It’s OK, Green Bay—He’s Back
Packers fans weren't the only ones waiting with bated breath for Aaron Rodgers to return. The QB was antsy too, but everyone can exhale now. Unfortunately, it's not so easy for Rob Chudzinski. Together, they represent the highs and lows of a wild regular-season finale
Not much happened on the last day of the regular season Sunday. Just:
• The greatest regular-season game of Aaron Rodgers’ career. I asked him where the 33-28 NFC North title game win ranked, the one with the 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb on 4th-and-8 with 46 seconds left to win it. “There’s the Super Bowl, and then the Atlanta playoff game that year,” he said from Green Bay late Sunday night upon arriving home from the win in Chicago. “Then this game. Today’s in the top three of all of my games. It was special, for so many reasons.” Including some eye-opening words about the team physician we all assumed he hated.
• A totally Brownsian firing. Can you imagine what it must have been like to be lifelong Browns fan and 2013 Browns coach Rob Chudzinski Sunday night around 9, getting blindsided by the rumors of your firing after the last game of the season in Pittsburgh, wondering on the two-hour bus ride home if they could possibly be true, and then listening to club president Joe Banner destroy your dream, dismissing you after just 352 days of a four-year contract? I can’t imagine a more unexpected and brutal way to go. I told the news to one of the stalwart Browns, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, at 9:55 Sunday night. “We fired Chud? Are you kidding me?” he said, stunned. Wish I was.
• The wrong team might have won the sixth seed in the AFC. In the Year of the Blown Call, it’s fitting that as two officials from the Bill Leavy crew stared at a blatant violation on a 41-yard field-goal attempt that would have won the game for Kansas City, neither threw a flag. The kick went wide right. Ryan Succop should have had a second chance from five yards closer, but he didn’t, and San Diego won in overtime. If Succop had converted, there’d have been a five-way tie for the sixth playoff seed in the AFC at 8-8, and the Steelers would have won the tiebreaker. As it is, the Chargers finished 9-7 and play a wild-card game at Cincinnati Sunday. And Pittsburghers wake up this morning, read this, spit out their coffee and wonder, “Is this karmic payback for The Immaculate Reception?”
• Chip Kelly copped the NFC East in his inaugural NFL coaching season. Closer than anyone thought (Philly 24, Dallas 22), but the last team into the playoffs finished the season on a 7-1 run. The Eagles will be a tough out, and as long as Kelly coaches them, they’ll be in a lot of big Week 17 games.
• The Eagles won a couple of other crowns. LeSean McCoy won the first rushing title by an Eagle in 64 years, and it wasn’t close: McCoy 1,607, Matt Forte 1,339. Nick Foles beat out Peyton Manning for passer rating, 119.2-115.1; these things happen when your touchdown-to-interception differential is 27-to-2. Pierre Garcon of Washington led the league with 113 receptions, and Robert Mathis of the Colts edged Robert Quinn of the Rams for the sack title, 19.5-19.
• Houston won the first pick in the draft by losing its 14th straight. GM Rick Smith was on hand to see the best game of Teddy Bridgewater’s college life Saturday night in Orlando. Owner Bob McNair will be in the house Wednesday to see Jadeveon Clowney play Wisconsin. The Texans might even find time to hire Bill O’Brien this week to spearhead the revival of the franchise.
• Peyton Manning finished his assault on history. He broke the record for passing yards in a season (5,477) by a single yard over Drew Brees, and extended his record for touchdown passes in a season to 55 with a four-TD first half at Oakland. He’ll need 18 touchdown passes next season, at 38, to pass Brett Favre’s career-TD record of 508. As one of my Twitter followers wrote, “So, Week 2?”
• Déjà vu all over again. Every one of the wild-card games is a rematch from playoff games past. Kansas City at Indianapolis (previous playoff meetings: 1995, 2003, 2006 seasons) and New Orleans at Philadelphia (1992, 2006) are the Saturday games; San Diego at Cincinnati (Freezer Bowl in Cincinnati, 1981) and San Francisco at Green Bay (1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2012) will play Sunday.
On with the show.
* * *
Aaron Rodgers is grateful for Pat McKenzie.
When the game for the NFC North championship was over Sunday at Soldier Field, and when the Packers—who won only twice in the two months Aaron Rodgers was missing with his broken collarbone—were back in their locker room after a 33-28 victory helped rescued by Rodgers, he found team physician Pat McKenzie in the din of a happy place.
Rodgers bearhugged McKenzie.
“I’ll keep what was said between us,” he told me. “But I will say it was a good moment. I have so much respect for that man.”
