Bright and early on the day after Christmas, Mike McCarthy broke the news. The team meeting started at 8:05 Thursday morning, and that’s when the Green Bay Packers coach told all of his players what they’d been waiting weeks to hear.
Aaron Rodgers is back.
That’s how the offensive linemen found out they’d be blocking for him again. That’s how wide receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones found out he’d be throwing them the ball again.
And that’s how the quarterback found out he’d be the quarterback again.
“I found out when the team did,” Rodgers told a throng of reporters at his locker after McCarthy made the announcement public in his normal post-practice press briefing – which just happened to be carried live on ESPN and NFL Network. “We were sitting in the team room and he told us. That was the scene.”
And so, almost two months after sustaining a spiral fracture of his left (non-throwing) collarbone on Nov. 4, Rodgers will return against the Chicago Bears, the very team that knocked him out to begin with. He will do so after the longest layoff of his career as a starter – when the Packers and Bears kick off at Soldier Field Sunday, it’ll have been seven weeks and six days since Chicago defensive end Shea McClellin sacked him into the Lambeau Field turf – with as much riding on the game as is possible in the regular season: The winner will earn the NFC North division title and first-round home playoff game. The loser’s season will be over.
“I'm excited to be back with the team,” said Rodgers, who seemed to be experiencing a mix of relief, joy and anticipation about getting the go-ahead to play. “I mean, this is a fun day for me, but I think the focus needs to be on this game and the opportunity we have.
“This is the first round of the playoffs for us. [We] have the opportunity to achieve our first goal, which is the division every year. That means you get to host a home playoff game – regardless of your record. Obviously, it's right in front of us. It's crystal clear. It's Chicago at Chicago with a chance to win a division.”
There were times when such a scenario appeared far-fetched. Including the 27-20 loss to the Bears on the night Rodgers went down at the end of the Packers’ first offensive series, the Packers went 0-4-1 in their first five games without Rodgers, until Matt Flynn led them to back-to-back come-from-behind victories over the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys. They overcame an 11-point halftime deficit against the Falcons and a 23-point halftime deficit – tied for the largest in the team’s 93-year history – to beat the Cowboys.
Now, the leader of the Pack is back, with nothing but opportunity in front of them.
“To be honest with you, I feel good for Aaron. I don’t think people realize the stress he’s been under,” McCarthy said. “He’s been on board with playing for quite some time now. We were holding him out of the game, and that’s tough. That’s a tough thing to go through. It’s the first time I’ve ever been through it, especially at this extent. Especially with Aaron Rodgers – we’re talking about the best player in football, and just to see what he had to go through.”
McCarthy was unwilling to discuss the timeline or process by which the Packers reached their decision to allow Rodgers to play, but he did say that “our goal” had been to announce to the team on Tuesday that Rodgers would start.
“That did not happen,” McCarthy said. Asked about the timeline, McCarthy said: “There was a lot of discussion. I think anybody that knows our history, the people involved in those discussions, clearly understands that it was going to be talked about it, talked about again, talked about it over again, and so forth. That’s why we’ve taken the time to get to this decision.”
That decision crystallized after McCarthy, general manager Ted Thompson and team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie took the Christmas holiday – McCarthy altered the week’s schedule to allow all the players, coaches and staff to have the day off to spend with their families – to contemplate Rodgers’ fate. Then came the announcement at the team meeting, because McCarthy wanted his players to learn the news from him and not on SportsCenter or the Internet.
Although neither McCarthy nor Rodgers used the phrase medically cleared during their meetings with the media Thursday, Packers spokesman Jason Wahlers said Rodgers was cleared by Thompson, McCarthy and McKenzie and called it a “unified decision.”
McCarthy said Rodgers had been willing to accept the risk of playing for the past three weeks or so. Asked if there was minimal risk for Rodgers to play even if the collarbone isn’t completely healed, McCarthy replied, “Every football player that plays in this game Sunday will have risk. I think we all understand that. So we’ve done our due diligence, we’ve gone through all the evaluations and we feel it is time. Aaron is ready to play.”
And his teammates are ready to have him back.
“It’s great to have him back. Obviously you want to get your best players on the field when it comes down to crunch time, and that’s where we’re at,” Nelson said. “It’s great to have him back. Just by him being on the field, it’s not going to automatically give us a win. Everyone needs to go out and play good football – him included – and we’ll try to make some plays when we can.”
Added Jones, who made it clear that there were no loud cheers in the meeting room when McCarthy made the announcement: “It's huge. He's the $100 million man for a reason. He's probably the most important guy on this team, so we're glad to have him back.
“Every game we go into, we expect to win no matter who runs out there, no matter what may happen. We expect to win. Does it help you out when you get you best player back? Yeah, but every game we expect to win no matter who runs out there. So we feel good about our chances.”
Rodgers called the seven-week layoff “a tough, tough period” and acknowledged he had been “hopeful” week after week, only to have those hopes dashed. But he also said it was “a great learning experience.”
“Every time you’re faced with some adversity, I think you really take something away from that, and for me it was to be able to step back and look at the team from a different perspective,” Rodgers said. “It’s tough not to be out there with the guys, but I think you learn a lot through the process. You find new ways to lead, you realize how important your attitude and your enthusiasm and the energy you bring to practice can be to the guys.
“I know they’re excited about my return, but I think that the way they believe in me and the expectations they have in me, I have the same ones for them. I believe in them and have expectations that they’re going to play well. My coming back doesn’t mask over any of that, or doesn’t alleviate pressure on the guys. I think the pressure that we put on ourselves, we can harness at this point and see how good we can really be.”
McCarthy, too, emphasized that while Rodgers’ return certainly delivers a lift to the team, he alone will not decide the game.
“This is a football game – we’re not putting this all on Aaron’s shoulders,” said McCarthy, who may or may not have been aware of the pun. “We’ve got to play a good defense, we’ve got to play a good offense, we’ve got to play a good special teams. Coaches have to keep players making the right plays and make the adjustments that are needed.