GREEN BAY – As word of Aaron Rodgers’ medical clearance spread across social media Tuesday night, there was at least some surprise in the orthopedic community.
Not even eight weeks after an operation to repair his broken right clavicle, the Green Bay Packers quarterback announced on Instagram he was cleared to play. Rodgers will start Sunday when the Packers travel to play the Carolina Panthers, a pivotal game in their NFC playoff hunt.
When Rodgers returns to the field in Carolina, he will be exactly nine weeks removed from his broken collarbone Oct. 15 in Minnesota. It will be a couple days past the eight-week mark of his Oct. 19 surgery.
“Usually, you don’t get cleared for about three months after that,” Dr. Luga Podesta said Wednesday morning.
Podesta, a sports medicine and regenerative orthopedic specialist at Bluetail Medical Group in Naples, Fla., is a former training camp medical consultant with the Dallas Cowboys and New Orleans Saints. He has not seen Rodgers’ scans, but Podesta said the quarterback’s reported surgery, involving 13 screws and two metal plates fusing together the bones, is consistent with a mid-shaft fracture.
Before clearing someone to play after clavicle surgery, Podesta said he prefers to see “pretty close to 100 percent healing” in the bone. Rodgers is returning before the standard timeline, but in the NFL urgency can lead to impatience.
“Typically you wait,” Podesta said, “especially in a collision sport like that. You’re going to give it the most amount of time as possible. Now, in the NFL, especially toward the end of the season when the playoffs might be in the picture for them, sometimes teams will push the biology a little bit and try to bring guys back a little bit quicker, if they can exhibit they have enough strength to protect the shoulder.
“In this case, being the dominant arm and his throwing arm, it all depends on what they saw as they rehabbed him through this.”
Sources said Wednesday morning the Packers were comfortable with their decision to clear Rodgers. One source said Rodgers wouldn’t have been cleared if the decision put him at significant risk of a major injury.
A second collarbone break and resulting surgery wouldn’t threaten a career-debilitating injury unless it was catastrophic, Podesta said. A simple fracture, such as Rodgers is now recovering from, would present a similar recovery time.
There are some potential complications if Rodgers broke his collarbone with the screws and plate still inserted, as well as potential difficulty operating around scar tissue, but those risks would be unlikely to affect his 2018 season.
Podesta agreed with the widely shared view that minimum healing to be comfortable with Rodgers playing would be 80 percent.
“If you can see 80 percent healing,” Podesta said, “that’s a good number. There’s always the risk in the back of your mind, you know. That’s your biggest worry, but you talk. As a physician what I would do, and what I’ve seen with my mentors that have done in the past, you have a discussion with the athlete and the team, and you’ve got to really explain the risks that are involved in doing that, and the athlete is going to make a decision. He’s going to make a decision.”
Rodgers pushed hard to be medically cleared to play, one source said. After his injury, the quarterback quickly set his sights on returning by Week 15. It’s unlikely Rodgers would play this week if the Packers didn't still have a realistic shot at the playoffs.
The quarterback’s mind could help protect him. Rodgers processes the game at a high level, slowing the action around him. Perhaps he could alter his playing style until the bone further heals, relying on quick releases to avoid contact.
Ultimately, Rodgers’ effectiveness will be determined on how well he can throw. On that front, the Packers quarterback hasn’t shown any signs of a damaged shoulder. Podesta said the strength already seen in Rodgers’ arm during practice could signify his healing.
“I think for him to be able to throw, if he’s throwing relatively normally,” Podesta said, “that would mean that his bone is healed, or very close to being healed, where at least it’s not moving like you would see with a fracture. And that his strength has relatively come back, because he wouldn’t be able to do that. I mean, once you stop throwing for a while and you stop doing this, rebuilding from a fracture, you lose strength precipitously, and it takes a while for that to come back.
“So their rehab team has done a great job with him, if that’s the case and he’s ready to throw like that without much of a problem.”