GREEN BAY - Moments after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone in Minnesota, the Green Bay Packers announced the injury might end their quarterback’s season.
Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera wasn’t buying it.
Rivera marked the calendar as soon as the Packers placed Rodgers on injured reserve, a decision that came with a mandatory minimum of eight weeks away from the playing field. Sitting way down the schedule in December, the Panthers were the Packers’ eighth opponent after the injury. Counting the Packers’ bye week, Rivera understood that put his team in position to face Rodgers.
“Everybody knew from the beginning that he was coming back for our game,” Rivera said Wednesday, reacting to Rodgers’ announcement Tuesday night that he was medically cleared to start against the Panthers.
At times, Rodgers’ return appeared less certain in Green Bay. The Packers needed to remain in playoff contention to have a legitimate reason for their quarterback to play again in 2017.
Rivera said he never wondered whether his defense would have to prepare for the two-time MVP.
“If you think about it,” Rivera said, “the way they set it up, presented everything, you just knew the goal was to get him back as soon as possible. They wanted to maintain, keep themselves in playoff position, and that’s what they’ve done. That’s the kind of football team they are. They did a great job.
“Now, the opportunity to have them on the field, (expletive), I’m not surprised. Not one bit.”
It’s uncertain what kind of quarterback Rodgers will be after missing two months of the season. That Rodgers was playing near the top of his game when he was injured, leading the NFL with 13 touchdown passes against three interceptions at the time of his injury, but it doesn’t mean he’ll return that way. For anyone, there can be rust after such a lengthy absence.
Asked what he expects from a quarterback who last played in mid-October, Rivera said Rodgers’ talent makes him different.
“Aaron Rodgers is one of those guys that probably really doesn’t need a lot of practice,” Rivera said. “And knowing Aaron Rodgers, he’s probably been throwing the ball for four, five weeks already anyways. So, I mean, seriously, I’m just trying to be honest about how I feel who this young man is. I think he’s one of the elite guys. We know he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer. I’m just being honest.
“I expect this guy to be on his game, and we have to approach it that way.”
On his game, Rivera said, means he doesn’t expect Rodgers to have any limitations Sunday. Rodgers, a master of extending plays outside the pocket, could possibly stay within the pocket more and rely on quick passes to avoid contact. Coach Mike McCarthy said Wednesday morning he expects his quarterback to play like himself.
That wouldn’t surprise Rivera either, he said.
“He’ll do it naturally,” Rivera said. “I really believe that. He’s all in. He knows that this is their opportunity, and that’s why he’s back. If they didn’t think this was their opportunity, he wouldn’t be back. So I expect him to play that way.”