Waitwhat? Rodgers broke the collarbone Nov. 4 against Chicago, and for the past month, every week in Green Bay has been full of wonder over whether McKenzie, the Packers’ team physician, would clear Rodgers to return to play. No clearance in Week 13. None in Week 14, None in Week 15. None in Week 16. As time went on, you could see the frustration in coach Mike McCarthy, and you could practically hear the grinding of the teeth when Rodgers would make his public pronouncements. The season was slipping away, and Rodgers wanted to play. Though Rodgers said most of the right things in front of the cameras, there were whispers that he thought McKenzie was being too cautious with him.
For years, players have thought team doctors worked for the team first and the player a distant second. That’s what was at the core of the head-trauma case that the NFL and former players settled for $765 million last summer—the assertion that doctors and teams were putting players back into the game for years when they knew there was some danger in doing so. And so here was McKenzie doing what players have wanted for years—a doctor putting the player first and the team second—and he felt the pressure from inside and outside the organization (and from Rodgers’ teammates, subtly) to put the savior back on the field.
“Pat and I are really close,” Rodgers said, “and now I respect him even more, after we went through this. Sometimes, doctors need to step up and save players from themselves, and I felt that’s what Pat did in this case. I felt every week he was doing what was in my best interests, even thought I didn’t agree with him all the time—not at all. All the time, we were looking at the same stuff on the scans [the MRI results and X-rays], and he was saying what had to be said. It wasn’t easy, but I can tell you, it paid off today.”
It paid off because Rodgers wasn’t in pain during the game, he said. “I felt really good,” he said. “I never took any big shots all day.” He was sacked three times, but never a shot that landed him on the area that was hurt 48 days earlier. The game was an odd one for Rodgers, because though he wasn’t rusty and didn’t feel that way, he made two uncharacteristic throws in the first 16 minutes that were intercepted and threatened to put Green Bay too far behind. “Poor decisions,” he said. “But I expect to play better as we go along—and I’ll have to this weekend. But as the game went along, I felt good, and I really got into a rhythm.” It helped that running backs James Starks and Eddie Lacy were so effective (68 of 80 yards on a third-quarter scoring drive came on the ground), and Rodgers didn’t have to do everything himself.
Down 28-20 early in the fourth quarter, Rodgers hit three of three on the first touchdown drive of the quarter. With 6:24 left, he took the ball at his 13, down 28-27, knowing that with Matt Forte having a big day on the other side, this might be his last chance; Chicago could eat a lot of clock with Forte moving the sticks. Packers coach Mike McCarthy clearly was not willing to take a chance at giving the ball back to the Bears. He went for it on 4th-and-1 from the Packers 23 and again on 4th-and-1 from the Green Bay 44. Fullback John Kuhn converted the first one, barely, and Rodgers hit Jordy Nelson for six at the two-minute warning on the second. But Rodgers missed two throws downfield, close calls; the first was an underthrow to an open Andrew Quarless, and the second, on 3rd-and-8 with 51 seconds left, was a throw behind Jordy Nelson, also open in the middle of the field. Uncharacteristic misses by a man playing a high-pressure game for the first time in seven weeks.
Last chance: 4th-and-8 at the Bears 48. Rodgers didn’t expect what he got. He had three receivers to the left and one to the right—and the Bears decided to blitz heavy. Three extra men coming. “They rushed seven,” he said. “I was going to Jordy right away, but all that changed when they brought seven.” As Julius Peppers steamed in, unblocked by a lineman, from Rodgers’ left, Kuhn dove at him to try to save the sack. Good move. Rodgers spun out of it and Peppers just got one hand on him. The Bears clearly were trying to stop the short completion, stop the Packers from converting, and safety Chris Conte sat near the first-down line, the Bears 40, stunned to see Randall Cobb—in his first game back, too, after rehabbing a broken leg—streak past him.
“I just wanted to be sure I didn’t underthrow him,” Rodgers said.
He didn’t. Good throw. Touchdown. One of the biggest of Rodgers’ life.
“If I don’t get that block from John … ” he said. [You can read more about the block, and the play, later today from The MMQB's Greg Bedard, who was at the game for us.]
“I guess this is what the league wanted when they started scheduling all those divisional games for the last week of the season, right?” Rodgers said.
And so now 12-4 San Francisco comes to 8-7-1 Green Bay for a late Sunday afternoon game. The long-range forecast is for snow showers Saturday and a wind chill of between zero and 5 degrees at kickoff Sunday. “They’re saying maybe six inches of snow,” Rodgers said. The California kid sounded happy.