There were two things that concerned A.J. Hawk as the veteran linebacker trudged out of the Green Bay Packers locker room late Monday night.
One, of course, was the injury to his friend, teammate and the Packers’ star quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who suffered a left (non-throwing) shoulder injury at the end of the opening drive of the team’s 27-20 loss to the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field.
“Obviously it’s horrible. It’s what everyone in the whole state fears – watching him go down,” Hawk said after watching Rodgers jog to the locker room after the injury – and not return until the third quarter, when he stood on the sideline in sweatpants, a hoodie and baseball cap, with his left hand in the pouch of his sweatshirt, and not in a sling.
Numerous sources, including ESPN, are reporting Tuesday morning that Rodgers could be out three weeks with a small fracture in his collarbone.
“I felt terrible for him, and then obviously the longer he stayed in the locker room, the more I worried about him. I don’t know. I haven’t gotten to talk to him really about it in specifics. I hope he’s all right.”
But while the Packers’ offense without Rodgers and with veteran backup Seneca Wallace was a mess – even with running backs Eddie Lacy (22 carries, 150 yards, one touchdown) and James Starks (32-yard touchdown) running over, around and through the Bears’ defense – there was something else gnawing at Hawk: The Packers still should have won the game, if only the guys on his side of the ball – Hawk included – had delivered.
For while the Packers’ passing game was understandably out of sync without its leader, the defense could have and should have found a way to stop the Bears and their backup quarterback, Josh McCown, who started for an injured Jay Cutler (groin).
“The score was 27-20. We definitely should have pulled it off. Obviously we didn’t help our offense out. They were running all over the place and we couldn’t get off the field,” Hawk said, shaking his head. “They got us on all fronts. They ran the ball very well, we couldn’t stop them. We couldn’t get off the field on third down and didn’t really affect the quarterback, really. They pretty much handled every aspect an offense would want to.
“We want to be able to win games as a defense. Today was our opportunity, and we didn’t find a way to.”
More on those failures in a moment. First, here’s what we know about Rodgers’ injury: It occurred on a third-and-8 play from the Chicago 9-yard line, as he eluded the rush and stepped up, only to be hit from behind by Bears defensive end Shea McClellin. He landed hard on his left shoulder and was wincing as he came off the field before Mason Crosby’s 30-yard field goal.
Once he arrived at the team bench area, team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie examined him. Rodgers then threw a handful of passes to backup quarterback Seneca Wallace, then stopped and was examined by McKenzie a second time. Rodgers then jogged to the locker room along with athletic trainer Nate Weir.
After the game, neither coach Mike McCarthy nor Rodgers would divulge any specifics of the injury.
Asked in an iMessage if he had suffered a broken collarbone, as was being reported by some media outlets, Rodgers wrote, “We're getting some tests tomorrow.”
Rodgers offered no explanation beyond that. He did come back onto the field with 6 minutes 54 seconds left in the third quarter, pumping his right fist as the crowd cheered him passing by.
“Obviously when anyone goes down, you’re concerned about it. When they just leave the field, you don’t know the severity of it, what happened, what it is,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “I just wanted to make sure he was all right, and we’ll see what happens throughout this week and moving forward.
“He wasn’t obviously in too much pain or uncomfort(able) or whatever, if he’s able to come back out. He still was walking around without a sling. I don’t know anything; I don’t think they know everything, so we’ll just have to wait to see how it goes.”
Rodgers agent, David Dunn, also said he didn’t know the extent of his client’s injury when asked about it after the game outside the Packers’ media auditorium. McCarthy, meanwhile, was not particularly forthcoming with whatever he did know about the injury.
“I just had a chance to speak to Aaron before he went into the training room. He has a shoulder injury. They want to run more tests,” McCarthy said. “They don't have an exact diagnosis. (That) is where we are. We'll have more information for you probably tomorrow.”
Asked specifically if Rodgers had broken his collarbone, McCarthy replied, “Exact diagnosis hasn’t been given,” and then got testy when a reporter pressed him for more information. “Why do we have to keep doing this?” McCarthy said. When told that it was his quarterback being discussed, McCarthy replied, “I gave you the answer. OK? You have a medical meeting; you’ve met with the player. This is where we are.”
