GREEN BAY — As excited as Mike McCarthy is to have Aaron Rodgers back on the practice field for a full week of work, the Green Bay Packers coach can’t let his team — or himself — get caught up in the hubbub of the quarterback’s continuing comeback.
Nor can McCarthy allow his players to be distracted by a matchup with the winless Cleveland Browns, and the potential ignominy of having their slim playoff chances wiped out by a misstep against the NFL’s worst team.
Thus, McCarthy said Monday, the message for the week — despite everyone’s giddiness about Rodgers running the scout team starting in practice on Wednesday — will be about focus and what the team must do to make sure Rodgers’ return actually means something.
“We need to win the game. We’re 6-6. We need to be seven wins when we get on that plane coming back from Cleveland,” McCarthy said Monday, one day after the Packers’ 26-20 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — just their second win since Rodgers broke his collarbone Oct. 15 at Minnesota. “Nothing else matters.”
Rodgers, who had surgery on Oct. 19 and was placed on injured reserve the following day, was designated for return last week and threw during Saturday’s light practice in advance of Sunday’s game.
Just as he did by doing his rehabilitation work during practice inside the Don Hutson Center on Nov. 16, and just as he did during a pregame throwing session before the team’s Nov. 26 loss at Pittsburgh, Rodgers’ work on Saturday got his teammates’ hopes up for his potential return for the team’s Dec. 17 game at Carolina — the earliest he can play according to an NFL rule that requires players placed on injured reserve to sit out eight weeks.
But there’s no guarantee that Rodgers’ collarbone is sufficiently healed to allow him to play against the Panthers, and whether he’ll be medically cleared will depend on what scans and tests show sometime next week. McCarthy said Rodgers will be in the “trial return” group at practice Wednesday, meaning he’ll be able to take limited snaps.
That means Rodgers will do regular quarterback drill work and direct the scout-team offense when it runs the Browns’ plays against the Packers’ No. 1 defense.
“That’s the status that he’s in. He’s not medically cleared,” McCarthy said. “We won’t be in pads on Wednesday, but it will be a padded practice on Thursday, so you have to make sure you identify exactly what you want to get done there (with Rodgers). … We call it ‘trial return’ because he’s not cut loose to go full practice where he’s able to do everything.
“We’re excited Aaron’s out there. It was big for him to be out there Saturday. Being on the practice field, that was a very good thing for what we accomplished. This week will be another step for him. But, at the end of the day, offensively, we need to do some things better than we did (against Tampa Bay). Clearly.”
Although the Packers improved to 2-5 since Rodgers went down, it wasn’t because his replacement, Brett Hundley, was particularly efficient. Hundley threw for a season-low 84 yards, completing just 13 of 22 passes and throwing his eighth interception.
“We’ve got to get the passing game clicking,” McCarthy said. “We’ve got some things we’ve definitely got to clean up.”
McCarthy was particularly perturbed with how ineffective Hundley was on drop-backs inside the pocket and on play-action. The Packers offense managed only 54 plays and was led by rookie running back Jamaal Williams, who rushed 21 times for 113 yards and a touchdown.
To his credit, Hundley did engineer a 70-yard game-tying field goal drive in the fourth quarter and the 72-yard game-winning touchdown drive in overtime.
“When we needed him the most, he made plays,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “You can go back and look at the fourth-quarter drive to get that field goal (and) in the overtime period (when) we drive the ball down the field, him making quite a few plays to put us in position to win the game. When we needed him most, he made the plays necessary for us to win the game.”
Getting some help
Most of the games Sunday broke the Packers’ way, as their win over the Buccaneers coupled with losses by Atlanta (7-5), Detroit (6-6) and Carolina (8-4) brought them closer to the pack in the chase for a wild card berth.
Minnesota’s win over the Falcons put the Vikings at 10-2, meaning they need just one more victory to lock up the NFC North title, but the Falcons, who hold a head-to-head tiebreaker on the Packers, are now only one game ahead of Green Bay. A win at Carolina in Week 15 — with or without Rodgers — would give the Packers a head-to-head tiebreaker if they finish with the same record as the Panthers, who are second in the NFC South behind New Orleans.
If that all sounds a bit too complicated to be worrying about right now, McCarthy is with you. He believes the Packers must win their last four games, including the regular-season finale at Detroit on Dec. 31.
“Frankly, it doesn’t matter. We’re at six losses. History will tell you that if you don’t get to 10 wins — and I practice what I preach — you don’t even talk about that (playoff) stuff until you get to 10 wins,” McCarthy said. “We won’t hopefully have that opportunity to talk about it until New Year’s Eve. Everything else doesn’t matter. We have to get to seven wins.”