Aaron Rodgers exits with concussion as Packers close disappointing season with 31-0 loss to Lions

December 31, 2018

GREEN BAY — And so, this is how the Green Bay Packers’ much-celebrated 100th season ended — so ignominiously, so disappointingly far from what they’d expected it to turn into when it began.

Sunday marked 112 days since quarterback Aaron Rodgers had limped back onto the Lambeau Field turf during the second half of their Sept. 9 season-opener against the Chicago Bears, hobbled by an injured left knee and facing a 20-point deficit, and rallied his team to an electrifying come-from-behind victory. At the time, it felt like the type of triumph that sets the tone for a Super Bowl contender embarking on a memorable season.

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Instead, it turned out to be a depressingly forgettable year, one that ended Sunday where it had started, but at the other end of the competitive spectrum: With a 31-0 drubbing at the hands of another largely inept team, the Detroit Lions, on the Packers’ home turf.

“It felt like a lifeless game,” veteran Packers defensive back Tramon Williams said. “I was in it, but it was hard to watch. Bad ending. It’s tough. I don’t really know what else to say.”

And Rodgers’ biggest accomplishment of the day? That he came back to the stadium at all after departing in an ambulance.

Rodgers, who had a disappointing year of his own but managed to start all 16 games this season despite that opening-night knee injury, left the game after three three-and-out first-quarter possessions with a concussion, which appeared to occur on the opening series, when Rodgers was hit so hard by Lions linebacker Jarrad Davis that his helmet flew off.

Rodgers played two more series before he walked to the locker room with team physician Dr. John Gray and veteran athletic trainer Kurt Fielding early in the second quarter, then ended up leaving Lambeau Field by ambulance while the game was still going on to go to a local hospital for evaluation and observation. Rodgers did return to the stadium to be with his teammates for the aftermath of a year gone wrong.

“When arguably the greatest player in the game leaves, it’s not going to affect you positively,” veteran center Corey Linsley said. “Aaron was very emotional. (And) I know that for him to get emotional leaving a game that everybody, says is quote-unquote, ‘meaningless’ shows us how hard he wanted to play out there and how much he wanted to be with his boys. That was special.

“For that guy to come over to us and rally around us and tell us he wasn’t going (to be able to keep playing) — and he was devastated about it honestly — that meant a lot to us. That’s just shows you what kind of guy he is, honestly.”

What kind of team the Packers truly were — or more accurately, could have been — this season is anyone’s guess. By Sunday, they had only eight combined preferred starters on the field on both sides of the ball, including just three on defense (Clay Matthews, Blake Martinez and Williams, who was playing out of position). Most of their best players were either on injured reserve (running back Aaron Jones, defensive tackle Kenny Clark) or inactive (wide receiver Davante Adams, cornerback Jaire Alexander).

Nonetheless, their absences — and Rodgers’ departure in favor of backup DeShone Kizer — were hardly an excuse for a performance in which the Packers were outgained, 402-175, punted almost as many times (seven) as they achieved first downs (nine), and never even penetrated the Lions’ 20-yard line.

A week after a remarkable overtime victory over the New York Jets — in which they rallied from a 35-20 second-half deficit for a 44-38 win — this was the exact opposite.

“They played better, they coached better and that’s why I think the scoreboard reads like it did,” said Packers interim head coach Joe Philbin, who took over when coach Mike McCarthy was fired on Dec. 2 with four games left in his 13th season as coach. “One thing we had talked about since Dec. 3 was being a pro and being accountable. It wasn’t one person, it wasn’t one play. They outcoached us, they outplayed us. They caught the ball better, tackled better, blocked better. They outplayed us today and outcoached us. No doubt. So that was that.”

The offense struggled even before Rodgers’ departure, failing to gain a first down and managing just 13 total yards. Kizer struggled (16 of 35, 132 yards, one interception, 44.0 rating) but got little help from an injury-ravaged offensive line and a running game that went nowhere (nine carries for 6 yards by running backs).

“We couldn’t really get anything going. Out of sync — I don’t really know what to call it,” said backup lineman Justin McCray, who finished the game at left tackle for an injured David Bakhtiari (hip). “They put us out there to score points, and when you come out without any points, we definitely didn’t do our job today.

“It’s frustrating. We played hard last week, and we prepared well this week. Guys were hurting this week, but everybody came in, everybody practiced. And to have this happen, it’s just frustrating. I know nobody on this team quit. Everybody was playing hard, everyone is playing through injuries, everybody’s been going through their own battles with the season. It’s just tough when it doesn’t go the way we want on Sunday.”

And now, who knows? Team president/CEO Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst have already begun their search for McCarthy’s successor, having interviewed ex-NFL head coaches Jim Caldwell and Chuck Pagano. Philbin is also a candidate, although Sunday’s outcome surely didn’t help his chances, and it was widely reported Sunday that the team would try to interview Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald. Murphy and Gutekunst could interview a dozen or more candidates before moving forward.

Meanwhile, a number of players might’ve played their final snaps for the Packers on Sunday, including Matthews and wide receiver Randall Cobb. And they’re hardly alone in facing uncertain futures.

“I told the players in the locker room, I told them last night: ‘There’s change in the NFL, right? Players and coaches, every year,’” Philbin said. “That’s what we sign up for. I realize that, I understand that.

“But that’s football. It is what it is, you can’t change that now.”

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