Less than 24 hours after Aaron Rodgers had cracked his collarbone, Mike McCarthy was a maelstrom of emotions. We all know that the Green Bay Packers coach is never in the mood for drama, but after fearing the worst about his franchise quarterback the night before, he was now hoping for the best.
It was the day after the unthinkable had happened, and McCarthy was unusually forthcoming. Not only had the coach confessed to peeking at the Lambeau Field tunnel hoping to see No. 12 reemerge after the injury to lead the team to victory over the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, but after getting a gloom-and-doom initial diagnosis on the night of Nov. 4 that the injury was likely season-ending, the sleep-deprived McCarthy had spoken with team physician Dr. Patrick McKenzie that Tuesday morning, Nov. 5.
Now, McCarthy was putting Rodgers’ injury into the “week-to-week” category, and while he knew Rodgers wasn’t going to play the following Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, he wasn’t immediately ruling him out.
Then, McCarthy said this:
“Let's not kid ourselves. If he walked in your office and asked for the ball on Saturday, what would you do?”
Well, 39 days later – as it turned out, it was a Friday, not a Saturday – Aaron Rodgers did exactly that. He walked into McCarthy’s office and told him he wanted the ball. And that’s when Rodgers found out exactly what his coach would do.
He’d say no.
For his own good.
“Hey, it’s not the easiest thing to sit there and tell your franchise quarterback he can’t play in the game when he wants to play in the game,” McCarthy said. “This is clearly a decision that’s made in the best interest of Aaron Rodgers.”
As a result, Rodgers has been ruled out for Sunday’s game at Dallas. He will miss his sixth consecutive game, and he’ll have to hope that the 6-6-1 Packers can win in Dallas with Matt Flynn at quarterback and him on the sideline. And he is not happy about it.
“Frankly, I think if Aaron was asked the question, he wants to play. He feels he’s ready to play,” McCarthy told reporters Friday in his usual, end-of-the-week post-practice news conference – which was carried live on ESPN. “Based on what he’s accomplished physically and what he was able to do at practice on Wednesday and Thursday, he’s ready to go.
“He’s very disappointed. He’s frustrated. But speaking with Dr. McKenzie, this is the right decision.”
When reached Friday evening, Rodgers declined comment. Asked how he felt, Rodgers said, “sad.”
McCarthy said that he, McKenzie and Rodgers met Friday morning. After Rodgers had practiced well on Wednesday and Thursday and experienced little if any pain – in a stark departure from the previous week, when simple activities during the Wednesday practice had made it clear to Rodgers that he was not in fact physically ready to play – the quarterback went into that meeting with hopes of being allowed to play.
An NFL source said that Rodgers’ collarbone was scanned on Thursday – presumably after he spoke at his locker following Thursday’s practice – and that he, McKenzie and McCarthy went over the results of that scan Friday. (McCarthy when asked during his press conference if Rodgers had been scanned Friday, replied, “I’m not going to get into scans and this and that. He was not scanned this morning.”)
Although the scan did not show a fully healed collarbone, Rodgers was willing to accept whatever risk would be associated with playing. But even though he was, McKenzie and McCarthy were not.
Thus, after saying that he would need to take the starter’s reps in practice Friday in order to be ready to play against the Cowboys, Rodgers watched as Flynn and backup Scott Tolzien worked instead. Rodgers was a spectator for the 11-on-11 period open to reporters, wearing a knit stocking cap instead of his helmet.
“Frankly, it’s been a difficult morning going through the conversation with Aaron and Dr. McKenzie,” McCarthy said.
It is admirable that the über competitive Rodgers wants to play. And let’s be clear: He wants to play because he still believes his team is a playoff-caliber team, and because he feels responsible for it. (“This is my team,” he said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com on Dec. 3. “I'm the leader of this team and I want to be out there.”)
He certainly doesn’t need to play to prove something to that small, vocal, misguided faction of Packers fans who are questioning his toughness and willingness to play in pain. Those foolish souls can are referred to how he played the entire second half of a 2006 blowout loss to the New England Patriots on a broken foot after the ultimate tough guy, Brett Favre, was knocked from the game with an elbow injury.
Or they can go back to the 2008 game against Atlanta when, after suffering a dislocated shoulder the previous week, Rodgers was listed as doubtful but went down to the Don Hutson Center a few hours before kickoff, threw passes and struck a deal with McKenzie to let him play. Rodgers completed 25 of 37 passes for 313 yards with three touchdowns and one interception (109.4 rating) in a 27-24 loss.
“The hurdle that I know Aaron wanted to get over, he achieved it this week. He feels really good,” McCarthy said. “He felt like he was ready to play. But listening to all of the conversation, all of the facts and evaluation, it’s in our best interest as a football team, as an organization, for Aaron not to play in this game.”
As much as Rodgers might disagree, McCarthy is right. Given the Cowboys’ porous defense and history of December swoons, it’s not inconceivable that Flynn could lead the Packers to victory. If he somehow does, it would set up another showdown a week from now on whether Rodgers should be permitted to play against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 22.
Since the day after the injury occurred, Rodgers has been candid to a fault about his feelings, his hopes for a speedy recovery and his desire to play regardless of the Packers’ record or playoff hopes. He should be mad, frustrated and disappointed that he isn’t playing Sunday. If he wasn’t, you’d wonder what was wrong with him.
The easy play for McCarthy would have been to let Rodgers have his way and given him the ball. Instead, he made the unpopular decision and ticked off not only his quarterback but many of his team’s fans. The cost-benefit analysis long-term says it was the right call. If he faces the same decision next week, with the playoffs still in play, it'll be interesting to see what he does.
There have been times this year when McCarthy definitely deserved criticism. But this isn’t one of them
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.