LOS ANGELES - The plan, as conceived, was to stay in the end zone. No need to risk something fluky with 116 seconds left. Not with you-know-who about to enter the field at quarterback.
The Los Angeles Rams had done what by now should be unpardonable. Down one point late in the fourth quarter against Aaron Rodgers, they committed the deadly sin of playing for a field goal. On third-and-16 at the 19-yard line, the Rams' high-powered offense – frustrated all day against a resurgent Packers defense – eschewed taking a shot at the end zone, instead handing off for a 3-yard run.
Now, all Rodgers needed was to lead the Packers into field-goal position. The Packers had more than enough time. You’ve seen this script before. It would be a monumental upset, the kind that can change the course of a season.
If only they could get their MVP the football.
The plan, coach Mike McCarthy said, was for kickoff returner Ty Montgomery to stay in the end zone for a touchback. Give Rodgers the football at the 25. With one timeout left, the Packers couldn’t have asked for a better position. Until, that is, Montgomery left the end zone.
Montgomery staggered across the goal line, moving almost hesitantly. The way someone might when they’re doing what they shouldn’t. The football waved loosely in his left arm, practically uncovered until linebacker Ramik Wilson met him at the 19. Wilson recovered the fumble, simply ripping the football from Montgomery’s left arm, effectively ending the game at Rams 29, Packers 27.
“That play didn’t lose the game,” Rodgers said, “but it definitely took way an opportunity for us to go down and win it.”
Montgomery declined to comment after the game. When a reporter approached him exiting the visiting locker room at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, in the tunnel where interviews were conducted, Montgomery pressed his cell phone to his ear and kept walking to the bus.
The fumble isn’t going away, no matter how many questions Montgomery dodges.
Now at 3-3-1, the Packers are in third place in the NFC North nearing their season’s midway point.
That fumble could linger all the way to January and beyond.
“That’s what those games come down to,” McCarthy said.
If Sunday’s game came down to a fumble, it didn’t have to. With their offense rolling and defense bottling up Rams coach Sean McVay’s explosive attack, the Packers jumped out to a 10-0 lead. A big reason why: They finally seemed to resolve their running back rotation.
Aaron Jones got his second straight start Sunday. It looked like the Packers were finally content to ride their best running back. Jones got seven carries in the first three possessions, good for 46 yards.
He only got five carries the rest of the game.
With Jones on an almost 200-yard pace early in the second quarter, the Packers stuck with their concept of rotating their backfield. Up 10-0, Montgomery entered for the fourth possession. A touchdown on that drive would have given the Packers a three-possession lead, enough gap to put the Rams in serious trouble.
The Packers had their first three-and-out of the game, with Montgomery catching a 2-yard pass on first down followed with a 1-yard run on second.
“My responsibility is to play quarterback,” Rodgers said. “I’m not handling substitution, personnel. When he’s in there, he can be dynamic. The other two guys have had moments, as well.
“I’m not thinking about who’s in there at running back. I’m just making sure that guy knows what he’s doing.”
Aaron Jones knows what he’s doing. Perhaps a little too well.
Back pressed against a wall in the Coliseum tunnel afterward, Jones stuck to his company line. He hasn’t demanded carries once this season, content to let his play do the talking. Jones wasn’t about to start demanding now.
“I’m 100 percent fine with it,” he said.
Late Sunday, he showed why the Packers would be wise to feed him the football more often.
After the Rams took a 10-point lead, thanks to a 23-3 run when Jones mostly stayed on the sideline, the second-year tailback pulled the Packers within striking distance with a 33-yard touchdown run down the middle of the defense. Center Corey Linsley stuck his block, and that’s all Jones needed.
He made Rams safety John Johnson III miss in the open field, flashing the speed and shiftiness that could make him a star. If he got enough touches.
“I love my chances one-on-one with a safety,” Jones said. “I’ve got to turn more one-on-one situations into home runs.”
Right now, Jones is the only Packers tailback capable of home runs. He finished with 86 yards on 12 carries, which was striking against Jamaal Williams’ 9 yards on four carries and Montgomery’s 6 yards on two carries.
But speed and elusiveness are only part of it. His long touchdown doesn’t happen without a little recall.
Jones ripped off a 13-yard run on the game’s opening play. Standing between him in the end zone? Johnson. Now in the fourth quarter, Jones remembered which way Johnson tried to tackle him in the open field three hours earlier.
When Johnson shifted outside, trying to remove any angle to the perimeter, Jones cut left and beat the safety inside.
“The first play of the game,” Jones said, “the safety came down, and I didn’t know how he was going to react. I mean, plays are different on film. You can watch film, but when you get out there, it’s different. So just kept seeing it, seeing it. Then finally I had another chance with him one-on-one.”
Even in defeat, what happened Sunday could be a building block. The Packers could gain momentum entering the season’s midway point, propelling them to something better than a .500 second half.
To do that, they probably need to figure out their running back depth chart.
Perhaps they arrived at that point Sunday, finally realizing it’s time to feature Jones in their offense. With the game on the line, the Packers finally stayed with Jones for consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter. Jones was on the field for the Packers final three possession.
They had a chance to win, if not for the fumble.
“We wanted to put the ball in Aaron’s hands,” McCarthy said.
Good idea, but only if both Aarons get the football.