“Next man up” is the NFL’s familiar refrain after an injury.
That’s easy enough to say when it’s a man. Not so much when it’s the man.
The Green Bay Packers, who had been making the case for a team that could play deep into January, now face an uncertain future with Aaron Rodgers out indefinitely with a broken collarbone. The Packers were quick to say that the two-time MVP hasn’t been ruled out for the season after the hard hit Sunday by Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr, saying that Rodgers “might” still return.
There were hopeful references to 2013, when he came back for the regular-season finale after missing seven games with another broken collarbone. But that was near his non-throwing shoulder, not the one that has created so much magic.
“Everything,” receiver Jordy Nelson, who is not only one of Rodgers’ favorite targets but one of his closest friends, said flatly when asked what the injury means to the Packers.
“He’s our leader, he’s our quarterback. He’s a great person on and off the field. He’s a great guy in the locker room with the old guys and the young guys.
“He’s the best quarterback in the league.”
The Packers have weathered injuries up and down the lineup already this season. This was the first time the entire starting offensive line was active after tackles David Bakhtiari (hamstring) and Bryan Bulaga (ankle) were hurt sidelined early in the year. Both were knocked out of Sunday’s game, as was left guard Lane Taylor.
Randall Cobb missed a game last month with a chest injury, and Ty Montgomery was playing with a flak jacket Sunday because of broken ribs. The secondary began the day down two starters and lost backup cornerback Quinten Rollins by halftime.
But none of those injuries is as devastating as losing Rodgers. Heck, all of them combined aren’t as devastating as losing Rodgers, whose ability to conjure scoring drives out of thin air and an even thinner roster is unmatched.
Despite playing behind that patchwork line — the Packers started four guards against the Chicago Bears on Sept. 28 — Rodgers was having one of his finest seasons. He began the week leading the league in touchdowns (13), ranks in the top 10 in completion percentage (66.7%) and again has a passer rating better than 100.
Those numbers tell only part of the story, though.
Of the Packers’ four wins, two were thanks to Rodgers’ late-game heroics. He rallied Green Bay from 14 down at the half against the Cincinnati Bengals, tying the game with 21 seconds left on a 3-yard pass to Jordy Nelson that was so ridiculously precise, geometry teachers across Wisconsin can use it in their lesson plans. Last weekend, he needed just 62 seconds to crush the spirits of the Dallas Cowboys, setting up the go-ahead TD with an 18-yard scramble.
Since Rodgers replaced Brett Favre in 2008, the Packers are 94-46 with him as their starting quarterback.
They are 3-6-1 without him.
“Everyone knows the presence (Rodgers) brings to the football field,” Bakhtiari said. “His IQ, his athleticism, his arm. But football isn’t one player.”
Indeed, the Packers are high on backup Brett Hundley, and coach Mike McCarthy was emphatic in shutting down all the internet GMs who noted that Wisconsin-born Colin Kaepernick remains available.
“Brett Hundley and Joe Callahan are my quarterbacks,” McCarthy said. “That is what I am focused on. I am not here for any personnel comments or ideas.”
That shouldn’t come as any big surprise, given that the Packers are a “grow your own” franchise. They’ve carefully groomed Hundley since drafting him in 2015, just as they once did Rodgers. In the preseason, it was Hundley who got most of the reps.
But there’s a big difference between exhibition games and the real thing, and it showed in Sunday’s 23-10 loss. Though Hundley made a nice throw to Davante Adams for a touchdown, stepping up in the pocket as it looked to be collapsing around him, he also threw three interceptions — one coming on his first throw. He was sacked four times.
“I understand that Aaron Rodgers going down is a huge blow to our team,” defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois said. “But you have to remember that Aaron was sitting behind another quarterback once.”
Hundley will get better with more practice reps with the first team, not to mention a game plan tailored to his strengths. He’ll also have a future Hall of Famer for a tutor. He and Rodgers are tight — it was Hundley who went to give Rodgers a high-five as he was being carted off, and Rodgers raising his left arm in return was the first sign of how serious the injury was. But it’s also in Rodgers’ best interest for Hundley to play well if there’s any chance he can return.
Two of Green Bay’s 10 remaining games are against the Cleveland Browns and Bears, with two more are against the fading Detroit Lions. If the Packers can get their key guys healthy, and Hundley plays well enough to tread water, Rodgers could pull off the ultimate in last-gasp heroics.
That’s a long way off and a lot of ifs, however. Right now, the news is as bad as it could possibly be for Green Bay.
By Nancy Armour
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.