GREEN BAY – The season began improbably, fantastically — valiantly — for Aaron Rodgers.
Jogging out of the tunnel at halftime on Sept. 9, down 20-0 to the rival Chicago Bears after an injured left knee required a cart to get him to the locker room; then capping the 13th fourth-quarter comeback of his career with a 75-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb to thrill a packed Lambeau Field with a 24-23 victory.
It ended quietly, between two team staffers, walking to the locker room at the start of the second quarter Sunday with his team trailing Detroit 7-0 in the season finale. At the time he was being evaluated for a concussion, the diagnosis confirmed early in the fourth quarter.
The Lions would win 31-0, Rodgers unable to finish what was so incredibly started 112 days earlier.
Rodgers’ season ended after nine offensive plays against the Lions. He was hit hard on the Packers’ second play by Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis, with Davis sliding over the top of the quarterback and sending Rodgers’ gold helmet skittering across the turf. It was the 49th sack he absorbed on the year.
Rodgers remained in the game, completed three of five passes for 26 yards — the final a 4-yard pass to Jamaal Williams — and then told interim head coach Joe Philbin he was being evaluated for a concussion.
“I’m not exactly sure, to be honest with you,” Philbin said of when Rodgers suffered the concussion. “I’ll kind of have to take a closer look. But I had sat down with him after each series, what’d he play, three series maybe? Yeah, and I sat down, I went to the bench there and apologized for the great second-and-10 call that got him sacked. But he seemed OK.”
Philbin did not know if Rodgers self-reported symptoms after his last play. It was the third documented concussion of the 35-year-old’s 14-year-career. He suffered two in 2010.
“He and I, we spoke after that third series and he said he was getting evaluated,” Philbin said. “So, I don’t know. I’m not sure exactly. I’d be lying if I told you anything else.”
Back on Sept. 9, it looked like Rodgers might miss most of the season, if not all of it. Instead, he played without practicing fully through the rest of September. He played with a knee brace. Finally back to work on a daily basis, and without a support device on his left knee, Rodgers didn’t miss a game. He didn’t miss a snap, save for a game-ending kneel down against Atlanta.
“All I know is the guy, his ability to fight through things was exceptional I thought,” said Philbin, who worked with Rodgers closely as offensive coordinator before assuming the interim head coaching duties.
“And again, I can’t get into, I don’t know any of the specifics of joints or bruises or ligaments or cartilage. I don’t know any of that stuff. All I would say is the guy is as competitive as ever, and I think he went to great lengths to get out on the field each and every week to lead the football team.”
It wasn’t just the knee bothering Rodgers this season, however.
After a game in Detroit in early October, then-head coach Mike McCarthy painted with a broad brush, saying Rodgers was “playing through a lot.” Following the bye week later that month, Rodgers said not every physical ailment he dealt with showed up on the injury report. In mid-December, he injured his groin against Chicago. All while he managed the knee injury that will likely require a medical re-evaluation now that the season is over.
Whatever the why was, Rodgers looked off all season. The throwaways. Being tripped up by defensive linemen before escaping the pocket. The odd inaccuracies. Perhaps it was physical. Perhaps it had to do with the professional disconnect with McCarthy before the head coach was fired Dec. 2.
Yet, there was the second half against Chicago. The march downfield to beat San Francisco at the buzzer in October. The 15-point fourth-quarter comeback against the New York Jets last week. The dazzling moments were there, throws and scrambles. They just flickered, however, all season.
If he’s able, Rodgers can play in his seventh Pro Bowl in Orlando on Jan. 27.
By the numbers, he had a solid season. He set an NFL record for most consecutive passes attempted without an interception. He entered Sunday’s game as the No. 5 passer in the league with more than 4,400 yards. He was top seven in yards per game. But his 25 touchdowns were tied for 11th, he was tied for 13th in quarterback rating and he was 26th in completion percentage.
With his early exit against Detroit, those league ranks will tumble. He finished 2018 completing 372 passes on 597 attempts (62.3 percent) for 4,442 yards, 25 touchdowns and two interceptions.
Interestingly, the completions, attempts and yards were the second-most totals of his career in seasons in which he started at least 15 games. His two interceptions were the fewest he’d thrown in his career as a starter.
Yet, the completion percentage was his lowest since 2015 (60.7) and the touchdowns were his fewest in a full season since assuming the starting role in 2008.
And for just the second time in a season in which he started at least 15 games, the Packers tumbled into the top half of the NFL draft with a losing record. The 6-9-1 mark was the team’s worst with Rodgers permanently under center since going 6-10 in 2008.
Last Wednesday, Rodgers met with the local media for perhaps the last time (per league rules, the concussion protocol prevents players from speaking, so Rodgers did not hold his usual postgame news conference). He was asked about his season coming to an end Sunday, regardless of the outcome.
“I appreciate every year,” Rodgers said. “I view every year individually and realize this group of guys will never be together after Monday’s team meeting. So that’s just the way the league goes. Obviously getting older in the league and seeing the end a lot closer than it did seem as a 21-year-old kid, you appreciate the little things I think a little bit more.
“Things change, locker room changes, coaching staff changes. It’s part of the business. It’s a tough part of the business. I feel pretty good about my standing moving forward with the team and excited about the future here.”