“I’m sure if I miss a pass, that’s going to be because I’m rusty,” Rodgers said at the time. “Or if I hit one, then it’s going to be a big deal or something.”
That was nearly four years ago, and it’s relevant today because for the second time in his career, Rodgers is back from an extended absence because of a busted clavicle. Last time, it was his left and he waited seven games for it to heal sufficiently enough for the Packers to clear him. This time, it was to his throwing side, and he underwent surgery to stabilize it with plates and screws nearly two months ago.
Still, there’s reason to think his return this Sunday at Carolina could look similar to his first game back from his 2013 collarbone injury. It was the final day of the regular season, and it was a typical cold (26 degrees), windy (16 miles per hour) afternoon at Soldier Field in Chicago with the NFC North title on the line.
This time, there are three games remaining, but the Packers (7-6) are in a similar must-win situation to stay alive for a playoff spot.
Everyone remembers how things ended on Dec. 29, 2013, when Rodgers won the game with a 48-yard touchdown pass to Randall Cobb in the final minute, but a film review of every pass and every dropback showed that Rodgers was a combination of conservative yet spectacular when necessary.
His stats looked like this: 25-of-39 passing for 318 yards with 2 touchdowns, 2 interceptions and 3 sacks.
But they only tell part of the story.
The film tells the rest.
The ‘big deal or something’ plays
Packers coach Mike McCarthy did a masterful job of calling plays designed to help Rodgers rediscover the timing with his receivers and minimize the chances of his quarterback getting hit.
After a toss play to Eddie Lacy on the Packers’ first offensive snap of the game, Rodgers went to work with several short passes. He hit receiver Jarrett Boykin for a 5-yard gain. He followed that with another short pass to tight end Andrew Quarless for a first down.
Then, he got Jordy Nelson involved. That season, Nelson caught seven touchdowns in the first seven games before Rodgers got hurt. He caught only one after that. It was much the same this time around -- Nelson led the league with six touchdowns through five games but hasn't caught one since Brett Hundley took over. Rodgers easily reconnected with Nelson, who had 10 catches for 161 yards in that regular-season finale at Chicago.
Then there was Cobb, who had missed the previous 10 games because of a broken leg. His return also helped Rodgers. Although he had only two catches for 55 yards, both were touchdowns. The first was one of the few plays Rodgers went on the move. He stepped to his left and bought time for Cobb to run an out-and-in route for a 7-yard touchdown in the third quarter. By that time, Rodgers had completed passes to seven different players.
While Rodgers didn’t go deep often, he hit on four downfield throws -- a 32-yarder to Nelson that traveled 28 yards in the air, a 26-yarder to Nelson that went 24 yards in the air, a 22-yarder to Quarless that went 25 yards in the air, and the game-winning bomb to Cobb.
Rodgers scrambled just once, for 5 yards, but waited until the game-winning drive to do it.
He also made sure he went down before he took any big hits. In fact, on his first sack, he wasn’t even hit. He went to the ground as he could see it coming. He then gave Lance Briggs a sack in the first quarter by taking a dive before Briggs could hit him. However, Shea McClellin, the player who hit Rodgers earlier that year to break his collarbone, was penalized for piling on late. Rodgers' third sack actually worked out in the Packers’ favor because when Julius Peppers forced Rodgers to fumble, just about everyone thought it was an incomplete pass. But after a few seconds, Boykin, at the urging of those on the Packers’ sideline, picked up the stationary ball and ran it into the end zone for an unlikely touchdown.
The ‘rusty’ plays
Rodgers had thrown just four interceptions in eight games before his injury, so it was surprising to see him throw two -- both in the first half -- in his return.
The first one came at the end of a 14-play drive, and it was just his fourth career red zone interception to that point. Chalk that one up to a bad decision, something Rodgers almost never makes. Rodgers was flushed out of the pocket and tried to throw for Boykin in the end zone but apparently never saw safety Chris Conte.
The other one went off the hands of Nelson, but it’s hard to call it a drop because Rodgers threw the slant high and behind Nelson.
This season, Rodgers comes back with 13 touchdowns and three interceptions in the five-plus games he appeared in.
Of Rodgers’ 14 incompletions that day, seven could have been considered either bad throws or bad decisions. On one of them, he wasn’t expecting center Evan Dietrich-Smith’s shotgun snap and was lucky that the ball hit in a spot where he could grab it, but the timing of the play was off from the start. He also threw three balls away, had two others dropped and two broken up.