GREEN BAY - The first knee injury came when Aaron Rodgers was just 16. “Banged it up,” he called it Wednesday.
Which is akin to saying a totaled vehicle has merely a dent.
Rodgers, as legend goes, tore his ACL while playing pickup basketball in high school. He played four years before having reconstructive knee surgery, eschewing a knee brace by the end of that stretch. It wouldn’t be his only knee injury. Rodgers finally buckled and had a scope after the 2015 season.
No matter the severity, one thing has been a constant: Each injury has been to Rodgers’ left knee.
“I haven’t had, thankfully, a major right-knee injury,” Rodgers said, “but I’ve dealt with the left-knee injury since I was 16 years old.”
So here Rodgers is again this week, back in a familiar situation with a left knee injury. The Green Bay Packers quarterback wouldn’t share specifics, saying only that “sprained knee” is the best description. A knee sprain can cover a large umbrella of possibilities, from playing Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings to missing a considerable amount of time.
Rodgers returned for the second half of Sunday night’s opener against the Chicago Bears, engineering an epic comeback on one leg. The adrenaline is gone now, replaced by pain. Rodgers said his knee has been “pretty sore the last three days,” but each day has felt progressively better. He didn’t practice Wednesday, and when asked whether he needs to practice at all in order to play Sunday, Rodgers was succinct.
“Nope,” he shot back.
The Packers aren’t saying whether Rodgers will play this week. If he does, it will catch nobody by surprise.
“He walks on water,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “So I’m sure he’s going to play.”
Rodgers said he wants to play. As he showed Sunday, there’s a low bar he must clear to be physically able. Rodgers was hardly mobile at all against the Bears, practically dragging his left leg each time he dropped back to pass. As NBC cameras highlighted, there was hardly any torque on his left, lead leg each time he threw.
Asked what physical requirements he needs to meet in order to play, Rodgers referenced mobility within the pocket.
Two of his touchdowns against the Bears were set up with subtle moves to avoid pressure. He stepped up in the pocket before throwing to receiver Davante Adams in the left flat. On the game-winning touchdown to Cobb, Rodgers sidestepped to the left so he could buy time when no receivers were initially open.
“Move around a little bit in a circle,” Rodgers said. “Small circle that I was moving in Sunday night. If I can get back to that, hopefully, a little better than that without pain, then hopefully I’ll be able to go.”
Rodgers said he hasn’t even considered the possibility of backup DeShone Kizer playing Sunday, an indication his mind is set on being available – at least early in the week. It’s likely the Packers would start Kizer if their two-time MVP is unable to play, but the second-year quarterback didn’t afford himself much patience from coaches in his debut.
Kizer had two turnovers in one quarter, costing the Packers 10 points. On third-and-goal from the 9, Kizer stepped into Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack’s rush. Mack took the football out of Kizer’s hands, erasing a chip-shot field goal possibility.
On the next possession, Mack intercepted Kizer’s screen pass and returned it 27 yards for a touchdown.
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The two plays incensed coach Mike McCarthy, who makes turnover differential a core belief.
“You can’t play quarterback, period, if you don’t take care of the football,” McCarthy said. “The center and quarterback handle the football every (play). So if you look at our history here as far as turnover ratio, the amount of time and the energy that's put into the drilling, taking care of the football, it’s been a real strength – and it’s a tremendous strength – of Aaron Rodgers and how he plays the position.
“DeShone definitely needs to learn from those two plays.”
For all his athletic potential, turnovers have been Kizer’s greatest hurdle early in his NFL career. As a rookie in Cleveland last season, he was among four quarterbacks in the league who had more interceptions than touchdown passes, a group that also included former Packers backup Brett Hundley. Kizer led the NFL with 22 interceptions in 15 starts, and he fumbled nine times.
McCarthy said he expects Kizer to improve with experience.
“What went on last year,” McCarthy said, “he’s a rookie, he’s young. But, definitely, you have to take care of the football. If you don’t take care of the football, you’re not long for playing with the Green Bay Packers. That’s an absolute. I think every coach in the league would express that.
“You have to give your team a chance.”
Kizer said those two plays linger in his mind this week. With Rodgers missing practice, the backup is elevated to the first-team offense, getting a chance to show he learned from his poor decision making. Real redemption won’t come until Kizer once again plays meaningful snaps.
The Packers surely hope that doesn’t happen for a long time. If there’s any chance Rodgers can play, it’s clear he intends to play regardless of how his knee feels.
“It’s super painful,” Rodgers said, “and you just have to suck it up and play through it. If you watch the film back, there’s a number of times I put some weight on through (the throw), and there was like a jolt. That was painful. So, to be in this room you have to be mentally and physically tough.
“I was just given an opportunity to show I was fairly physically tough.”