GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers remembers. He remembers seeing his friend get his hopes up each week, and he remembers the disappointment in his face every time it didn’t happen for him.
A year ago, the Green Bay Packers quarterback watched as veteran safety Charles Woodson tried to come back from a broken right collarbone he’d suffered in October. At age 36, with his career dissipation light beginning to flicker more rapidly, Woodson knew time was a-wasting. He also got the sneaking feeling that, with a hefty 2013 salary on the books, there was a good chance he wouldn’t be back if he didn’t get back on the field.
And yet, each week, Woodson would be examined by team physician Dr. Pat McKenzie. Each week, they’d do a scan of his collarbone. Each week, he tried to press the issue. And each week, Woodson failed to get the all-clear. (Woodson broke his left collarbone during Super Bowl XLV, and this injury wasn’t considered as severe as that one.)
“I wanted to come back Week 12, 13, 14, but the scans never gave us that confidence,” Woodson said last week in an interview on the NFL Network. “So I didn’t come back until the playoffs.”
A year later, the Packers have been living without their quarterback and leader on offense instead of their defensive stalwart. Thanks to a 1-4-1 record while Rodgers has been sidelined by the fractured left collarbone he suffered against Chicago on Nov. 4 – two weeks further into the season than Woodson’s injury – the Packers arrive at Week 15 of the NFL schedule at 6-6-1, a half-game behind NFC North co-leaders Detroit and Chicago at 7-6. Unlike last year, the playoffs are no sure thing.
With a critical game at Dallas looming Sunday afternoon, Rodgers doesn’t sound particularly optimistic about gaining medical clearance to play. His tone throughout his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN in Milwaukee, 100.5 ESPN in Madison and ESPNWisconsin.com Tuesday afternoon was as downtrodden as it has been since the injury.
Perhaps that’s because he sees his timeline looking more and more like the one his old friend endured last season. Woodson’s initial diagnosis had been that he’d miss six weeks; he ended up missing 10. Rodgers has now missed five.
“Charles and I are very close, and I saw the frustration in his face every week when he wanted to be out there,” Rodgers said Tuesday. “He obviously does a lot more tackling and hitting than I’d be doing, but it was frustrating for him to not be out there with the guys. But we had the playoffs to look forward to with him coming back. We are at a different place going into Week 15 than we were last year.”
That they are. Without Woodson, who missed nine games with the injury, the Packers still went 11-5 and won the NFC North title. Woodson returned for the team’s NFC Wild Card Playoff victory over Minnesota, but the team’s postseason run ended the following Saturday night with a dispiriting loss at San Francisco in the divisional round.
This year, the Packers are on the outskirts of the playoff picture. They can still win the NFC North, but even coach Mike McCarthy acknowledged after the team’s embarrassing Thanksgiving Day loss to Detroit that winning out in the final four weeks was the only way to reach the postseason.
Based on what Rodgers said Tuesday – that he experienced unexpected pain last week during practice while doing simple drills, and that last week’s CT scan did not show as much healing as he and McKenzie had hoped – he will be hard-pressed to be cleared in time for the Cowboys.
Rodgers will practice again on Wednesday, hoping for different results.
“I’m going to practice tomorrow and try to do some of the things I did last week without pain, see how my body responds to it on Thursday and take it from there,” Rodgers said on Tuesday. “There’s a lot of variables in this – with the scan being one of them.
“The scan last week did not show [as much] healing... like we wanted to. That, paired with the pain I experienced in practice, kept me out of the game. We would need a different results and different responses in order to go this week.”
Rodgers didn’t want to entertain the possibility that he won’t show enough progress over the final three weeks of the season to be cleared to play again this year.
“I'm going to live in the day-to-day and focus on this week,” Rodgers said. “Hopefully I'll respond the right way, the scan is going to look better and I can get back out there with the guys.
“It’s a waiting game. I was trying to push and come back before science tells you is even possible. I don’t think you’re seeing anybody coming back at four or five weeks from this type of injury to do some of things I’d like to do back on the field. But it’s tough to not be out there with the guys.”
And that’s exactly how Woodson felt as he continued to wait. Woodson, who in the same NFL Network interview advocated that the Packers shut Rodgers down if they’re out of the playoff hunt before he returns, spoke during the playoffs last year about how difficult sitting out was. As excruciating as the pain in his collarbone had been, it hurt him even more not to play.
“Let me tell you something, man: That’s the hardest thing for a guy like myself – to sit on the sideline and watch your team play. Win or lose, it’s hard to watch,” Woodson said. “(Being the) locker-room leader is great, it’s a great title to have, but that ain’t who I am. I’m a football player. I want guys to feel me on the field between the lines. For guys to speak of me in that way, man, I’ll tell you, it’s very humbling. But I’m a football player and I need to be out there.
“To watch your guys suit up in the locker room every Sunday, put the pads on, put their cleats on, everybody’s amped up and ready to go play and you’re sitting there – you want to be a part of it but you just don’t feel a part of it. It’s hard not being able to suit up.”
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.