GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers has been cleared to return from a left collarbone injury, just in time to start Sunday for the Packers against the Chicago Bears in a game to decide the NFC North title.
With no advance warning and little fanfare, the franchise quarterback received the long-awaited good news at the same time as the rest of his teammates Thursday.
“This is a fun day for me, but I think the focus needs to be on this game and the opportunity we have to win the division,” Rodgers said.
Soon enough. But the spotlight for now is squarely on the return of one of the NFL’s most irreplaceable players.
Green Bay (7-7-1) is 2-5-1 since Rodgers went down during the first series of a 27-20 loss Nov. 4 to Chicago. The Packers have managed to hang on, with a shot to win a third straight division title with a victory Sunday at Soldier Field.
“I’ll start with the announcement that we’re preparing for the Chicago Bears with Aaron Rodgers as our starting quarterback,” coach Mike McCarthy told reporters Thursday after practice.
Win and Green Bay returns to Lambeau Field the following weekend to host a wild-card team in the first round of the playoffs.
“We’re in it. You know we have a chance against our rivals, and what a better way than to go down there and get some redemption and host a home playoff game,” Rodgers said.
The last two months have been filled with angst for Packers fans. Discussions about whether Rodgers should risk future injury or return to bolster Green Bay’s playoff chances have filled sports talk radio shows and holiday office parties.
Now imagine what it was like for the Packers’ brass and team doctor. The organization made a big investment in Rodgers this past offseason, signing him to a five-year contract extension through the 2019 season worth as much as $110 million.
“Every football player that plays in this game Sunday will have risk. I think we all understand that,” McCarthy said. “So we’ve done our due diligence. We’ve gone through all the evaluations and we feel it is time. Aaron is ready to play.”
Finally at 8:05 a.m. Thursday, McCarthy gave the official word at a team meeting. No rousing speeches or rounds of applause.
“The scene? We were sitting in the team room and he told us,” Rodgers said matter-of-factly. “That was the scene.”
Rodgers is returning just when pass-rushing linebacker Clay Matthews is leaving the lineup again with a right thumb injury. Green Bay also has gone the majority of the season without tight end Jermichael Finley (neck). Projected starting left tackle Bryan Bulaga went down in training camp. Defensive end Johnny Jolly (shoulder/neck) was the latest Packer to get knocked out for the year last week.
Still, the Packers managed to start 5-2 despite the injuries with Rodgers leading the offense.
Things changed drastically after the 2011 NFL MVP got hurt on a sack while scrambling out of the pocket in the Week 9 loss to Chicago at Lambeau Field. The Packers went on a five-game winless skid, shuffling through three more starting quarterbacks.
Green Bay then won two straight with backup Matt Flynn before falling 38-31 last week to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Losses by Chicago and the Detroit Lions set up the winner-take-all finale Sunday with the Bears for the division.
Rodgers’ impending return wasn’t the only good injury news Thursday in Titletown.
Rookie running back Eddie Lacy was held out of practice with a lingering ankle injury, though McCarthy expects his 1,100-yard rusher to play Sunday. Playmaking receiver Randall Cobb, out since Week 6 with a leg injury, is moving well in practice and appears to be getting closer to returning.
While he won’t make the final call, Cobb said “This week in practice I’m going out and preparing to play.”
And now with Rodgers back, positive vibes are reverberating through the locker room.
Rodgers has gained added perspective from having to watch from the sideline with a headset. He’s been there to help Flynn. He understands that every move he makes in Chicago will be dissected by armchair quarterbacks.
“It’s easy to talk about it with you guys and understand the risks,” he said. “But when you’re out on the field, it’s about performing and playing and not worrying about it.”