GREEN BAY — If they can win enough games, if they can stay afloat long enough, the Green Bay Packers are still holding out hope that Aaron Rodgers can come back. Save the day. Lead them to the Super Bowl.
Now, the two-time NFL MVP isn’t about to risk re-injuring his surgically-repaired right collarbone and return to the lineup if his team is already out of playoff contention but if the Packers are still in the hunt, you know the ultra-competitive Rodgers will push his doctors and himself to play again in 2017. Even if they tell him no, he’ll be pleading his case that the reward outweighs the risk, just as he did four years ago, the last time this happened.
Of course, if the Packers play like they did in Sunday’s first game without him, a 26-17 loss to the New Orleans Saints at Lambeau Field, it will all be moot. Because knowing what it would take to win without him — a strong defense, a productive running game, smart coaching by Mike McCarthy and his staff, and new starting quarterback Brett Hundley making a few plays and fewer mistakes — the Packers didn’t check off nearly enough of those boxes to win without their transcendent star.
“I think obviously when ‘12’ goes out, he’s a Hall of Famer, he’s a once-in-a-lifetime player. And it sucks as an offense to lose a great quarterback like that,” Hundley said after completing just 12 of 25 passes for 87 yards with no touchdowns and one interception (39.9 rating). “But as a backup, I’ve been learning from him for three years.
“All I have to say is, don’t write us off. I think that’s the biggest thing. We’ve got to get better — and we will get better — but we’re not out (of it). Just because this game (was lost) and we’re 4-3 now, we still have everything in front of us. We’ve got our division games in front of us and we could still win the division and make the playoffs. And down the road, if Aaron is healthy and comes back and we’re still rolling, he’ll be available. But we’ve got to just win games and keep the season rolling.”
For now, the season is at a dead stop, as the Packers enter their bye week having fallen a game back of the Minnesota Vikings (5-2) in the NFC North and looking like a team that has little chance of winning without one of the NFL’s best players.
“We’ve got to win some games. We had an opportunity today and we missed out on it. We were in great position to get a win, and we didn’t do what we needed to do,” veteran wide receiver Randall Cobb said.
“We don’t really have time. Yeah, I understand it’s a long season, but we’ve got to win games. We’ve got to win. That’s all it’s about.”
Hundley did make some plays with his legs — a 14-yard touchdown run that gave the Packers a 14-7 halftime lead, and a 22-yard run later in the half — but throwing the ball, he did little to inspire confidence. He was uncomfortable throwing from inside the pocket and ineffective throwing from outside it.
Consequently, the Packers’ receiving numbers were anemic: Jordy Nelson had one catch for 13 yards, Davante Adams had two catches for 12 yards and Cobb had two catches for 14 yards.
“I didn’t play well enough and we didn’t score enough points to win the game,” Hundley said. “And that’s all that matters.”
It certainly appeared that McCarthy was either unwilling or uncomfortable putting too much on Hundley, a 2015 fifth-round pick. McCarthy said he was at fault, saying, “The in-the-pocket stuff, (Hundley) wasn’t comfortable. And frankly I was uncomfortable when I was probably calling some things. We’ve got to kind of find our way there. I need to do a much better job with him in the drop-back passing game. He tried to do a little too much.
“Our passing game, we can sit here and pick it apart all we want. … It was a challenge that I didn’t meet today. He didn’t get comfortable in the pocket, and that’s my responsibility. So I did a poor job coaching.”
Hundley said McCarthy’s approach with him in the passing game was “obviously running around. The emphasis was just making plays with my legs today. So that was pretty much, ‘1, 2, 3, and then get out and make something happen.’ That was a big emphasis on today.”
And according to Cobb, there were times when play-making opportunities were there in the passing game.
“It’s tough. It’s all about building chemistry with your quarterback when you’ve only had a week to do that. It’s going to be important for us to continue to build confidence in him to throw it to us in different situations,” Cobb said. “There were opportunities today. Jordy and Davante got on top all day; there were a few inside as well with myself. We just have to continue to build that chemistry with Brett.
Added veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga: “We just have to be better overall. I don’t expect us with the first time working together for Brett to throw up 50 points, but you know we definitely have to be more productive. I think everybody expects that and everybody wants that.”
Exacerbating the Packers’ problems was the defense, which came up with a pair of interceptions against Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the first half — the offense, predictably, went three-and-out after each of them — but fell apart during the second half. The Saints finished with 495 total yards, converted 4 of 7 third-down situations after halftime (and converted a fourth-down after one of those failures) and never punted in the second half.
“At halftime, you could have, against this team, easily have been down 14, 21 points. We were down seven and kind of looking at each other like, ‘Let’s go,’” said Saints coach Sean Payton, whose team has now won four straight. “We still have a lot of work ahead of us and very easily could’ve lost a game like this with some of the mistakes.”
Instead, that’s precisely what the Packers did.
“I’m particularly disgusted with the second half, and that’s something you have to take a hard look at, which we do each and every week. As a head coach when your team doesn’t perform and drops off the way it did in the second half … (you’re) disappointed,” McCarthy said. “The way we played … it’s a crying shame it didn’t show up today for four quarters.”