Could Green Bay survive an Aaron Rodgers injury?
GREEN BAY—You hear it all the time, even from those who regard themselves as wise in the ways of pro football.
I heard it again last week, from one of the sagest individuals in the state press corps.
It’s a simple yet pervasive line of thinking in the event that quarterback Aaron Rodgers should suffer an injury sidelining him for most if not all of the season.
The theory goes that it makes no difference what players might be behind Rodgers. If No. 12 goes down, all hope is lost—the Green Bay Packers would be finished.
Every coach, player and executive working at 1265 Lombardi Ave. should take that as a personal affront.
We’ve seen Mike McCarthy, Ted Thompson, their staffs and the players overcome more injuries in the last four seasons than any National Football League team. Time and time again they’ve lost key players only to plug in well-prepared backups and keep on winning.
They’ve never had to make do without possibly the finest player in the league. Losing Rodgers to major injury would be the nightmare of all nightmares. He makes everyone’s job easier.
Yet, no organization would be better equipped to handle it than Green Bay.
Fools will cry that I’m jinxing Rodgers and the Packers by writing about this.
What I’m doing is taking a close look at the disaster plan that the Packers have rehearsed countless times behind closed doors. Lack of preparation is inexcusable, and these people didn’t play the second half of the 45th Super Bowl without eight starters and still win by being unprepared.
Injury is the grimmest fact of life in the NFL. The Packers have been immune at quarterback for 21 years, but it doesn’t represent the unthinkable for them. They’re paid not just to meet catastrophe, but to conquer it.
Having spent much of the week researching the long career of No. 2 quarterback Seneca Wallace and the brief career of practice-squad quarterback Scott Tolzien, the guess here is that even if the Packers were to lose Rodgers early Monday night against the Chicago Bears they’d find ways to finish 11-5.
That probably would earn them one of the top three seedings in the NFC playoff field. Then Green Bay would be a tough out.
It’s hard not to be bullish on the Packers at the midpoint of the season. Playing by far the meat of their schedule, they’ve gone 5-2 despite another unending succession of injuries. With Rodgers, they figure to go 14-2, 13-3 or 12-4.
Each Labor Day weekend, it’s my assignment to rank the final 53 players not on how good they are but on their importance to the team. The perceived depth behind a player raises or lowers his ranking.
We’re seven games into the season and already two of the top three on that list, four of the top six and six of the top nine have missed games due to injury.
Impressive injury track record
The Packers fell apart defensively in the second half and lost at Cincinnati after No. 2 Clay Matthews was lost with a hamstring injury. Then, after he fractured his thumb in the next game, they had a week to adjust and have gone 3-0 without him.
Morgan Burnett, the No. 3 man on the list, had to sit out the first three weeks. No. 5 Eddie Lacy missed almost two full games. No. 6 Randall Cobb has been out for 2˝ games and could miss at least seven more.
Jermichael Finley, the No. 8 player, survived 5˝ games but now could be headed for injured reserve. No. 9 Brad Jones will return Monday night after sitting out 3˝ games.
No. 12 James Jones has been out almost three full games. No. 17 Nick Perry has missed 2˝. No. 23 Casey Hayward wasn’t able to make his debut until Game 7. No. 32 James Starks sat out three.
Neither Bryan Bulaga nor running back DuJuan Harris made the rankings because they were lost in August. Bulaga would have been in the top 15 and Harris was regarded as the starter by the coaches.
Matthews was indispensable, right? He’s as complete as any linebacker in the game. Burnett? He’s the only one capable of running the secondary.
Cobb? Such a big-play threat from the slot, the backfield and on returns. Finley? He was playing the best ball of his career. Brad Jones? He’s the club’s top cover linebacker and played 99% of the snaps in the first three games.
We’ve seen what happened. One after another, players procured by Thompson and his staff and developed by McCarthy and his staff elevated their games to levels no one on the outside could have seen coming.
It begs the question: Is anyone in Green Bay irreplaceable?
The Packers would much prefer not having to find that.
With so many new faces having proven their chops, one can sense that the level of confidence in that locker room is extremely high. As players return from injury there are intense competitive situations at position after position, which is precisely what coaches love seeing.
Should what some regard as a death knell strike at quarterback, the Packers would grieve, they’d cope and my feeling is they’d come together as an even more unified force.
Certainly, there is potential for a team to suffer some loss of hope without its leader and greatest player. As talented and committed as Rodgers is, and as rule changes increase the value of the quarterback position, the Packers are all but guaranteed no fewer than nine or 10 victories if he lines up 16 times.
