Dial said, “but from what I saw, he looks like himself.”
Left tackle David Bakhtiari said his focus is ensuring Rodgers has a reason to return.
At 6-6, the Packers still are alive in the NFC playoff chase. Their only realistic hope is a wild-card berth, and even that’s a long shot. Multiple players talked about the need to win the rest of their games, knowing another loss likely ends the relevant portion of their season.
Even running the table might not be enough. Among the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks, the Packers need two of those teams to lose two more games this season.
“It’s big,” Bakhtiari said of Rodgers’ potential return, “but at the end of the day, we’ve got to take care of what we can take care of. If we don’t give him an opportunity, there’s no point. So we know he’s going to do what he can. Just like when anyone’s hurt, you know they’re going to come back. You’re going to fight as much as you can.
“On our side, we’ve just got to make sure we take care of business for him, so when he comes back he can really give us that jolt on the field with his presence, and that will be big.”
The Packers need help from teams above them in the standings. They can help themselves with a win in two weeks at Carolina.
DOUGHERTY: Packers finding ways to stay alive in NFC
A victory would ensure the Packers own the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Panthers and Seahawks, whom they beat in their opener. They lost to the Falcons in Week 2, so finishing the season with an identical record would give Atlanta the edge.
McCarthy, perhaps sensing his team could rely too much on the potential for Rodgers' return, stressed the need for tunnel vision. Rodgers will be impossible to ignore on the practice field this week, and again the next. If the Packers don’t win, it won’t matter.
“I hope I don’t have to worry about it,” McCarthy said, “but it’s a good point that will be addressed. We need to win the game. We’re 6-6. We need to be seven wins when we get on that plane coming back from Cleveland. Nothing else matters. We’re excited Aaron’s out there. It was big for him to be out there Saturday. Probably not as much for the team, but for him to be a part of it, and get back at it.
“Being on the practice field, that was a very good thing for what we accomplished. This week will be another step for him.”