For the second time in five seasons, the entire state of Wisconsin hinges on a single broken collarbone. One thousand four hundred forty-four days after Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone on Monday Night Football in a 2013 loss to the Bears, the Packers’ future Hall of Fame quarterback suffered the same injury to his other clavicle in a brutal loss to the Vikings on Sunday afternoon. The team’s official Twitter account suggested Rodgers could miss the remainder of the season, but unless the Packers get lucky over the next couple of months, it might not matter.
Mike McCarthy & Co. were able to overcome Rodgers’ previous collarbone fracture and win the NFC North, although that run required several improbable twists and turns. The Lions blew a division that seemed to be theirs for the taking, as they had a comfortable advantage with tiebreakers before losing to the 2-8 Bucs at home, falling to a 61-yard game-winning field goal by Justin Tucker, and blowing a fourth-quarter lead with a pick-six before losing to the 5-9 Giants in overtime. The Bears then inherited the top spot in the division and held a 28-27 lead in the fourth quarter over a returning Rodgers with 46 seconds left, only for the Chicago secondary to wildly blow its coverage on fourth-and-10 and give Randall Cobb a free pass to the end zone for a division-clinching touchdown.
If you’re a Packers fan looking to find reasons to believe Green Bay will be able to overcome Rodgers’ injury and repeat as division champions, I can find a few. For one, this injury is earlier in the season than his previous collarbone break, which came in Week 9. When I wrote about that clavicle injury, I looked at quarterbacks who went down with fractures in the past such as Troy Aikman, Elvis Grbac and Tony Romo. Since then, Romo broke his collarbone twice during the 2015 season, while Josh McCown went down with a fractured clavicle of his own last season.
There are no guarantees on how quickly a collarbone will heal, and Rodgers would miss the rest of the season if he elects to have surgery. If doctors advise that Rodgers can heal with rest, though, the data points from those passers suggests Rodgers will miss between six and eight weeks. That timeline would set up Rodgers to return as early as Week 12, but more likely Week 14 in Cleveland against the sputtering Browns. With what was described at the time as a “small” fracture of his left collarbone in 2013, Rodgers missed seven weeks before returning for the season finale against Chicago.
In the meantime (and perhaps for the remainder of the season), the Packers will turn things over to Brett Hundley, who looked overmatched against a stout Vikings defense on Sunday. In his first stretch of extended regular-season action, the 2015 fifth-round pick went 18-of-33 passing for 157 yards with a touchdown, three interceptions and a fumble. One of those interceptions came under heavy pressure and with 18 seconds left to go in the game, but the third-year player finished with an opponent-adjusted Total QBR of 16.6.
I wouldn’t read too much into one bad game from Hundley as a substitute, given the circumstances. It’s ancient history now, of course, but when Rodgers came in for an injured Brett Favre against the Patriots in 2006, the 2005 first-round pick went 4-of-12 passing for 32 yards and broke his foot. After his first two seasons in the league, Rodgers was a combined 15-of-31 for 111 yards with an interception. The Packers even reportedly thought about trading Rodgers for Randy Moss before the 2007 season.
We don’t know much about how Hundley will perform yet. McCarthy did an excellent job of developing Rodgers into a franchise quarterback, although his work with Matt Flynn seemed to be more smoke-and-mirrors given Flynn’s lack of success outside of Lambeau Field. Hundley’s preseason numbers have been great — he has completed 66.9 percent of his passes while throwing 10 touchdowns against one pick — but much of that came against third-stringers in 2015.
Could it be someone else under center for a stretch of these games besides Hundley? While McCarthy suggested otherwise on Sunday, it’s possible. The UCLA product took a brutal hit on his final interception, and there’s always a concern inexperienced quarterbacks will struggle to deal with NFL pass pressure and take hits that knock them out of games solely from sheer inexperience. (See: Garoppolo, Jimmy.) Part of the concern in losing a starting quarterback isn’t just that you go from No. 1 on the depth chart to No. 2; it’s that you may quickly end up going from No. 1 to No. 3.
Get past the joke candidates. Brett Favre is 48 and wasn’t any good the last time he suited up seven seasons ago. Romo is 37 and hasn’t thrown a pass in nearly a year. The Packers reacquired Flynn and inserted him into the lineup as a stopgap measure in 2013, but he hasn’t taken an NFL snap since 2014 nor been on a roster since 2015. He’s the most plausible of the totally implausible candidates.
