GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers doesn’t mind bearing the weight of his football team on his previously damaged shoulders, but he insisted his focus as he prepares for his return to the field is returning to his previous form and letting everything else take care of itself.
The Green Bay Packers quarterback took his first snaps with the No. 1 offense at practice Wednesday and then spoke to reporters for the first time since he broke his collarbone against the Minnesota Vikings on Oct. 15.
The Packers (7-6) have almost no shot at the playoffs unless they win their next three games, starting with the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte. Rodgers’ return gives them a chance, but nothing is guaranteed.
“I think there’s an expectation of the way I play on Sunday and how I’m going to play,” Rodgers said, surrounded by reporters at his locker. “I enjoy those expectations. I enjoy meeting those or exceeding those. That’s what it means to be a leader in this locker room and the quarterback of this team.
“Hopefully, it gives a lift to some of the guys, but I’m not coming back to save this team. I’m coming back to play quarterback the way I know how to play it.”
Rodgers said his intention all along was to play against the Panthers in Week 15. He underwent surgery Oct. 19 to have two plates and 13 screws inserted into his right collarbone, which broke when Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr drove him into the turf at U.S. Bank Stadium.
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Having broken his left collarbone in 2013, Rodgers had a pretty good idea what was ahead of him, but he said he was determined to be ready to play as soon as he became eligible to come off injured reserve. He said he was able to take his rehab to the extreme because of the careful watch he was under.
“It’s a long process,” Rodgers said. “It’s tough mentally. You have to just kind of attack the rehab every day. That’s why I thank these guys (doctors and trainers). They allowed me to push the limits every single day on what we should be doing, and always allowed me to do as much as possible without putting any risk on it.
“There were certain timetables we had. Throwing it at four weeks, and moving around and doing the lifting on schedule like we did, those guys were great.”
Rodgers said his strength and flexibility came back quickly. He worked hard on his cardio and stayed as close to the quarterbacks room as he could so he was able to stay in tune with what the coaches were doing with backup Brett Hundley.
Once he could throw, the progress he was making became evident to his coaches and teammates. Last week, he became eligible to practice under injured reserve rules and it was obvious that he was throwing with no discomfort or decrease in arm strength.
“I think like any injury there's thresholds you have to get over and the symptoms that each injury presents,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He was able to clear each hurdle earlier than the norm. His rehab process was very fluid, very clean and it's put him in this position today to get ready for Carolina.”
The final step was getting clearance from his doctors. Team physician Patrick McKenzie was the point person for obtaining opinions from orthopedic specialists around the country to determine if it was safe for Rodgers to play.
It wasn’t until Tuesday night that Rodgers - who had been out of town part of the day -- and McCarthy found out Rodgers had been cleared. Almost immediately, Rodgers announced on social media that he had been given the go-ahead to play.
There are risks to returning just eight weeks after surgery, but Rodgers said they have been discussed and he does not fear getting hit or landing on his shoulder.
“I wouldn’t be standing here ready to play if I wasn’t confident I could go out there and play the way that I’ve always played,” Rodgers said. “There’s just no point in doing that. It’s a risky game, it’s a dangerous game. There’s risks every time you step on the field.
“With the concussions that have happened in this game, that, to me, is something to be more worried about than altering your play to take a shot and landing on your shoulder again.”
Rodgers knew there was a good chance he would be shut down for the season if the Packers weren’t in the playoff hunt. They almost weren’t after going to overtime in back-to-back games against Cleveland and Tampa Bay.
Rodgers credited Hundley with holding down the fort while he rehabbed and said Hundley came up big when it mattered the most.
“It’s been fun to watch Brett up close,” Rodgers said. “He’s definitely improved throughout the seven games. He’s getting more comfortable out there. Coming off a real nice performance against Cleveland.
“He’s been making some plays down the stretch in these games where we have to come up with a drive in the fourth quarter to tie the game the last couple weeks. Those were big drives for him. Obviously, big drives for our team.”
Hundley said the one thing he was proud of was that he was able to keep playoff hopes alive until Rodgers returned. He said Rodgers texted him right away that he had been given clearance to play.
“I’m really happy for him,” Hundley said. “Obviously, I knew this wasn’t a forever thing. I just wanted to make the most of my opportunities and make sure we had a fighting chance when he got back.
“He’s going to lead us to great things.”
There will be no dipping his toe into the water for Rodgers. He’s getting ready to face the fifth-ranked defense in the NFL, a unit that ranks third in sacks per play and prides itself on being rough and tumble.
Rodgers said he won’t know for sure how sharp he is until he takes the ball from center on Sunday. He had to go through the same thing in Week 17 of the 2013 season when he returned from the left collarbone fracture.
“I feel confident I will be able to go out there and play the way I’ve always played, but I’ve been off for seven games and been out for a while,” Rodgers said. “So, it’s going to take getting out there, getting that first pass, getting that first hit, and I’ll probably settle in.”
The one thing his teammates were sure of, however, was that the level of excitement on the practice field rose as soon as Rodgers got under center. It’s likely it will carry over to the playing field, they said.
“It’s a huge boost,” receiver Davante Adams said. “Just his presence alone makes people kind of elevate their play. It kind of forces everybody to boost it a little bit, just the small things, his attention to detail, just how sharp he is with things. It forces you to kind of be the same way.”
Aaron Nagler speaks with Michael Cohen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about the return of Aaron Rodgers and what kind of offensive approach the Packers may take this Sunday. USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin