At first, it was the emotion texting.
Aaron Rodgers and his Green Bay Packers teammates had left Ford Field when his iPhone vibrated. His frustration in the wake of a 40-10 Thanksgiving Day defeat at the hands of the Detroit Lions was still boiling. It had been a game that that his coach, Mike McCarthy, had called “a very disappointing and embarrassing loss” and “a very poor performance” – and was arguably still understating just how awful it was.
And all Rodgers had been able to do was watch from the sideline, listen on the coaching headsets and, at one point, toss away his clipboard in disgust.
So, he was asked, would he be back for the team’s next game, Dec. 8 against Atlanta?
“Count on it,” came the reply in the little gray bubble.
Then, mere seconds later, more gray bubbles.
“Hold on,” he wrote. “Lemme think.”
While Rodgers’ thumbs paused and his mind pondered, the reality was this: With Thursday’s blowout loss – the first time the Lions had won on Thanksgiving since 2003, when they beat the Packers 22-14 before a nine-game holiday losing streak on their holiday home turf – it may not matter.
Certainly, mathematically, the Packers (5-6-1) could get Rodgers back and run the table, finish 9-6-1 and win the NFC North division title if the Lions (7-5) and Bears (6-5) stumble down the stretch. But the way they’re playing – offensively and defensively? Not even their MVP might be able to save them at this point.
With Matt Flynn starting in Rodgers’ place – thereby becoming the fourth different starting quarterback to get the nod this season, which could be unprecedented (team and Elias Sports Bureau research cannot say definitively) – the Packers offense managed a pathetic 126 net yards and only three points.
It was the fewest yards by a Packers offense since a 35-0 loss to the New England Patriots in McCarthy’s first season on Nov. 19, 2006, when they managed only 120 yards after Brett Favre was knocked out with an elbow injury and Rodgers played the second half on a broken foot.
“Probably the worst (expletive) offensive day in the history of the (expletive) Packers,” right guard/center T.J. Lang said. “It was bad.”
It also marked the first time the Packers had failed to generate an offensive touchdown since Dec. 12, 2010, when the Lions knocked Rodgers out of the game with a concussion and Flynn struggled in a 7-3 loss.
Unlike 2010, though, when the Packers went into the final two weeks of the regular season at 8-6 and embarked on a six-game winning streak that consummated in the Super Bowl XLV title, this team doesn’t appear to have any semblance of that team’s determination. Or, possibly, talent. On defense, the team got cornerback Sam Shields (hamstring), run-stuffing defensive end Johnny Jolly (groin) and outside linebacker Nick Perry (foot/ankle) back from injury – and managed to be worse. On offense, the unit looked nothing like the Flynn-led outfit that rallied from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit last Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings to forge a 26-26 tie – the team’s only non-loss since Rodgers broke his left collarbone against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 4 on Monday Night Football.
Asked if Rodgers might give his team a spark by returning, McCarthy replied, “You don’t want to put everything on one man, but I think it’s obvious how important Aaron Rodgers is to any football team. The fact of the matter is we have 61 players in our building, we have a coaching staff. And when you’re rallying cry is ‘Next man up,’ and everything is going well and you’re able to overcome injuries throughout the early part of the year, everybody’s high fiving. And then when you don’t, now you’re going to sit here and cry a different tune? That’s not the way it works. We’re in this to win games and we haven’t won a game in five weeks.”
No, they haven’t. Since Rodgers went down, the Packers are 0-4-1. They were on a four-game winning streak and were 5-2 at the time. Since then, the offense can be most politely described as inconsistent. Their defense cannot be described politely at all.
Nearly eclipsing last January’s playoff abomination, when the unit gave up 579 yards to the San Francisco 49ers in an NFC Divisional Playoff loss, the Packers managed to take the ball away four times – including a Matthew Stafford fumble that was caused by outside linebacker Nick Perry and returned for a touchdown by safety Morgan Burnett – and still left the building completely embarrassed, having allowed 563 net yards, a season-worst 241 rushing yards and a season-high five touchdowns.
