GREEN BAY — How restless is Aaron Rodgers, the Packers quarterback turned unhappy cheerleader?
He’s the one—not offensive coordinator Tom Clements or coach Mike McCarthy—who first told newly signed backup Matt Flynn he ought to warm up during the second half Sunday in Green Bay, because he figured Flynn might be going in to replace the struggling Scott Tolzien.
“Aaron came up to me and said get warmed up, you might be going in,” Flynn said later. “Then Tom Clements came over and said, you’re in when we get the ball back.”
Peering at the action underneath a green hooded jacket, behind a caterpillar-thick Movember mustache, Rodgers watched Flynn put together a comeback from down 23-7 to tie the Vikings in overtime, a rare NFL draw. Coach McCarthy and several players described an “empty feeling” after the game that brought the Packers to 5-5-1, a half game behind the Lions and the Bears in the NFC North. Green Bay is winless in November.
McCarthy can blame himself for that emptiness, after it became clear Flynn, the former Packers backup who was signed two weeks ago, was ready to play. Instead of starting for Rodgers, who suffered a broken left collarbone during the Monday night loss to the Bears on Nov. 4, Flynn watched from the bench for two and a half quarters as Tolzien went 7 for 17.
Said McCarthy, speaking of the bigger picture, “We haven’t handled Aaron Rodgers’ departure [well]. We all need to step up as a football team and take advantage.”
Perhaps no one felt emptier than Rodgers himself, who had started 78 of 80 regular season games since he took over in 2008. Now he’s missed three straight.
“This is brutal for him,” said Packers fullback John Kuhn, Rodgers’ teammate since 2007. “I know he’s waiting in the wings, praying for the opportunity to come back and lead us. If we can keep ourselves in contention, he’s gonna get it done for us.
“He’s the biggest competitor I know, whether it’s playing cards on the road or on the field. He’s really anxious to get back, and I’m ready to see it happen. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him play Thursday, but I don’t know his timetable. That’s one of the biggest mysteries in sports right now.”
That would be Thanksgiving Thursday in Detroit, with first place in the NFC North up for grabs. Rodgers, who says he’s throwing a football without pain, wasn’t available for comment on Sunday. McCarthy said he didn’t know if Rodgers would play. Packers fans would no doubt be ecstatic if he did, especially after watching original backup QB Seneca Wallace go down with an injury and Tolzien prove ineffective.
But should they be? This is, after all, a 29-year-old quarterback we’re talking about—The Franchise—with a serious injury to a part of the body essential to his throwing mechanics. Without even getting into the long-term view, there’s the short term: how far can you go in January with a partially-healed passer?
Make no mistake, if it was completely up to Rodgers, he would play hurt and risk it. “I think he would come back at less than 100% if he feels like he gives us the best chance to win,” Kuhn said.
Said right tackle Marshall Newhouse: “He wanted to be out there the day he was diagnosed. I have no doubt he could play, but with that kind of injury you have to do the right thing for your future.”
Sage advice. Practical too, both for the Packers’ season and beyond. Consider the alternative, now a much brighter prospect than it seemed on Sunday morning. Flynn says he hasn’t yet been given any indication he’s the new starter, but the former backup who left Green Bay as a free agent a year and a half ago and did a three-team lap around the NFL before landing back at Lambeau seems a lock as Rodgers’ No. 2 after Sunday. He was 21 of 36 for 218 yards and a touchdown despite some admitted communications breakdowns with wide receivers he’s yet to get on the same page with.
Flynn even quieted some of the critics who say he can’t throw the deep ball after bouts with tendinitis in his elbow, with his overtime rainbow toss to Jarrett Boykin, who rose up and reached back to snatch a 34-yard first down to set up a go-ahead overtime field goal. It was the kind of throw anybody, including Rodgers, would have a hard time replicating given one chance.
Just to be sure, I asked Flynn how the elbow was feeling nowadays. “The only time it ever affected me physically was in training camp, where you’re throwing a ton of passes every day,” he said. “I feel 100% right now.”
So you’ve got a fresh quarterback, playing once again in the offense that spawned his lucrative if inglorious sabbatical, and a team treading water in a division race in which everyone is doing the same: The Lions (6-5) and Bears (6-5) fell to the Buccaneers (3-8) and Rams (3-8) on Sunday, respectively.
Thursday’s game isn’t any less of a must-win for the Packers, but it seems an ideal time to start for Flynn, who smoked Detroit for 480 yards and six touchdowns on January 1, 2012, the day his star was born. The Lions are a different team now, sure. But is it crazy to think a rejuvenated Flynn with Jordy Nelson and Eddie Lacy at his disposal could put the squeeze on a defense against which Tampa Bay rookie Mike Glennon had a 138.4 passer rating?
And it’s not as if the Packers’ locker room is in despair, yearning for Rodgers. Ties are awful, but they’re better than losses. As Kuhn calmly put it, “it’s a half-game in our favor.”
Urgency? Yes. Panic? No.
“It’s just how we are,” Newhouse said. “We’ve been through so many different situations here. Players have been around for so long. We know that acting and thinking and feeling desperate aren’t productive or efficient.”
So, Aaron Rodgers, take a cue from Mr. Newhouse. Rest up, let Flynn get reacquainted with the Lions, and heal that broken bone before you do damage you can’t reverse. And coach McCarthy, if Rodgers insists on playing Thursday, do the prudent thing and say no. It will be the best substitution you never made.