Packers caution Rodgers' return doesn't mean sure victory

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By Tom Silverstein
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Thursday, December 26, 2013

GREEN BAY--All is right in the Green Bay Packers universe now.

After a month of teeth gnashing, hand-wringing and fist-biting that left many a follower of the green and gold unable to take it anymore, word came down Thursday afternoon that Aaron Rodgers is back.

Back as in medically cleared. As in practicing with the No. 1 offense. As in penciled in at starting quarterback for the winner-take-all NFC North meeting with the Chicago Bears at 3:25 p.m. Sunday at Soldier Field.

Rodgers got the good news Tuesday that general manager Ted Thompson and team physician Patrick McKenzie had signed off on his return from a broken left collarbone. Coach Mike McCarthy then held onto the news through the day off Wednesday and broke it to the team Thursday morning.

“It’s been a difficult process for me, thinking I was going to have a chance every week and then obviously the medical decision based on what we saw, and then the organization with the ultimate call,” Rodgers said after practice Thursday. “I was hopeful that this opportunity would come up, but I know there’s no guarantees in this business.”

Indeed, there aren’t.

So, while the fan base raises its expectations for the Packers season, McCarthy has to make sure that his team doesn’t adopt an attitude that Rodgers’ return guarantees a victory over the Bears and entrance into the postseason. He was encouraged that his announcement of Rodgers’ return during a team meeting didn’t break into a Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration.

“It was business as usual,” McCarthy said. “We’re focused on, this is a football game—we’re not putting this all on Aaron’s shoulders.”

The Packers went 2-5-1 in Rodgers’ absence, falling from 5-2 to 7-7-1. Only a Bears loss to the Philadelphia Eagles last Sunday prevented the Packers from being eliminated before Rodgers had a chance to have a final say in the division.

As Rodgers took the snaps with the No. 1 offense Thursday wearing what appeared to be added padding on his left shoulder, those around him accepted the challenge that they have to keep him from getting hit and turn whatever misfires occur into spectacular catches.

They need those things to happen organically.

“We’re not just going to be handed the game because he’s playing,” guard T.J. Lang said. “It’s a tough game no matter who’s back there. Obviously, he’s a playmaker, a difference-maker, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us can slide.

“Everybody has to do their part. He’s a leader, the best player we’ve got. But it’s not time to relax. It’s a playoff game for us.”

McCarthy and Rodgers offered no detail as to why the organization changed its mind five days after the quarterback was informed he would not be cleared to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Rodgers said on Tuesday that he underwent a scan on his collarbone and it’s possible enough healing took place to appease Thompson and McKenzie.

Or it’s possible the reward part of the risk-reward equation finally swung to a place where everyone was comfortable. McCarthy said Rodgers has accepted the risk part—landing on the shoulder and suffering a displaced fracture is one—ever since he started practicing three weeks ago.

“Every football player that plays in this game Sunday will have risk, and I think we all understand that,” he said. “We’ve done our due diligence, we’ve gone through all the evaluations, and we feel it’s time for Aaron is ready to play.”

McCarthy said that the coaches did not know whether they had a chance for the playoffs, or if Rodgers was going to play when they drew up the game plan on Monday. It wasn’t until Tuesday, after the Bears lost to set up the showdown Sunday and Rodgers was given clearance, that they began making alterations.

Aside from the physical attributes, the biggest difference between Rodgers and backup Matt Flynn is the play-calling ability at the line of scrimmage. The offense was designed for Rodgers to get the Packers into the best possible play based on what the defense is playing and this season he had more control than ever before.

As a midseason addition, Flynn did not have the experience to handle that load.

“Aaron just knows everything so well; he can get us into the best situation possible,” guard Josh Sitton said. “He can make plays with his feet. He can make throws that most quarterbacks in this league can’t make.

“If you look at some of his throws, it’s like, ‘Where the hell is he throwing the ball?’ and it’s a catch somehow. He’s a special player and we’re happy to have him back.”

The emergence of running back Eddie Lacy has kept the offense churning, but the trio of Flynn, Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien combined for just eight touchdown passes in eight games, roughly half of what Rodgers (15) had thrown in the first eight. The team had dropped from No. 3 in scoring to No. 9.

What’s more, Flynn could not stretch the field with deep throws because of a lack of arm strength and teams were making it tougher for Lacy to find holes.

Flynn did enough against Atlanta and Dallas—two teams with defenses ranked in the bottom five—to keep the Packers alive, but when it came to beating the Steelers and their 14th-ranked defense, he struggled.

In comes Rodgers to face the Bears’ 29th-ranked defense (32nd against the run) and the expectation is that he can make them pay for whatever attention they plan to pay to Lacy. The only question is whether Rodgers can return to form after two months of game inactivity.

“I’d like to think so,” Rodgers said. “But, you know, I’m sure if I miss a pass, that it’s because I’m rusty, or if I hit one it’s going to be a big deal or something.

“But it’s about preparation for me and going through the practice reps like I did today and tomorrow, and getting ready to play.”

The practice time Rodgers was able to get and McCarthy squeezed in while trying to get Flynn ready the past three weeks may pay off. If Rodgers were coming into this game with just two days of work and none of the individual drills aimed to improving footwork and timing, odds are he would have struggled early.

He still might struggle, but that is all part of coming back from an injury.

“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “He’s been out awhile and he has a lot of experience to draw on practicing. It’s not like he hasn’t been doing anything. He’s been practicing.

“Obviously, a game is different from practice, but I’m sure he’ll adjust accordingly.”

Just like expectations now that he’s back.

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