When Aaron Rodgers went down for the bulk of the 2017 NFL season, he took the Packers’ playoff streak with him. Green Bay had qualified for the postseason for eight straight years before a broken collarbone gave way to backup quarterback Brett Hundley and effectively sunk the perennial NFC North contenders.
The Packers aim to spark another long run as contenders with a resurgent Rodgers behind center, but there’s a major roadblock in the way. Although Rodgers was as good as ever before hitting the turf last fall, he’ll be 35 this season and well into the latter half of a Hall of Fame career. It’s clear the franchise expects him to be back at full strength this season and beyond after gracing him with a four-year extension that includes nine figures of guaranteed money and makes him the league’s highest-paid player again.
But for the rest of us, it’s fair to ask what the Packers can expect from their all-world passer in 2018.
Rodgers has come back from a similar injury in the past. A fractured clavicle in 2013 gave way to an MVP campaign in 2014. Four years later, he’ll work to repeat that magic — but how realistic is it that he returns to form? And how have other quarterbacks fared after major injuries in their mid-30s?
Rodgers’ toughness has been his legacy in Green Bay
Part of Rodgers’ mystique is a product of his durability. Even though the Packers have had some standout blockers along their offensive line, Rodgers has actually been sacked more than most quarterbacks in his stratosphere — his career 6.9 percent sack rate is higher than peers like Tom Brady (4.9 percent), Peyton Manning (3.1 percent), and Drew Brees (3.9 percent).
Despite that, he’d only missed significant chunks of the regular season twice after earning Green Bay’s starting spot. His broken clavicle stole seven games of his 2013 season, but he returned in time to lead an 8-7-1 Packer team to an NFC North title and the postseason. He tried to do the same after missing seven more games in 2017, but a Week 15 loss to the Panthers effectively eliminated the team from playoff contention and forced the veteran back to injured reserve.
The other important thing to note is that Rodgers has continued to avoid major lower-body injuries in his career. His ability to escape pressure with defense-gashing scrambles is a major part of his game, and any blow to that would limit his options in the pocket. Fortunately, he’s only really dealt with upper-body problems in his 13 seasons as a pro.
Rodgers’ return from injury in 2014 is the best reason the Packers can be hopeful about his return in 2018. His comeback was a tour de force performance that ended with NFL MVP honors, a 12-4 record, and an inexplicable come-from-ahead overtime loss to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship. He recorded an absurd 38:5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and piloted the league’s No. 1 offense.
A repeat performance in 2018 will be an even bigger achievement. Not only will Rodgers have to fend off the ravages of aging, but he’ll have to deal with what looks like, on paper, a less talented supporting cast than his 2014 cohort. That year he had Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb in their primes (2,800+ receiving yards, 25 touchdowns between them) as well as a pile-pushing, touchdown-magnet tailback in Eddie Lacy (1,139 rushing yards, 13 total touchdowns).
The 2018 squad has plenty of talented players, but the pressure will be on players like Cobb, Davante Adams, and Jimmy Graham to become Pro Bowl targets for an MVP candidate. The Packers boasted just the league’s 17th-ranked rushing offense last fall. While the platoon of Aaron Jones, Ty Montgomery, and Jamaal Williams was effective, two members of that cohort — Montgomery and Williams — averaged fewer than four yards per carry in 2017.
Can they be reliable enough to prevent opponents from selling out on the Green Bay passing attack? And can Rodgers channel his inner Carson Palmer to help them?
How have other veteran quarterbacks performed after mid-30s injuries?
Rodgers is far from the only player to deal with a major injury in the latter stages of his career. In the past decade alone, several teams have lost their veteran starting quarterbacks to season-ending maladies.
Palmer is the best case scenario for a reurning Rodgers; a torn ACL in 2014 gave way to his greatest season as a pro in 2015. The then-35-year-old returned to the Arizona Cardinals lineup and turned a good team into a great one with a 4,671-yard, 35-touchdown performance that led to his first Pro Bowl honors in nearly a decade. He set career highs in total yardage, touchdown passes, touchdown rate, and passer rating while leading the league in passing efficiency (8.7 yards per attempt) and game-winning drives (4).
But that was a mid-30s comeback from a lower-body injury for a quarterback who was never that mobile. The recent comparisons for players coming back from season-ending upper body injuries aren’t as rosy — but they still paint an optimistic picture for Rodgers’ return.
Jay Cutler suffered a torn labrum that ended his tenure with the Chicago Bears in 2016. After giving retirement a brief test run that offseason, he eventually returned to helm a Ryan Tannehill-less Dolphins offense and turned in a perfectly reasonable Cutler season: touchdown and interception rates better than the previous season with the Bears, but a noticeable drop from his career efficiency numbers despite a well-stocked lineup of wide receivers. Jason Campbell broke his collarbone in 2011 at age 30 and returned to play at roughly a career-average rate over the final three years of his career as a high-value backup.
Tony Romo has suffered similar clavicle fractures in his past, and though a broken back prevented him from following up on his 2015 injury, his 2011 return was the best season of his career to that point. The 31-year-old threw for 4,181 yards and 31 touchdowns while posting a 102.5 passer rating that ranked fourth in the league. Although he was younger than Rodgers will be, his ability to rebound and turn a year of rehab into a big performance should serve as inspiration for the Packers’ star.
Josh McCown is a case study of the effects of broken collarbones on an aging quarterback unto himself. Fractured clavicles ended his 2015 and 2016 campaigns, but he’s been able to bounce back each time to provide high-value veteran play into his late-30s. Despite his first return from a collarbone injury being an underwhelming five-game stint for a 1-15 Browns team in 2015, his return from a similar injury to the opposite shoulder in 2016 helped ruin the Jets’ tanking plans. The 38-year-old willed an anonymous receiving corps to competency while setting career highs in passing yards, touchdown passes, and completion rate.
Those veterans were able to rally from injuries in their 30s the very next season. Any suggestion older players can’t rehab as effectively as their younger peers, as least at quarterback, is pretty easily refuted thanks to Palmer, Romo, and, somehow, McCown.
So what’s next for Rodgers?
We already got a chance to see what Rodgers can do after fracturing his collarbone when he returned to the field in Week 15. He sprinted back from injury in hopes of keeping the Packers in the NFC North playoff picture but was rebuffed by the Panthers.
It was clear Rodgers wasn’t the same player he’d been before the injury. Only two months of rehab and little field experience in the interim affected his timing, leading to his first three-interception performance since 2009. While he threw for 290 yards, he needed 45 passes to get there.
He looked ready to go in his brief preseason appearance this year. Though he completed just 2 of 4 passes for 35 yards in Week 2, he also connected with Graham for a touchdown.
It would be unfair to use a single game or a preseason cameo as the predictor for his performance going forward, especially with the strong track record of other recent quarterbacks who have returned from big injuries in their 30s. Rodgers is familiar with the rehab track and has bounced back before.
He’ll be staring down 35 as he tries to do it again, albeit in a tougher division and a weaker supporting cast. Even so, he already got a big reward — a contract extension that guarantees he’ll be in Green Bay through 2023 and $100 million. Given his history and the way other quarterbacks have performed in similar situations, that looks like a solid investment for the Packers.