Did Packers risk too much with Rodgers' return?

Pete Dougherty
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Aaron Rodgers didn't have a lot of choice.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers reacts in the fourth quarter during Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.

The Green Bay Packers' quarterback at least had to try to play after aggravating his calf injury in the second quarter Sunday against the Detroit Lions.

That's the nature of playing quarterback in the NFL. Your teammates are watching, closely. If they question your toughness or will, you might be finished. On the other hand, if you play through it, you could win them over forever.

But on the other side, there's the case of Robert Griffin III in the playoffs two years ago. The Washington quarterback had a badly compromised knee, insisted he could play, and his coach, Mike Shanahan, let him. Griffin's knee later buckled without even being hit, his ACL blew out, and Washington's quarterbacking has been a disaster since.

The Packers' risk with Rodgers on Sunday wasn't as great because the injury wasn't to his knee. But the risk still was significant. He could have blown out his calf, which would have ended his season and the Packers' Super Bowl hopes.

"I wasn't going to put myself in major harm's way," Rodgers said. "But at the same time, I feel like if I could be out there I could give our team a little jolt."

There wasn't any doubt Rodgers was going to play this week in a winner-take-all game for the NFC North Division title and a guaranteed first-round bye in the playoffs. After he aggravated the injury, you had to wonder whether he should have sat, but really, there were no good choices.

It's obviously an injury that takes more than a week to heal, and there's plenty of reason to question whether two weeks would do it either. So if the Packers sat Rodgers and lost, he still might be compromised in the playoffs, and they'd be playing on the road in the wild-card round. Might as well take your chances and hope for the best against the Lions.

After Rodgers aggravated the injury and went to the locker room on a cart Sunday, it looked like he was done for the day. The Packers by all indications have a conservative medical staff, headed by their orthopedist, Dr. Pat McKenzie. It seems unlikely they would have done anything approaching reckless with their franchise player, even with a playoff bye at stake if they beat the Lions.

But as Rodgers said after the game, "There was risk for sure" in re-entering the game early in the second half

Was it the right call? And what does aggravating the injury mean for the Packers' playoffs hopes?

Well, for Rodgers it for sure was the right call. He had to give it a shot.

He said that at halftime in the locker room, he put heat on his calf and had a "long talk" with McKenzie. Rodgers convinced the doctor they should at least re-tape his calf and see how it felt throwing on the sideline.

"Doc and I have a great trust between each other," Rodgers said. "We did a little fist-pound, and after I told him I felt good and (coach) Mike (McCarthy) said 'OK,' and he just trusted I wasn't going to do anything stupid."

McCarthy has the final say, and it worked out. When Rodgers returned, the score was 14-14, and Rodgers led the way to a 30-20 win. The injury didn't get any worse, and with the win he has two weeks to heal.

The Packers also had the experience of last week to help with the decision. Rodgers hurt his calf on the sixth play at Tampa Bay but finished the game. The game plan changed significantly, because he had to become a pocket passer and play exclusively from the pistol and shotgun formations so he didn't have to drop back to pass. But he could function.

"Felt good on the sidelines throwing the ball," Rodgers said. "Talked to Mike. Asked him to just keep me in the shotgun because of my limited mobility, obviously. We were able to do that and make some plays."

Rodgers' injury coming into the game clearly was worse than the Packers let on. He said he didn't practice much until Saturday, and the best indication of McCarthy's level of concern was his 46-man game-day roster. For the first time this season, he activated both backup quarterbacks, Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien.

Still, the Packers appeared to have a relatively normal game plan to start the game. Rodgers looked a little tentative and gimpy, but moved around in the pocket and later scrambled for 13 yards on one play. But just as he was throwing on the run for what would be a 4-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb late in the second quarter, Rodgers' left calf gave out and he hit the ground.

Rodgers has two weeks to heal, but judging by how easily he aggravated it a week after the injury, the Packers have to be greatly concerned about his health for the playoffs.

Calf injuries can be slow healers. David Chao, a former doctor for the San Diego Chargers, wrote in a column last week for that the calf is a major power muscle that gets little help in pushing off the foot and ankle.

"There are multiple hamstring muscles to help flex the knee and extend the hip but only one major muscle for plantar flexion of the ankle," Chao wrote, "and this may be why calf muscles have a high re-aggravation rate."

Rodgers showed Sunday he still could move the ball against a good defensive team — the Lions came into the game ranked No. 2 in yards and points allowed — operating strictly from the pocket. He put up 168 yards in total offense and two touchdowns after missing the first series of the second half.

But what has set him apart from the rest of the NFL is his ability to make strong, accurate throws while on the move outside the pocket. That's one of the Packers' biggest weapons. In most games, Rodgers makes a handful of plays on the move, turning possible sacks or throwaways into first downs and big gains.

If that ability is compromised for the playoffs, the Packers won't be quite the same team. They can only hope Rodgers is right when he says two weeks will be enough, though it might be wishful thinking.

"This was seven days (healing) this week," he said. "The injury, it's in a different spot, but it's probably similar to the injury last week. Give us two weeks, it should be good to go."​

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