I’d see it going the other way. This team is thinking Super Bowl all the way now, and to that end one could foresee a collective groundswell of emotion and effort with the express intention of proving the doomsayers wrong.
Injuries haven’t touched either line. Largely because of that, this team can run the ball and stop the run, maybe the best friends a backup quarterback can have.
Healthy for now, Lacy and Starks provide a rip-roaring 1-2 punch at running back that rivals the finest in the NFL.
Jarrett Boykin and Myles White are legitimate wide receivers, and there is sufficient talent at tight end to hold the fort without Finley.
On pace to score 485 points, the Packers with Rodgers have a chance to challenge their 2011 scoring record of 560.
The Packers are five-deep at cornerback, mitigating weaknesses at safety by filling the fourth spot in the dime. You could say six of the nine linebackers have played better than expected.
Overall, the kickers and special teams have been adequate.
Which brings us to Seneca Wallace, 33, whose career was on life support before the Packers beckoned him Sept. 2 to supplant Vince Young and B.J. Coleman as Rodgers’ backup.
It would be far from ideal. There was no quarterback school or training camp for Wallace in Green Bay, and all he gets in practice now is about 55% of the scout-team reps and a stray snap here and there with the No. 1s.
“He’s a great person,” said left tackle David Bakhtiari. “But he’s never really been in the huddle for a game so I don’t know how he’d react in a game situation.”
Plenty of experience
Wallace, however, does have 1,573 regular-season snaps under his belt. Most of them came in Seattle, where coach Mike Holmgren and Thompson drafted him in the fourth round in 2003 because they wanted Matt Hasselbeck’s backup to have an entirely different set of skills.
After backing up Hasselbeck and Trent Dilfer for two years, Wallace moved up to No. 2 in 2005 and then started 14 games for an injured Hasselbeck from 2006-’09.
He was traded to Cleveland in March 2010 for a seventh-round draft choice and given a $2 million signing bonus a year later. In two seasons for bad Browns teams, he started seven games.
Wallace’s 6-15 record as a starter includes an 11-10 record against the spread. Thirteen of the teams that he started against finished with winning records, and 10 made the playoffs. His team was favored five times in those 21 games.
His career passer ratings are 81.3 in the regular season and 78.3 in exhibition games. His rushing totals are 293 and 256 yards, respectively. A speedy, gifted athlete with excellent toughness, he played about 30 snaps at wide receiver and made six receptions.
Wallace stands 5 feet 11˝ inches and weighs 206.
“If you have (height) requirements you just move on from him,” Scot McCloughan, Seattle’s director of college scouting in 2003, said at the time. “But he’s a quarterback that’s a winner. Whatever it takes.”
The Seahawks saw Wallace pick up Holmgren’s complicated West Coast system after diligent application, throw better deep balls than Hasselbeck and consistently slip and slide to avoid rushers and run for first downs. He has a compact delivery, good snap on the ball and accuracy moving to his right.
Besides height, the reason scouts say Wallace was never handed a starting job was indecision and lack of patience in the pocket together with average overall accuracy.
“He was in a very similar offense to Green Bay’s for a long time,” one personnel man said. “I think that’s what Green Bay was counting on when they signed him.”
Scouts rate Wallace
Last week, two scouts for AFC teams were asked to judge Wallace against the 31 other No. 2 quarterbacks.
The first preferred Wallace to 19 backups, took five over him and rated seven as a tossup. The second favored Wallace over 15 and the other 16 over him.
“His arm isn’t bad,” the second scout said. “What hinders him is he’s not the tallest guy. But he can throw on the run and get out of trouble. I’d take him as a backup.”
Wallace, and Bakhtiari for that matter, seemed a little uncomfortable talking about life without Rodgers. Wallace didn’t sugar-coat the pitfalls of such a transition, but also expressed a quiet belief in himself.
“As a backup you need to feel you can go in and lead the team at any time the same way that 12 would lead the team,” said Wallace. “Would it be pretty? No, we knew it wouldn’t be pretty. There’s going to be some timing issues and things like that.
“But I know…guaranteed, 100%…as weeks went on and I had to play back-to-back games, it’d be a lot better.”
The Packers passed on Matt Flynn to keep preparing Wallace. After examining his résumé and listening to him review his career, I can see why.
If Aaron Rodgers weren’t available, the Packers possess the coaching, the personnel, the chemistry and the backup quarterback to win. Nothing would come easy, but by now this organization should be used to that.