Aaron Rodgers' return boosts Packers' playoff outlook
GREEN BAY - Aaron Rodgers is once again the starting quarterback for the Green Bay Packers.
After two long days of deliberation about his surgically repaired collarbone — days in which medical experts from around the country pored over the results of various scans — Rodgers received medical clearance to play in Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers. He announced the news via Instagram on Tuesday night.
“It's been a long road from that day to this, but I'm happy to say I've been medically cleared to return,” Rodgers wrote on social media. “Thanks for all the love, support, prayers, and well wishes over the past 8 weeks ❤ and a big thank you to Dr McKenzie and our incredible training staff. #riseagain”
The news catapults the Packers’ playoff chances from a pipe dream to a legitimate possibility with three games remaining. Conventional wisdom says the Packers must win all three — at Carolina, vs. Minnesota and at Detroit — to have a chance at a wild card in the top-heavy NFC. Accomplishing that feat with Brett Hundley at quarterback was unlikely after he won just three games in seven starts; but with Rodgers the odds shift dramatically.
Beginning Wednesday, Rodgers will have three days of practice to prepare for his first game since Oct. 15, when a hit from Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr resulted in a broken right collarbone. Rodgers underwent surgery in California to stabilize the fracture, and the Packers ultimately placed him on injured reserve. He returned to practice on a limited basis Dec. 2 and spent the last two weeks running the scout team, dazzling his teammates each day.
His initial return meant nothing, though, if Rodgers could not be medically cleared. He underwent a series of scans Monday to reveal the progress of his collarbone, and the interpretations of those scans by team physician Patrick McKenzie, several outside specialists and general manager Ted Thompson would determine whether the risk of further injury would be worth the reward of having Rodgers for a potential playoff run.
For a while it appeared bleak. Monday came and went with nothing but party-line comments by coach Mike McCarthy, who reiterated during a news conference that any decision on Rodgers’ future would be made by medical professionals. That Rodgers spun the football during pregame at Heinz Field or zinged passes in the Don Hutson Center was irrelevant, just as his assistant coaching efforts in Cleveland did nothing but reinforce his passion.
With Tuesday morning came additional silence, and social media wondered if the lengthy delay lessened Rodgers’ chances of returning. But the results of his scans were sent to specialists around the country, in multiple time zones, and the coordination of gathering various opinions certainly influenced the timeline. It’s quite possible that Rodgers’ surgeon in California, who at this point is unidentified, had a large say in the discussion.
If nothing else, the painstaking deliberation surrounding Rodgers’ health captures the importance of franchise quarterbacks, and in particular elite franchise quarterbacks. In breadth alone the discussion might have stretched to a dozen people: McKenzie, Thompson, McCarthy, the doctor who performed surgery, several outside experts and, of course, Rodgers himself. The crew needed 36 hours to probe the conundrum from various angles.
Everything started, of course, with the fairly black-and-white question of whether Rodgers’ collarbone had calcified since two plates and 13 screws were inserted to stabilize the fracture eight weeks ago. Enough time had passed for the bone to heal significantly, though perhaps not entirely, and therein lies the gray area for whoever reviewed the scans. How sturdy must his collarbone be to withstand the punishment of 300-pound defensive linemen or hard-charging linebackers?
There were also football questions that clouded the equation. At 7-6, the Packers must win out to have a realistic shot at the playoffs — and even then, they could fall short. Why risk Rodgers’ throwing shoulder when the Packers don’t control their postseason destiny? Surely that question irked the conscience of Thompson, whose conservative disposition is well-documented in Green Bay.
One has to wonder if the two-day uncertainty weighed on Hundley as well. With Sunday’s win over the Browns came the cleansing exhale of accomplishing his primary job: keeping the Packers in playoff contention until Rodgers was eligible to return. He achieved that feat with consecutive overtime victories that cast light on his moxie.
But narrow escapes against the Browns and Buccaneers bear little resemblance to the challenge of the next three weeks. To beat the Panthers (9-4), Vikings (10-3) and Lions (7-6) — two of which are on the road — the Packers will need reinforcements.
As it turns out, that’s just what the doctor ordered.