Where the Packers appear to be, frankly, is in trouble. Wallace, whom the team signed after the final roster reduction at the end of training camp after cutting incumbent backup Graham Harrell, training-camp experiment Vince Young and developmental quarterback B.J. Coleman, completed 11 of 19 passes for 114 yards with four sacks, no touchdowns and an interception (53.4 rating). The interception was on Wallace’s first series and did not lead to points, while two of the sacks came on the final two plays of the game, after a completion to Jordy Nelson gave them the ball at their own 40-yard line with 40 seconds left and no timeouts.
“I tried my best. I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure there’s not a letdown from what Aaron is doing and what I’m doing. But obviously it’s tough to get put in that situation and go out there and not have a lag,” said Wallace, who has started 21 career regular-season games and has a 6-15 record. “But you want to go out there and compete; that’s what I’m about and I love to compete. I put a lot on myself and feel like I should’ve played better.
“I’ve been in this situation before and it definitely will get better.”
Thanks to Lacy, Starks and the special-teams units, the Packers (5-3) almost found a way. Instead, they’re now in a three-way tie with the Bears (5-3) and Detroit Lions (5-3) at the midpoint of the season.
“We’re still 5-3, still got it all in front of us. We have half the season left,” fullback John Kuhn said. “We have to play well. We still have a good run game. Seneca went out there and played with confidence. If he has to play for us in the future, we have confidence in him.”
They certainly should have confidence in their run game. Even with the Bears not respecting the pass – how’s that for a sentence you never thought you’d read about the Packers? – and putting eight or nine defenders in the box during the second half, Lacy still broke off big runs. And two special teams plays actually helped the Packers to a 20-17 lead midway through the third quarter.
First, trailing 7-3 midway through the first quarter, linebacker Jamari Lattimore blocked an Adam Podlesh punt that the Packers recovered at the Chicago 32. On the very next play, Starks sprinted through a gigantic hole for a 32-yard touchdown and a 10-7 lead.
Then, after Lacy broke free for a 56-yard run and followed it with a 1-yard touchdown to tie the game at 17-17 early in the third quarter, McCarthy brazenly called for an onside kick and Lattimore was there to recover it. After what should have been an interception turned into a 17-yard gain when Wallace’s pass sailed through linebacker James Anderson’s hands and into the waiting mitts of wide receiver James Jones, the Packers had first-and-goal at the Chicago 6.
But a 1-yard run by Starks and back-to-back Wallace incompletions forced the Packers to settle for a 23-ayrd Crosby field goal to make it 20-17. The Packers wouldn’t score again.
“Seneca, he needs to perform better and he'll definitely do that with a week of practice,” said McCarthy, whose team plays host to Philadelphia next Sunday at Lambeau Field. “We're on a short week. We're on a six-day week. We’ve got the Eagles coming in: new staff, uncommon opponent.
“We need to do a better job in the passing game. I think it was obvious tonight that third down was something that held us back. I thought we ran the ball well, particularly when they were loading up against the run. Hey, (it’s a) disappointing loss, no doubt. We fully expected to win the game. Had some opportunities, and we have no excuses. We didn’t play well enough; they beat us.”
The final blow came in the fourth quarter, after the Packers punted with 9:48 to play. The Bears took over on their own 11-yard line and proceeded to drain an excruciating 8 minutes 58 seconds off the clock, converting a fourth-and-1 (on a 4-yard Matt Forte run), a third-and-6 (on an 11-yard Brandon Marshall catch) and a third-and-5 (on an 8-yard Forte run). By the time Robbie Gould’s 27-yard field goal sailed through the north uprights, the Packers had 50 seconds and no timeouts left.
“It’s up to us as a defense to step up. We lost our best man, now (was) a great opportunity for us to shine and come out and show the world what kind of ball we can play, and we didn’t,” veteran defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “That’s the bottom line – we didn’t handle business.”
Whether the Packers can handle their business for as long as Rodgers is sidelined – however long that turns out to be – is hard to say. During his first year as the starter, Rodgers suffered a dislocated right (throwing) shoulder at Tampa Bay on Sept. 28, 2008 and played the next week against Atlanta. He never missed a game that season; in fact, the only games he’s missed in his career as the starter are a 2010 game at New England after suffering a concussion the previous week, and the meaningless 2011 regular-season finale against Detroit.
“It’s tough, obviously,” veteran guard Josh Sitton said. “He’s the best player on this football team. He’s probably the best player in the NFL. So it’s tough, no doubt. Like I said, we’ve just got to keep grinding. We’ve been in these positions before, we’ve just got to keep playing, no excuses.”
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.