GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers had hurt his left knee, taken down to the turf by the Chicago Bears’ Roy Robertson-Harris on Sunday, and most of Wisconsin turned into a Sunday prayer service.
The Green Bay Packers were losing at home 20-0 to the team they’ve long tormented, the Chicago Bears, and hope was faint at best. It was the same knee in which Rodgers had suffered a torn ACL years ago — an injury he played on for four years in college — and the same one he had cleaned up two years ago after a long, grueling season.
There was not a damned soul in Lambeau Field on Sunday night that would have blamed Rodgers, who missed more than half of last season with a broken collarbone that doomed the Packers’ season, had he tapped out of this game and let his new backup, DeShone Kizer, take it home for a sure loss.
Not one of the 78,282 fans in seats in this game, not even likely the Bears fans whose hearts he had broken time and time again, would have questioned Rodgers’ toughness had he not returned on this night. It would have felt silly to chide Rodgers for his 3-of-7 passing effort for 13 yards and two sacks before going down. Even superstars have nights like these.
A mention of the four-year, $134 million, $100 million guaranteed contract as a reason not to come back? Save that for the hot-take artists.
So with his teammates heading back onto the field, the question about Rodgers still hung in the air: Would he even try?
When Rodgers lay on the turf in serious pain, wondering how bad his knee was, he said all he wanted to do was get off the field. After it was determined that he could walk off and — eventually — that playing would not further damage the knee, Rodgers' thoughts drifted to a time when he barely saw the field in his early years but learned a valuable lesson while watching.
“Playing behind Brett Favre for years, you realize you’ve got to be tough to play this position,” Rodgers said. “You’ve got to, in that situation, it’s about coming back and leading, and if you can do it and deal with the pain, you should be out there.”
The decision was made public when Rodgers came jogging out of the tunnel just minutes before the second half started, and a dead Lambeau had instantly come to life. But it not only was a message to the fans that he was coming back into the game but also a sign for Packers team doctor Patrick McKenzie that signing off on letting Rodgers play was the right call.
“I realized I probably should jog,” Rodgers said. “I was thinking about walking out of the tunnel out all the way to the sideline, but I figured I might as well jog a little bit to let Dr. McKenzie know that I could do that.”
That was also the moment that Rodgers knew he would not be coming back just to get an ovation. That, he said, was the moment he knew the Packers would win.
“I said, ‘We might as well win this thing,’” Rodgers said.
With knee covered only in a sleeve, an MRI having cleared any ligament tear, but the pain still throbbing, Rodgers began his second-half dissection of the Bears’ defense — led by a scorching-hot Khalil Mack in the first half of his Bears debut.
Rodgers led a 12-play, 46-yard field-goal drive to get the Packers on the board with a field goal, and that was the only time they touched the ball in the third quarter. In the fourth, the Packers’ first three drives: touchdown, touchdown, touchdown.
Each ended in a different wide receiver’s hands, none of them of course named Jordy Nelson; Rodgers was going for his first major comeback without his longtime confidant in a decade, but these were not new faces. First it was a gorgeous fade to Geronimo Allison for a 39-yard score after Allison had caught three other balls on the drive. When Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara left the game the play prior, Rodgers wanted immediate blood. But his first option, Davante Adams, was taken away on the play. So Rodgers looked off the single high safety and went after the Bears’ No. 1 corner, Kyle Fuller, whom the Packers had tried to poach with a contract offer sheet in the offseason. The pass was perfect and the catch spectacular. That made it 20-10 — still work to be done.
But the Bears went three-and-out and gave it right back. Rodgers sandwiched two short passes to Randall Cobb around a double move to Adams that went for 51 yards. The Bears’ defense, which had ramped up its pressure late, started looking gassed. Mack’s impact on the game wasn’t close to what it was in the first half. On 1st-and-goal from the Chicago 12, Rodgers flipped the ball out to Adams, who beat Amukamara for another touchdown and the Bears’ lead cut to six.
The Bears finally moved the ball again, but they failed on 3rd-and-1 and were forced to kick a field goal, upping their lead to 23-17. And they were right where Rodgers wanted them.
“When we held them to that field goal to make it 23-17, I felt pretty confident we were going to win that game,” he said.
But it almost ended in a shocking collapse. Rodgers tried to hit Adams in the flat, but his progress was impeded on the route, and Rodgers’ pass hit Fuller right in the hands. All he had to do was corral the perfect spiral, and there was a good chance it was six points the other way and a Bears victory.
It was shockingly similar to the Thanksgiving 2015 play where Adams was running the same slot route from the same position and ran into a Bears DB, who slowed his momentum. Except that time, former Bears corner Tracy Porter picked Rodgers off and the game ended. This time?
“Thank God he dropped it,” Rodgers said. That would be Fuller. He missed his chance to ice the game, and Rodgers wasn’t about to feel sorry for him.
“We have a little saying around here: drop a pick, give up a touchdown,” Rodgers said. “But it usually happens when we’re on defense. Thankfully, it happened the other way this time.”
On the very next play, the flashback was two years prior — in 2013. Yes, Bears fans remember Cobb beating them deep all too well at Soldier Field. On this night, it wasn’t a deep ball to Cobb but a 10-yard pass and Cobb doing the heavy lifting with 65 yards after the catch. The 75-yard score gave the Packers the lead for the first time all night with 2:29 remaining, capping a 24-point flourish in the span of about 22 game minutes.
A comeback for the ages. From a player who wasn’t even supposed to be out there anymore. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy admitted he walked out of the tunnel after halftime believing it would be Kizer, not Rodgers, who would be quarterbacking his team in a second half. Allison said he assumed it would be Kizer until he heard the crowd roar.
Rodgers, always with a flair for the dramatic, wasn’t about to give up first chair. The maestro had a symphony left to finish.
“Aaron Rodgers was remarkable,” McCarthy said. “I just can’t tell you how proud I am of him.”
Said Rodgers, "To me it's a no-brainer. Being out there is special. The ovation from the crowd lifts you up, gives you energy. The momentum of the game [turns] and you feel the tide turning, it's special.
"This is definitely going to go down as one of my favorite memories, especially in this rivalry."
After the 24-23 victory, Rodgers told NBC’s Michele Tafoya that he planned on playing the Minnesota Vikings next week, and he didn’t back down from that at the podium after the game. Sure, there are more tests to be run, and Rodgers’ left knee — which really started stiffening in the fourth quarter, he said — had swollen quite a bit after the game.
But it would be stunning to think Rodgers wouldn’t want to get after it next week, even against the team that in essence ended his season last year and won the division at Green Bay’s expense.
For a while, the Vikings’ quarterback, Kirk Cousins, actually was making more money than he was. The market correction that tilted the NFL’s axis for a few months was re-calibrated with Rodgers’ mega-deal signed two weeks ago. And now that he’s already paid dividends on that contract with this all-timer of a comeback against the Bears, the Vikings must be prepared for his best in Week 2. The Packers have come to expect it.
“We always expect it,” Packers running back Jamaal Williams said. “Honestly everybody is used to it coming from No. 12.”