GREEN BAY – There were late-night phone calls and early-morning meetings. Virtually, of course. Every hour of the past week was crammed for this, the rarest of challenges in the NFL, a game plan the starting quarterback executes without taking a single practice rep.
Aaron Rodgers knew what awaited him not long after that positive COVID-19 test returned. He quickly consulted the calendar, counting the 10 days required under NFL protocol for unvaccinated players who test positive to be away from team facilities, eventually landing on Saturday, Nov. 13.
One day before the Green Bay Packers would host the Seattle Seahawks.
So Rodgers knew entering his team’s eventual 17-0 win Sunday, a victory that was his eighth straight at quarterback but also built around a stumbling offense that looked like it went a week without him, that this would not be ideal. “That’s not,” he said, “obviously the most desirable way to go through a week of preparation.” Still, nothing was keeping him away from Lambeau Field on Sunday, so long as his symptoms were gone and protocol was followed.
“I knew,” Rodgers said, “it’d be one of those weird weeks.”
It was one of those weird games for the three-time MVP. He was a shell of himself, literally playing through a body fatigued by a deadly virus. Rodgers looked every bit his 37, almost 38 years, something that rarely can be said about his usual exuberant play on the field. His first deep pass, a 41-yard completion down the left sideline to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, might have gone for a touchdown if it weren’t underthrown.
The next possession ended when Rodgers threw late and short to a wide-open Allen Lazard deep down the middle of the field on third down. “Just didn’t throw a tight spiral in the wind there,” Rodgers said. He had Lazard between two safeties, but couldn’t connect what otherwise might have been a layup.
Most of Rodgers’ afternoon went that way.
“I wouldn’t say it was tough to game plan,” coach Matt LaFleur said, “but you’re always wondering how it’s going to look on game day when you haven’t had any reps with him.”
Rodgers finished 23-of-37 for 292 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, his first game without throwing for a score since the Packers’ season opener against the New Orleans Saints. Not coincidentally, Rodgers’ 75.5 rating against the Seahawks was his lowest since the opener. In his last game Oct. 28 before testing positive for COVID-19, playing without his top three receivers at Arizona, Rodgers mustered a 90.4 rating.
After it was over, Rodgers, dressed in a black cap, black hoodie and sipping on a water bottle, was as subdued as you’d expect from a professional athlete who had just gone through a rigorous illness.
“Not ideal for sure,” Rodgers said, “being on Zoom all week. The best thing for me to be prepared is to be able to repeat the plays in practice, and then the walkthroughs. You’re hearing the plays two or three or four times, and it becomes kind of second nature. You can kind of finish the sentence from Matt. Today, like I told him pregame, was going to be more Ron Burgundy-ish where sometimes I’ve got to repeat exactly what’s being said verbatim, and kind of feel my way through the plan.
“I thought Matt did a nice job of kind of limiting the long play calls early in the game. There were a lot of run-it plays, but not a lot of cans or adjustments on it. So I think that made me settle in a little bit. But, yeah, not ideal for sure. It’ll be nice to go through a full week next week.”
The physical exertion was only made worse by what had to be an emotional toll in the past 11 days. Rodgers, in all his defiance, initially defended his unvaccinated position with the ferocity he would attack an NFL defense in the fourth quarter. The blowback wasn’t new for a quarterback who has been a lightning rod for controversy – you might’ve heard about his retirement contemplation this offseason – but this felt more personal.
Because COVID-19 is a virus that has destroyed livelihoods and ended lives. Nobody has gone personally unaffected.
Sponsors pulled their support, or issued statements to defend their decision for not distancing themselves from him. Physicians wrote position papers. Even his most ardent fans felt personally offended. All while Rodgers buried himself in a game prep unlike any other, doing whatever he could to block out the distractions.
“Everybody has an opinion,” Rodgers said, “and I understand it’s a very polarizing issue for some individuals, but I’m just focusing on the support that I got. It was deep and wide and greatly appreciated. There’s always going to be criticism in this world. I don’t define myself by the criticism, but I understand that’s a part of this, because this issue is definitely polarizing. I’m just so deeply grateful for all the people that reached out.”
Maybe it was only coincidence that Sunday included Rodgers’ poorest on-field decision all season. On third-and-6 from the 15-yard line, the Packers were in chip-shot field-goal range clinging to a 3-0 lead late in the third quarter. Rodgers had receiver Randall Cobb open in the left flat, but instead looked right.
As Rodgers stepped out of Seahawks defensive end Alton Robinson’s grasp for a potential sack, he escaped the pocket right while looking into the end zone. Nobody was open. Instead of eating the play, setting up the easy field goal, Rodgers chucked a lollipop into the end zone toward tight end Josiah Deguara as defensive end Rasheem Green hit him.
Deguara was blanketed by Seahawks All-Pro safety Jamal Adams. It was a mismatch, and Adams easily intercepted the pass, Rodgers’ fourth this season and only his second inside the red zone.
Instead of doubling their lead, the Packers got nothing.
“Last minute,” Rodgers said, “I was trying to throw it out the back of the end zone, but got kind of hit when I threw it, and it turned out to be kind of a really bad play.”
It was a bad week for Rodgers. Negative attention. A borderline impossible game prep. By the time it was over, Rodgers admitted, fatigue gave way to something else.
This was only Week 10, the Packers first home game of November. Rodgers has played on the biggest stages here. Still, the quarterback was emotional throughout Sunday, never more than as he got “misty” leaving the field.
The COVID-19 storm, Rodgers hopes, will soon be in his rearview. Sunday was an important step to putting the controversy behind him.
“I don’t take these moments for granted,” Rodgers said. “Every time you walk off the field as a winner, it’s special. And the response is special.”
This article originally appeared on Packers News: Aaron Rodgers relieved to have completed return from COVID-19