Aaron Rodgers trudged out of the visitors’ locker room at MetLife Stadium with his knit winter hat pulled low, his customary post-game PB&J sandwich in his right hand and his upper lip, mustachioed as it has been all month, stiff. He didn’t say a word, but he didn’t have to. The look on his face said plenty.
The only thing the Green Bay Packers quarterback hates more than losing is not having a chance to do something about it, and that was the case again Sunday. You didn’t have to be a mindreader to have a pretty good idea what he must’ve been thinking as he stood on the sideline watching his team’s 27-13 loss to the New York Giants unfold.
I need to get back out there.
That’s what has to be going through his mind. Right?
There are a handful of players who know Rodgers well. Jordy Nelson. A.J. Hawk. Matt Flynn. John Kuhn. Clay Matthews.
“I don’t know him,” Matthews said as he followed Rodgers out of the locker room. “He’s like Batman.”
But Matthews knows this much: Rodgers will spend his week trying to convince the Packers’ medical staff that he’s healthy enough to play next Sunday against Minnesota, that his broken left collarbone has sufficiently healed so he can play, perhaps with additional makeshift protection beneath his shoulder pad.
He may not win that argument, but he will make his case. The way Matthews, who missed four games with a broken thumb, figures it, Rodgers believes the Packers’ season depends on it – no disrespect to backup Scott Tolzien or his teammates.
“Listen: You know Aaron. You know how competitive he is. He’s like a linebacker playing quarterback. That’s just his competitive nature,” Matthews said as stadium workers bustled past him in the hallway outside the locker room. “It’s like me sitting out with a broken thumb. Just because I can’t play, it doesn’t make it any easier sitting on the sideline. I came back last week, and you saw that stump on my hand. It’s no different (in his mind).
“But we need to be a little smarter with him. Not just because of his title as a franchise quarterback, but the fact that it’s a tricky injury. I mean, you get hit once and go down once awkwardly and the season’s over.
“I can’t speak for him. But I’ve seen him in there (in the training room) doing everything he can to get back. And it’s tricky, because I’ve had these battles with the medical staff, too. You know your own body. And I’m pushing this with my thumb. I mean, I should still be in a club today. So I’m pushing it. It’s a battle. I have countless talks with these doctors, which I hate. It’s how I feel versus how they perceive that I feel. That’s how it is.
“The doctors, they need to protect the investments of the team and the players and what’s in their best interest, but as competitors, as athletes, we want to do everything we can to get on the field. But we have to be smart. I was 99 percent sure I wasn’t going to reinjure my thumb last week. But that possibility was there. He probably thinks the same thing. But there’s no cast you can put on your shoulder.
“I don’t know. I hope we get him back as soon as possible. Let’s just put it that way.”
Nelson and Rodgers carpool to the airport for every road game. Their conversations down U.S. 41 seldom circle back to football, but Nelson, who missed four games last season with a hamstring injury, have had the talk before. They know that team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie genuinely cares about his players, and often that means saying “No” when they think they’re ready to go.
So Nelson, who left the locker room a few steps behind Matthews, knows Rodgers will try, too.
“You want the MVP on the field. No matter what. And he told me after the game he got hurt that he was going to be back the following week. And I said, ‘Yeah, how many drugs are you on?’” Nelson said. “You do not want to be on the sideline – at all. (But) these are games that are very winnable, to be honest with you, with Scott or Aaron. Obviously there’s no doubt about Aaron. (But) Scott’s playing good football, especially given the situation he’s been put in.
“To me, that’s the most frustrating thing. These games have been winnable with the backup quarterbacks – and we haven’t done it. We haven’t done it. You can find something in all three phases of the game that affected us throughout the game and put us in tough situations.
“Dr. McKenzie is probably the most conservative doctor there is. So they’re going to be smart. There’s more to his career than this season. We need to get some wins to take some of the pressure off that. But I know whenever he thinks he can play, he’s going to play. And that’ll be up to him and the doctors to figure out when that is and what’s the correct thing to do.”
Perhaps the Packers (5-5) can beat the Minnesota Vikings (2-8) at Lambeau Field next Sunday without Rodgers. After all, they beat them in Minneapolis less than a month ago, 44-31, in a game that wasn’t that close.
“I think Scott can lead this team to get a victory. We've lost three in a row (but) it's not all on Scott by any means,” said wide receiver James Jones, another of Rodgers’ friends. “This is a team game. Everybody wants to look at the quarterback first. A lot of things go into it, though. Scott just needs to keep on doing what he's doing and we'll be OK."
When Rodgers went out at the end of the Packers’ first offensive series against Chicago on Nov. 4, the Packers had won four in a row and were looking like a legitimate Super Bowl XLVIII contender, despite the injuries they’d incurred and the flaws that they obviously had. Their running game was producing, their defense was doing enough to get the job done and Rodgers was orchestrating an offense that had lost its starting left tackle in training camp, its top wide receiver to a broken leg in Baltimore and its tight end to a career-threatening spinal cord injury against Cleveland.
Three losses later, the Packers are a .500 team and are on their longest losing streak since a five-game schneid in 2008, Rodgers’ first year as a starter. Since then and before this, the Packers had lost back-to-back games only three times: Once in 2009 and twice in 2010, the second of which came after Rodgers suffered a concussion at Detroit on Dec. 12, 2010. They lost that game and the next, at New England, despite a valiant effort by backup Matt Flynn.
On Sunday, Rodgers’ replacement, Scott Tolzien, again did what he could. He completed 24 of 34 passes for 339 yards. He had completions of 25, 45, 26, 25, 19, 18 and 52 yards against a defense that was hell-bent on stopping the run (Eddie Lacy and James Starks combined for 26 yards on 16 carries) and daring the Packers to pass with eight, even nine men in the box.
“We knew it was going to be tough going into it. They were going to have a lot of people in the box. But we tried the best we could,” said Lacy, who ran for 150 yards against the Bears but managed only 73 yards on 24 carries against the Eagles and only 27 yards on 14 carries on Sunday.
“Overall, (Tolzien) had a good day. Everybody makes mistakes.”