GREEN BAY, Wis. — The handshakes kept coming. There was equipment man Tom Bakken, known around Lambeau Field as “T-Bone.” There was new assistant coach Jim Hostler, the pass-game coordinator. There was DeShone Kizer, the backup quarterback.
One by one, they all stopped by the winning quarterback’s locker after a Sunday night filled with Aaron Rodgers‘ magic.
The conversations were brief and, of course, private, but the handshakes alone suggested they were of a congratulatory nature after Rodgers returned from a first-half knee injury to lead the Packers to a 24-23 victory over the Chicago Bears in a game in which they trailed 20-0 before their starting quarterback returned in the third quarter.
As Week 1 turned to Week 2 and the Packers’ focus shifted to another NFC North foe, the Minnesota Vikings, who come to Lambeau Field on Sunday, two questions remain:
The first question might not be known until tests are completed later Monday on his left knee — the same one he had cleaned out after the 2015 season and the same one in which he tore his ACL in high school.
But at least the Packers have experience dealing with mobility-limiting injuries. The calf injury of 2014 and hamstring injury of 2016 forced Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy to adjust. They went back to use of the pistol formation on Sunday night against the Bears that became so much a part of their plan when Rodgers had his previous leg injuries.
Rodgers said he did not believe McCarthy altered his playcalling upon his return.
“I just told him I’ve got to be in the pistol or the shotgun and not go under center,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers proved he could play at or near his usual level back then and did so again in the second half on Sunday night, when he completed 17 of 23 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns after the injury.
“[We went] exclusively with the no-huddle there in the second half and the two-minute drive; it was just priceless,” McCarthy said. “It’s the best thing we do. It’s the best thing he does.”
While McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin will have to devise a game plan around Rodgers’ lingering left-knee issues, the opening-night performance could have a lasting impact in the locker room.
“I’m really proud of our team,” Rodgers said. “After it was decided I was going to come back I knew it might give us a little jolt. We just had to play a lot better football in the second half and we did. We put together four scoring drives, guys making — G-mo [Geronimo Allison] a contested catch, yards after the catch on obviously Davante [Adams’ touchdown] and Randall [Cobb’s touchdown]. The protection was really good.
“Obviously being more of a statue back there, had to deal the ball on time and make sure we had guys getting open. I thought the protection was really good and guys made plays. Ty [Montgomery] made plays, Davante made plays, Geronimo made plays, Randall made plays and the line blocked well.”
Part of what endeared former Packers quarterback Brett Favre to his teammates was his willingness to play hurt — and play at a high level in the process.
“Playing behind Brett Favre for three years, you realize you’ve got to be tough to play this position,” Rodgers said. “In that situation, it’s about coming back out and leading. If you can do it and deal with the pain, you should be out there.”
Said Cobb, who caught nine passes for 142 yards, including the game-winning 75-yard score with 2:13 to play: “I love seeing the fact that he came back out there and played the way that he did in the second half.”
And that’s coming from someone who has played with Rodgers for his entire career.
How about what a newcomer like tight end Marcedes Lewis must think?
“When he came back in the second half I was like, ‘Bet,’” said Lewis, who played the first 12 years of his career for the Jaguars. “It’s inevitable not to feel a certain way when your guy walks back out after, you know, getting his knee banged up, not knowing what’s wrong with it, just that it’s swollen. He’s special.”