GREEN BAY – Ten years ago, Aaron Rodgers sprained his throwing shoulder. The Green Bay Packers were noncommittal all week whether he’d play that Sunday in Atlanta. He was a first-year starter, far from the all-world superstar he is now.
They took their decision down to the wire, having Rodgers toss footballs in the privacy of the Don Hutson Center before determining he could play.
There was one thing coach Mike McCarthy decided he absolutely would not do. With Rodgers nursing that shoulder, the Packers weren’t going to throw deep. Just dink and dunk, shallow, easy passes to keep the offense moving.
The only vertical pass play McCarthy had on his call sheet that week, he said, was for a third-and-1. It might as well not have been there. McCarthy was determined not to call it.
Early in the second quarter, the Packers had third-and-one.
Reflexively, McCarthy sent the call onto the field: “Fake 94 Bob X Read.”
“As soon as I called it,” McCarthy said Monday, “I thought, ‘I wasn’t supposed to call that.’”
Then Rodgers reared back and threw a 44-yard touchdown pass to Donald Driver.
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That’s the predicament McCarthy has often found himself in with Rodgers over the years. Last month, the Packers coach asked reporters to write how Rodgers couldn’t play past 40. No better way, McCarthy figured, to ensure that he does. Tell Rodgers he can’t accomplish something, and he almost certainly will.
It’s always been that way.
With Rodgers in the locker room Sunday night testing his sprained left knee, McCarthy expected the Packers would finish their opener against the Chicago Bears with backup DeShone Kizer. Until, of course, he saw Rodgers jogging out of the tunnel to start the second half.
The Packers find themselves in a similar situation this week. Just like 2008, Rodgers’ availability for Sunday’s game against Minnesota could go down to the wire.
“We’re still collecting all the information, his specific situation,” McCarthy said. “I know Aaron wants to play, and is always driven to play, but that's all I have for right now.”
If Rodgers does play against the Vikings, his mobility will be significantly reduced. McCarthy has history to draw on when devising his game plan for a hobbled Rodgers. During the 2014 playoffs, a strained left calf effectively limited Rodgers to one good leg against the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks.
Veteran cornerback Tramon Williams said Rodgers’ performance Sunday night reminded him of that playoff run. Except, of course, Rodgers was trying to come back from a 20-point deficit to the Bears in the second half. The Bears built their lead with their defensive front attacking Rodgers, sacking him twice in the first half. The offensive line kept Rodgers’ jersey clean in the second half.
Williams said it reminded him of how the offensive line rallied around Rodgers during the 2014 NFC Championship game, holding a vaunted Seahawks defense to one sack.
“The way they kept those guys off of Aaron,” Williams said, “it was a total team effort, and I saw the same thing last night. It was like everything just shifted when that happened. The game plan changed, and everybody just came out and executed perfectly with what they were supposed to do: keep the guys off of Aaron.”
Schematic adjustments can help the offensive line. Rodgers spent much of Sunday’s first half holding onto the football, searching for the big gain. Unable to extend plays as long because of Rodgers’ reduced mobility, the Packers switched to a quick-hitting pass attack.
In some ways, Rodgers’ lack of mobility made things easier for the offensive line. With their backs to Rodgers, linemen often have to guess where their quarterback will be. In Sunday’s second half, they knew Rodgers was confined to the pocket.
It also means Rodgers doesn’t have the same elusiveness to evade pass rushers when linemen are beaten.
“I think there’s a double-edged sword to it,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “There are times that I thoroughly enjoy 12 bailing me out of situations, and being able to feel the rush and evade it, and then there are times when he’ll evade some rush right into my block. Or he’ll be running around like a chicken with his head cut off.
“So I think it’s good and bad on both ends.”
Once again, Rodgers’ injury is on his left leg. That should help Rodgers drive the football downfield because as a right-handed quarterback, his right leg is responsible for generating lower-body power on throws. (Rodgers played through a strained right calf in 2016). With a good right leg, Rodgers was able to get enough from his lower base to fling a 39-yard touchdown pass to receiver Geronimo Allison, a ball he released from the 46-yard line to the opposite corner end zone.
The Packers also can limit Rodgers’ mobility presnap. They put Rodgers in pistol and shotgun formations against the Bears, preventing him from dropping back under center. That will likely continue Sunday against the Vikings. So long as Rodgers plays in the foreseeable future, his mobility will be limited.
But Rodgers can still be effective in the quick-passing game.
“That’s what the offense is built off of,” Bakhtiari said. “We love the extended plays and all the miraculous things he can do because he can do it anywhere from any point in time on the field. It doesn’t matter what the situation or the fundamental flaw he’s in, he can drop a dime anywhere he wants.
“With (the quick-pass game), it’s keeping the defense more on its heels, and I think that’s where those big plays can come from.”