“That's obviously very difficult to comprehend and come to the realization,” outside linebacker Clay Matthews said. “But the only place we can go from here is up. At least we're hoping so.”
Most stunningly, the Packers run defense has imploded. After six games, the unit was ranked No. 3 in the league and allowing just 79.0 yards per game, putting them on a franchise-record pace for fewest rushing yards allowed in a season. (The record, set in 2009, was 83.3 yards per game.)
In the last six games, the Packers have allowed 1,037 yards, with the Lions (241) and the Minnesota Vikings (232) putting up season-highs against the defense in back-to-back weeks. For perspective, the Packers gave up 474 rushing yards in the first six games. In the last two, they’ve allowed 473.
“Scheme is not a crutch,” McCarthy said, clearly defending defensive coordinator Dom Capers with his response to a question about the defense. “When you’re in run defense, you play with leverage, you’ve got to get off the damn block and tackle the ball carrier. You can cut it any way you want, and we’re not doing that right now. We haven’t done that in a month.”
They also haven’t won in a month. Asked why they’re 0-4-1 without Rodgers, McCarthy seemed to point to the players.
“I'm not going to make excuses. I think the facts of the matter, especially in today's game, it's clear what's gone on with our football team,” McCarthy said. “You line up with 46 (players) each and every week and you put a plan in for those guys to be successful – and we didn't even come close to hitting the mark today. I don't know how else to keep telling you that. The Detroit Lions got after us in a big way.”
Remarkably, though, the game was a one-score game at halftime (17-10), and even after the Packers went three-and-out on the opening possession of the third quarter – one of five three-and-outs on the day – and the Lions scored on the ensuing possession to make it 24-10, all was not lost.
“We were still optimistic. We knew that we hadn't caught rhythm yet,” said Flynn, who completed 10 of 20 passes for 139 yards with no touchdowns and one interception (51.9 rating) – and was sacked as many times as the Packers managed first downs (seven). “We started out OK, got a couple first downs, but that’s not us out there, and we knew that.”
The Packers’ next four possessions ended in a Flynn fumble, after which McCarthy threw his play-call sheet on the sideline; a Flynn interception when he appeared to think he had a free play but instead the Packers had committed an illegal-formation penalty; a safety when Flynn was sacked in the end zone on second-and-13 from the Green Bay 2; and a punt.
When Stafford threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Ogletree to make it 40-10 with 4 minutes 17 seconds to play, the numbers told the story: The Lions had rolled up 563 yards of offense, the Packers had managed 56 – meaning both sides of the ball had been utterly destroyed.
“Anytime you can’t get anything going, anytime that you know you should be, you know you should be, and things just aren’t going your way, it’s very frustrating,” Flynn said. “We kept talking about things to do, trying to game-plan what we were seeing and things like that, but it just seemed like everything we did, we didn’t execute.”
Trying to speak for the defense, inside linebacker A.J. Hawk couldn’t.
“That’s the thing. I don’t have any answers for you,” Hawk said. “I wish I did, wish I could point to something – one thing, at least.
“Obviously, it’s something that most guys – especially the young guys – definitely aren’t used to around here. I’m not, either – none of us are. Honestly, I don’t know. You can try to search and find answers but talking about it’s not going to do anything. We can sit here as a unit and do whatever and point out what the issues are and what we need to do, but if we don’t do it on Sunday, it doesn’t matter.”
Which brings us back to Rodgers, who stood on the sideline and watched it all unfold, and the little gray iMessage bubbles.
He has said multiple times that the Packers’ record and playoff odds will not influence him coming back; he has vowed to play again this season regardless. He said so again Thursday.
“We’ve got 10 days until the Atlanta game,” he wrote. “That should be long enough.”
The Packers hope it is. But even if Rodgers does return, it guarantees nothing with how awful they appear to be at the moment.
“It definitely made things a lot more difficult without Aaron. I think we all know that,” guard Josh Sitton said. “There’s no denying that. You can’t say, ‘Hey we can go and play just as good without Aaron.’ We haven’t won a game without him in five weeks. He’s the best player on this team. Yeah, we need him.
“But there’s a lot more going on than just that.”
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.