Dougherty: Hobbled Aaron Rodgers wins battle of wills, delivers with game on the line
The Green Bay Packers’ season flashed before their eyes.
When Aaron Rodgers crumpled on the turf at Lambeau Field in the second quarter after taking an awkward hit to his legs, then rode a cart to the locker room a little later, the possibility that the Packers’ season was over before it had barely started looked very real.
But it wasn’t. Instead, Rodgers jogged out of the tunnel on his injured knee for the second half and gave a virtuoso performance that will go down as one of the most memorable games of his future Pro Football Hall of Fame career.
In case anyone was wondering, Rodgers showed why the Packers signed him to a contract extension that will pay him $67 million in this calendar year alone. Limited though he was to a pocket passer after the injury, he still slung the ball around the field, made play after play, and brought the Packers from 20 points down for a 24-23 win over the Chicago Bears.
“He’s special,” Bears new coach Matt Nagy said. “We all know that. So you have to tip your hat to him. What a hell of a competitor.”
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This is what great quarterbacks do, and why Rodgers and Tom Brady are worth just about anything their teams are willing to pay them. It brought back memories of the Brett Favre era, when Favre on several occasions got off the deck and played games when it looked like he couldn’t, and won games that looked lost.
Rodgers even mentioned how playing behind Favre for three seasons showed him what an invaluable trait toughness is for a quarterback in this league. It doesn’t guarantee the Packers will have a great season — it’s only Week 1, and there will be plenty of ups and downs. But when the quarterback comes through when he’s hobbled and his team is down, it does filter down through the roster and help establish a team’s character.
Talent, of course, is huge, and Rodgers has as much throwing talent as anyone who’s ever played this game. But football also is a battle of wills, and this kind of display of will from the most important player on the team, it’s hard to overstate what an profound example it sets for a team.
“This is what we’re paid to do,” Rodgers said. “We’re paid to deal with injuries and play through ’em. That’s what everybody is doing and will be doing throughout this season. That’s the measure of a teammate, is what are you willing to put on the line for your team. And, to me, it’s a no-brainer."
Rodgers and the Packers aren’t saying what the injury is, but obviously it’s not a torn ACL, or he never would have returned. The question now is whether he’ll be able to play next week against Minnesota, and if so, how well after the injury swells up overnight. He told a national TV audience immediately after the game that he’s playing next week, and then in his news conference afterward reiterated, “I plan on playing.”
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Assuming he does take the field, he will be limited, at least for several weeks. Rodgers clearly couldn’t scramble in the second half Sunday and even had some trouble moving around in the pocket. He also played from the pistol and shotgun so he wouldn’t have to drop back from center.
That’s the player he’ll be next week against the Vikings, who figure to be one of the NFL’s best defenses again this season after leading the league in fewest points and yards allowed last year. Not to mention that they’re the team last year that knocked Rodgers out for two months with a broken collarbone.
The Packers would much rather have Rodgers at full strength because of his playmaking ability outside the pocket. But his limited mobility isn’t all bad, or at least wasn’t Sunday night, because it forced the Packers into a quick-hitting passing game that helped them get in a rhythm after a first half that was horrible even when Rodgers was playing.
“Got to get the ball out,” Rodgers said. “Can’t be moving around a whole lot back there.”
After putting up a 50.3 rating before leaving the game in the first half, Rodgers in the second half put up a 152.7 rating while basically throwing all arm and no legs. That included a perfect deep shot to Geronimo Allison for a 39-yard touchdown, a 51-yard completion to Davante Adams that set up another score, and a short dart that Randall Cobb turned into the game-winning 75-yard score.
Contrast that with Mitch Trubisky, the Bears’ second-year quarterback. He played OK but by the fourth quarter was simply overmatched. While Rodgers was putting the ball on the money even though he couldn’t move, Trubisky was scrambling for the occasional first down but then missing throws in the fourth quarter that could have won the game in the final two minutes.
As much as mobility helps quarterbacks in this league, in the end it’s the throwing arm that matters. Even one-legged, Rodgers vs. Trubisky was an epic mismatch with the game on the line.
“I’ve seen (Rodgers) do it from afar, you know what I mean?” said Marcedes Lewis, who at age 34 is in his first season with the Packers. “But I’ve never been a part of it. Just his command and, you know, him kind of just taking over and taking control and basically doing what he sees. It’s crazy.”
BOX SCORE: Packers 24, Bears 23
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To win a game that looked lost, and to avoid an injury disaster at quarterback, well, everybody from team president Mark Murphy on down will have slept well Sunday night instead of seeing the season blow up in Week 1. Imagine being Brian Gutekunst and watching the franchise get carted off the field in the first half, only to return and deliver an improbable victory in your first game as GM.
Coach Mike McCarthy’s charge now is to make sure his team doesn’t squander this special victory. Favre, for instance, led a memorable comeback against Oakland in the 1999 opener, but that season ended at 8-8, which cost coach Ray Rhodes his job. Nothing going forward is guaranteed.
But for a night, at least, all is well in Packerland. This really was an extraordinary way to open this franchise’s 100th season. Much more important, though, will be how it finishes.