Almost immediately after he was done providing his latest dose of quarterbacking magic, astonishing a national television audience and everyone at Lambeau Field on Sunday night, Aaron Rodgers wasted no time declaring unequivocally that the injury he had suffered to his left knee against the Chicago Bears would not keep him out of the Green Bay Packers’ lineup for even a single game.
Rodgers told NBC in a postgame interview that he certainly would play this Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings in Green Bay.
“I’m playing next week,” he said unambiguously.
It became clear soon thereafter, though, that things were not so clear-cut. Rodgers’s knee is said to be sore, and he didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday. The Packers didn’t practice Friday but have a light practice scheduled for Saturday; they listed Rodgers as questionable on the official injury report. Rodgers said at midweek that he hopes to play against the Vikings. But he no longer was speaking with certainty about it, and Coach Mike McCarthy said Thursday nothing is definite.
“This is no layup,” McCarthy said at his news conference. “That’s why it’s a day-to-day situation.”
It’s an unusually intriguing decision that McCarthy, Rodgers and the Packers must make so early in the season. There’s little to suggest that the Packers can beat the Vikings — perhaps their primary challenger in the NFC North — without Rodgers, maybe the league’s most indispensable player. Losing a home game to such a formidable divisional foe could end up being a significant setback in the playoff race that will unfold over the coming months.
But having the two-time MVP emerge with his knee in worse condition or suffer further misfortune because of his limited mobility would be far worse. The normally nimble Rodgers was so statuesque in the pocket when he returned to the field against the Bears that some observers questioned whether allowing him to play was prudent. Would sitting down Rodgers this weekend be wise?
“It’s a long season,” Rodgers said when he met with media members Wednesday. “You hate that you’re dealing with something like this in the first week. But you feel similar to this Week 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. … You’re going to get banged up at some point. Obviously I’ve dealt with foot injuries, calf injuries, hamstring, lower extremities and played with it. Hopefully I’ll be able to be back out there Sunday.”
Rodgers referred to his injury as a sprained knee. He left the field during the first half and, after being examined on the sideline, was taken from the field on a cart. Backup DeShone Kizer took over, and the Green Bay offense looked overmatched. But Rodgers returned after halftime and threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes as the Packers overcame a 20-0 deficit to prevail, 24-23. It was legend-worthy stuff.
“It’s super painful,” Rodgers said at midweek. “And you’ve just got to suck it up and play through it. If you watch the film back, there’s a number of times where I put some weight on it, threw and had like a jolt. That was painful. To be in this [locker] room, you have to be mentally and physically tough. I was just getting an opportunity to show that I was fairly physically tough.”
The Packers adjusted their offensive approach in the second half. Rodgers wasted no time getting the ball out of his hand with quick-hitting plays, helping to neutralize a Chicago pass rush, led by Khalil Mack, that dominated the first half. It also may have helped Rodgers that he has experience with the mechanics of throwing the ball with an ailing left knee, having suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in high school.
“When you’re dealing with some pain in that knee at [age] 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, then, yeah, you have to adjust a little bit the way you’re throwing,” Rodgers said. “Fortunately Doc cleaned me up a few years ago after the season, and it’s been excellent since then. But, yeah, that definitely affects some early mechanics that become learned behaviors on the field.”
Rodgers said practicing this week isn’t a prerequisite to playing, and McCarthy concurred. Rodgers expressed disdain for painkilling medication and maintained that he’ll be fine to play if he can move within the pocket, even if he can’t sprint out to buy time when needed.
“Move around a little bit in a circle, the small circle that I was moving in Sunday night,” Rodgers said. “If I can get back to that, hopefully a little better than that, without pain, then hopefully I’ll be able to go.”
Whether that will be good enough against the Vikings, who led the NFL in total and scoring defense last season, is debatable. It was a hit by Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr last season that broke Rodgers’s collarbone, causing him to miss nine games as the Packers missed the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Largely in reaction to Barr’s hit on Rodgers, the NFL emphasized to officials this season that they should penalize hits on which a defender lands on a quarterback with all or most of his body weight.
With Rodgers on the field, this promises to be a marquee matchup for early control of the division. It’s a big early-season test for Kirk Cousins, the quarterback signed to a fully guaranteed, three-year, $84 million contract to be what the Vikings hope is the final piece to the Super Bowl puzzle.
Without Rodgers, it’s unclear whether the Packers can compete. They are 6-11-1 without Rodgers since he became the starter in 2008, compared to a regular season mark of 95-48 with him as the starter. There’s a very good reason that the Packers just made Rodgers the NFL’s highest-paid player with a four-year, $134 million contract extension: They are a contender with him but a pretender without him.
Things came completely undone last season when backup Brett Hundley was forced to play. Now the understudy is Kizer, obtained in an offseason trade after he struggled last season as a rookie starter in Cleveland as the Browns went winless.
“Obviously you want to be out there,” Rodgers said. “I wasn’t very mobile there in the second half at all. I’ve played like that, unfortunately, a few times in my career. Hopefully I’ll be able to be back out there.”
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