I went into Friday thinking Aaron Rodgers would be crazy to play again this season.
His broken collarbone is on his throwing side, which makes his recovery more complicated than when he missed seven weeks with a similar injury on the other side in 2013.
Shortly after the injury, independent experts told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin that it would be 10 weeks before Rodgers could return, in the best case. That would take it to the regular-season finale.
But why would Rodgers, general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy even risk rushing him back onto the field then, even if the Packers are in the playoff hunt?
Rodgers could have five, six, maybe even seven or more years of high-level football left in him. Plus – and this is a big one – he’s positioned to sign a new contract this offseason that will be the richest in NFL history. Both sides have too much to lose.
Rodgers, for his part, revealed little about his thinking Friday in his first media session since undergoing surgery. He expressed optimism about returning this year but also made sure several times to, as he put it, “temper expectations.” That left plenty of room for interpretation. I came away still in the don’t-play camp.
But later I spoke with an orthopedic surgeon for another NFL team and it changed my view. He said Rodgers has a realistic shot at safely returning this season because of the stability from the plates he had surgically implanted in his clavicle two weeks ago.
“This is your franchise quarterback, they don’t come around often,” the doctor said. “There are only so many in the league, not more than six. So you don’t want to jeopardize them with a routine injury. But in our experience – we’ve had multiple of these – any time it’s over 85 percent (healed) and it has a plate on there, (he plays).”
Healing time varies depending on the individual, but the doctor said it’s not unusual for a broken clavicle to heal 80 percent to 85 percent about eight weeks after surgery. Rodgers had surgery two weeks ago, so when he’s eligible to come off IR in six weeks – that’s with three regular-season games to play – he’ll be eight weeks post-surgery.
“Probably around eight weeks or so (after surgery) scan him,” the doctor said, referring to a CT scan. “(The Packers’ doctors) will say, ‘Aaron, it’s 60 percent healed, you can’t play.’ Or, ‘Aaron, it’s over 80 percent healed and you have two plates on, (you can play).
“… My bet would be in about eight weeks they’re going to go, you know, that’s 80 percent or so, and Aaron’s going to go, ‘We’re playing.’”
Here’s how it likely lays out, according to the doctor:
Rodgers had two cobalt chromium plates implanted with 13 screws on his right collarbone. One reason for surgery is to prevent the collarbone from shortening while it heals, because then it could affect his throwing motion.
The plates also allow for a quicker comeback, because they make the collarbone stronger than it was before the injury, and that’s before it’s even fully healed.
“What is the maximum amount of stress that his clavicle can withstand?” the doctor said. “If you have no plates on, there’s a number based on the size of your clavicle. But once you put two plates on it and have 85 percent healing, it’s stronger than it was before (the injury) because you have two chromium cobalt plates on the thing. It would take more to injure it, not less.”
Doctors won’t CT scan Rodgers before eight weeks because that exposes the bones to a lot of radiation, which slows healing. At around eight weeks they’ll do an X-ray, which doesn’t emit enough radiation to inhibit healing, that will allow for an educated guess on whether he’s healed enough. If they think he might be, they do the CT scan.
If the scan shows he hasn’t healed enough, they would wait another two weeks and scan again.
Regardless of whether Rodgers returns this season, the plates will stay in at least until he retires from football. When they come out, the holes from the screws change the way force is dispersed in the collarbone and make it more susceptible to re-break.
“If it was us and, ‘Look, we’re in a playoff run, he’s our franchise quarterback, he can make a difference,’” the doctor said. “With two plates in there (and 85 percent healed), we’d play him.”
So what I’d assumed was a long shot for Rodgers to return this season isn’t such a long shot after all. If Rodgers comes back eight weeks after surgery, it would be with three games to play, starting Dec. 17 at Carolina. A week or two longer still would have him back before the end of the regular season.
It’s certainly not a given he’ll be ready in that time. But it sounds like there’s a decent chance.
Of course, it’s all academic unless the Packers have a realistic shot at making the playoffs when the time comes.
So what are the odds of that?
The short version is the Packers (4-3) probably will need at least nine wins and more likely 10 to be in the hunt.
In the 15 years since the NFL went to four divisions in each conference, 13 of the 60 wild-card teams (21.7 percent) were 9-7 or worse. So odds are only about one in five of making it as a wild card at 9-7. The most recent team to do so was Detroit last season.
In that same time, 13 of 120 division winners (10.8 percent) were 9-7 or worse, so those odds are twice as long.
It’s still too early to project whether nine wins can win the NFC North or have a good shot at a wild card. But for what it’s worth, Minnesota leads the division at 6-2, and six NFC teams have at least five wins with either eight or nine games to play.
The Packers don’t have a killer remaining schedule (32-37 composite record). Of their nine remaining games, three are against teams now over .500 (Pittsburgh at 6-2, Carolina at 5-3 and Minnesota) but five are on the road (Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Carolina and Detroit).
So whether Rodgers returns this season very well might come down to whether the Packers stay in the playoff hunt with backup Brett Hundley at quarterback for six or seven more weeks.
That, not Rodgers’ healing collarbone, looks like the longer shot.