Packers fans might also want to see Colin Kaepernick, and no other quarterback available in the free-agent pool has more upside than the former 49ers starter. McCarthy has previously professed his respect for Kaepernick after the Nevada product ended the Packers’ runs during the 2012 and 2013 postseasons. Deshaun Watson‘s success in Houston should also stop people from suggesting offensive coaches can’t mold their offense to their quarterbacks overnight, although Kaepernick would need some time to learn the terminology and get in game shape. The bigger concern with Kaepernick now is the collusion lawsuit he has filed against the NFL, which might indicate Kaepernick is not expecting to rejoin a team anytime soon.
If general manager Ted Thompson is going to add a quarterback behind Hundley and practice-squad passer Joe Callahan, who will likely be added to the active roster this week, the most likely candidate is Scott Tolzien. Tolzien struggled in making his debut under center for the Packers as an injury fill-in in 2013, throwing five picks in two games, but the Packers saw enough in the undrafted free agent to keep him on the roster for two more seasons before he left for Indianapolis.
Tolzien admittedly hasn’t been much better in Indy, as he produced a gruesome start against the Steelers last season and showed so little during training camp as the presumed replacement for Andrew Luck that the Colts traded for Jacoby Brissett and benched Tolzien three quarters into the season. There’s a good chance he’s bad, but he’s also probably better than Callahan and wouldn’t cost much to bring back. Thompson isn’t fond of trading draft picks, but it wouldn’t be crazy to see the Packers send a sixth- or seventh-round pick to Indy to bring back a player who knows their system and might soon be the Colts’ third-stringer anyway.
Regardless of who lines up under center for Green Bay over the next two months, there will be meaningful concerns about their ability to stay on the field, specifically because the Packers’ offensive line is a mess. The 2013 Packers were hit by injuries to several of their big stars, but their line mostly stuck together. Bryan Bulaga missed the entire season after going down with a torn ACL in camp, but once the season started, Green Bay’s line made it to 78 of 80 starts. That was a far stronger unit, too, with a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber guards in T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton in the prime of their respective careers. David Bakhtiari was a stunning revelation as a rookie left tackle, and Evan Dietrich-Smith played well enough to earn a four-year deal in free agency with the Bucs after the season.
This Packers line, though, is as injury-riddled as any five-man unit in the league. It was already rebuilding after cutting Sitton last offseason and losing Lang to the Lions in free agency this spring, but nothing has gone right for James Campen’s unit this season. The tackles were supposed to be the strength of the team, but Bulaga has already missed games with a recurring ankle injury and an illness before leaving Sunday’s loss with a concussion. Bakhtiari, meanwhile, suffered a hamstring injury in the opener and missed the ensuing four games before returning this week, only to reaggravate the hamstring ailment and leave again.
They’re not alone. Reserve linemen Don Barclay, Kyle Murphy and Jason Spriggs, who would be 3-4-5 to fill in at tackle, are all on injured reserve. Lane Taylor moved from guard to tackle to fill in earlier this season, but Taylor was carted off with a knee injury against the Vikings. The Packers could be down their top six options at tackle and their starting left guard next Sunday. It’s one thing to do that with Rodgers, who has arguably the best instincts on where to move in the pocket and the quickest release of any quarterback in football. Hundley was an athletic quarterback at UCLA, running for 1,747 yards over three seasons, but nobody else on the planet is Rodgers.
The injuries along the offensive line also make it less likely Green Bay will be able to piece together a functional running game to take some of the workload off Hundley. The Packers did little on the ground on Sunday despite getting back Ty Montgomery, as he combined with Hundley and Aaron Jones to run for 65 yards on 20 carries after Rodgers left the game. Teams haven’t been able to load up the box against Rodgers out of fear that he’ll torch them downfield; opposing defenses have stuffed the box with eight or more men on just 10.2 percent of Green Bay run plays since the beginning of 2014, the fifth-lowest rate in football.
There’s no way the Packers ever want to see Rodgers miss serious time, but the timing of this particular injury within Green Bay’s schedule could be worse. The Packers will get a home game in Week 7 against the Saints, and while the New Orleans defense has looked stunningly effective over the past three games, the preponderance of evidence suggests they can be beat. After that, the Packers are on bye, which might give Bakhtiari and Bulaga enough time to get healthy and back into the lineup before a pair of divisional games against the Lions and Bears.
