EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – 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 mind reader 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 enough to potenially know the answer to that. 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."
It might be over without him.
“I can’t speak for him. But I’ve seen him in there (in the training room) doing everything he can to get back," Matthews continued. "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, meanwhile, carpool to the airport for every road game. Their conversations down U.S. Highway 41 seldom circle back to football, but Nelson, who missed four games last season with a hamstring injury, and his quarterback have had the talk before. They know that team physician Patrick 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 their injuries and some obvious flaws. 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 (Bryan Bulaga) in training camp, its top wide receiver (Randall Cobb) to a broken leg in Baltimore and its emerging tight end (Jermichael Finley) 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.”
And Tolzien made three of them, as three of those 10 passes he failed to complete were interceptions – including the momentum-turning, back-breaking play of the game: Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul’s leaping interception at the line of scrimmage, which he returned 24 yards for a touchdown.
“Honestly, I called it before it even happened, in the huddle. And sure enough, that was the play,” said Pierre-Paul, who’d been listed as questionable with a shoulder injury. “I read the formation, the tight end, how he was set. And I caught the ball.
“As soon as I caught it, I knew it was a touchdown. I’m not a receiver or anything, but I knew it was a touchdown.”
Now, it’s hard to fault a guy who started the season on the practice squad and who’d never thrown a regular-season NFL pass before last week for not being perfect in his first NFL start. But the stark reality is this: Rodgers threw four interceptions in the first seven-plus games this year and has eight career multi-interception games in 86 regular-season starts (93 games). Tolzien has thrown five interceptions – three Sunday and two in last week’s loss to the Eagles – in the past eight days. And while Rodgers has thrown one career pick-six, both Flynn in 2010 and Tolzien on Sunday did it in their first NFL starts.
“The first thing you do after a game like this is you evaluate yourself. And (I had) three turnovers. That’s the bottom line,” said Tolzien, who took over for an injured Seneca Wallace last week after one series. “Those are killers. The guys work too hard, and that’s on me -- completely.
“My job is to control what I can control. I’m not here to say I should or shouldn’t play. It’s my job first and foremost to take care of the football. Guys work their tails off, and that’s Football 101. From the time you’re playing youth ball to every level, that’s the starting point for a quarterback. I did not do that today, and you’ve got learn from it. Saying it’s one thing. You’ve got to learn from it – truthfully.”
Truth be told, the Packers’ problems run deeper than just the quarterback position. For the third straight week, the defense didn’t get it done. Yes, the unit was playing without cornerbacks Sam Shields, a surprise inactive just before game-time with a hamstring injury that had cropped up on Friday, and Casey Hayward, who last week reinjured the hamstring that has plagued him since before training camp. And yes, the only other outside linebackers available beyond Matthews were green rookie sixth-round pick Nate Palmer and inconsistent ex-defensive end Mike Neal.
But even so, a defense whose calling-card had been its propensity for takeaways managed just one against the NFL’s most-intercepted quarterback in Eli Manning, whereas Pierre-Paul essentially won the game with his play.
The Packers had pulled to within 20-13 on Lacy’s not-to-be-denied 4-yard touchdown run with 12 minutes, 43 seconds left in the game, and then the other two phases did their jobs. Kicker Mason Crosby and the kickoff coverage team stopped returner Michael Cox at the 19-yard line. Then the defense, for the first time all day, forced a three-and-out by sacking Manning twice in a three-play span – for a 9-yard loss by Brad Jones and for a 7-yard loss by Matthews. Even after Davon House’s illegal block penalty on the punt cost them 10 yards, the Packers still had the ball at their own 30-yard line with 10:55 to go.
Then, Pierre-Paul made his play. He saw Andrew Quarless run a quick drag route to the left, held back on his rush against left tackle David Bakhtiari, snatched the ball out of the air and ran untouched to the end zone.
“As a defense, we definitely need to do that. You saw how that can change the course of a game,” Hawk said. “We had the momentum at the time, and that’s a huge play. You have to give them credit. But defensively, we need to start doing stuff like that.
“It is on us. Not just because Scott’s in; it’s just how it should be. Coach always wants to talk about us being a defensive team, and our offense puts up such crazy numbers and points that it’s hard to look at us like that. And, we haven’t been playing that well as a defense lately. So yeah, it’s tough to come in here and try to talk about the answers and what we can do. In the end, it’s still just talk. We have to do it.”
For his part, Tolzien took the full blame, saying Pierre-Paul “made a nice play” but that he “gave him a freebie there. That’s a huge momentum swing. We had a chance, and that kills you.”
Nevertheless, the Packers aren’t dead yet. They still have three division games left – against the Vikings (2-8) at home next Sunday, at Detroit for a Nov. 28 Thanksgiving Day showdown with the Lions (6-4), and the Dec. 29 regular-season finale at Chicago (6-4) – and winnable non-division games at home against the imploding Atlanta Falcons (2-8) and Pittsburgh Steelers (4-6) and a road game at Dallas (5-5). If the Giants, who started the season 0-6, can win four in a row, the Packers can win most of the games that remain.
Do they need Rodgers at quarterback to win those games? Will they have him at quarterback in those games? We shall see.
“I’ll just tell you this about this football team: This football team has a lot of character,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “Leadership has grown immensely; times like this are when you see it.
“I’m proud of the way they’re handling these challenges. Every year you go down a different road. This road has had a lot of things thrown at us so far, and I fully believe it’s only going to make us stronger.
“We need to get better. We’re not playing well enough to win right now. We recognize that. We know what the issues are. We don’t need stat sheets or opinions to attempt to knock us off our focus. I think this football team still has a chance to be special.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.