It could also give McCarthy time to install a few wrinkles into the offense to try to make Hundley’s life easier and create easier plays for his offense. Hundley compared the offense he ran at UCLA to Chip Kelly’s attack in Philadelphia, and indeed, it would make total sense for the Packers to install some zone-read concepts into their running game. The read-option would both play to Hundley’s athleticism and to the reality that the Packers might not have any healthy tackles; if your tackles have no hope of blocking an edge rusher, it’s often better to just read that defender and take blocking him out of the equation.
The Packers have run RPO concepts with Rodgers in the past, and they might rely more heavily on those plays with Hundley to try to create quicker reads while relying on the offense’s playmakers to do work after the catch. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see McCarthy follow the pack and steal some of the shovel concepts Andy Reid has taken out of the college game and implemented in Kansas City to try to get players like Randall Cobb and Martellus Bennett involved in the offense. McCarthy is not about to turn the offense into the Kelly attack, but these would be logical ways to make Hundley’s life easier.
It’ll be fascinating to see how Hundley plays, both in terms of saving the Packers this season and how it might impact his future. As was the case for Jimmy Garoppolo last season, Hundley is entering a high-profile role during the third year of his rookie deal. If he plays well, the Packers would be forced into a compelling quandary. They obviously aren’t about to move on from Rodgers, who will turn 34 in April. The Patriots can see the end of the 40-year-old Tom Brady‘s career coming; the Packers are still years away from replacing Rodgers and can’t justify keeping Hundley around as a backup.
Thompson would then either look to trade Hundley or keep him around while waiting to rack up a compensatory pick in the future. The Packers reportedly took calls on Hundley during Day 2 of this year’s draft, and Thompson is a product of the Ron Wolf tree, which saw the Packers develop and trade away backups Matt Hasselbeck and Mark Brunell behind Favre.
You don’t need me to tell you that Green Bay’s chances of making a Super Bowl run are drastically different with Hundley in the lineup. Even after the Week 6 loss to the Vikings, who now lead the NFC North, ESPN’s Football Power Index projected that the Packers would win the division 53.0 percent of the time and make the playoffs 79.6 percent of the time if Rodgers stuck around for the rest of the season. With Hundley starting every game, those odds drop to 20.3 percent and 44.9 percent, respectively. FPI knows essentially squat about Hundley, but the Packers are already in good shape by virtue of starting 4-2.
Their Super Bowl odds fall even more dramatically. The Packers had a 9.6 percent shot of claiming another Lombardi Trophy with Rodgers around, but just a 1 percent opportunity with Hundley taking his place for the remainder of the campaign. FPI projects that the difference between Rodgers and Hundley over the rest of the season is worth about 1.4 wins, while the Packers would only flip sides from favorite to underdog once — Week 17 against the Lions.
Rodgers’ injury opens up the NFC and leaves a huge opening for the Eagles, who are prohibitive favorites with an 44.5 percent chance of finishing with the top seed. There are then somehow eight teams with two losses, while the Cowboys, Lions and Bucs are all competitive with three losses. It would be guesswork to even pick favorites out of this huge morass of teams in the middle of the pack, a group to which these Packers now likely belong.
As was the case in 2013, though, the Packers might have to hope that the other competitors in the North fail to take advantage of the opportunity. Subpar quarterback play might help. The Vikings (who now have an 62.7 percent percent chance of winning the division) appear stuck with Case Keenum for the immediate future, and while he did enough to beat the Packers, Keenum is probably not going to throw one pick for every four starts as he has over the past few weeks. Mitchell Trubisky racked up his first NFL win on Sunday, but it came in a game where his Bears (0.2 percent) ran for 231 yards and Trubisky had all of eight completions. Matthew Stafford is excellent, but he’s also seriously banged up and on a Lions (16.8 percent) team in which the defense seems almost entirely dependent upon forcing takeaways, which it probably won’t do at a similar rate over the remainder of the season.
If Rodgers needs surgery and the Packers are without his services for the rest of 2017, Green Bay is in serious trouble. Barring a stunning improvement from Hundley, McCarthy’s offense would struggle to score points. The Packers have neither the running game nor the defense to make up for the hit. If they can get Rodgers back late in the season and get enough help from the rest of the NFC North to hold on and stay within striking distance of the divisional title, though, they might be able to stage a repeat of that unlikely 2013 divisional title.