We're six weeks and change into the NFL season, and the list of teams that have lost their best player to injury keeps getting longer.
But it wasn't until Aaron Rodgers' broken collarbone in last weekend's loss at Minnesota that the man down for an extended period was an elite quarterback, twisting the Green Bay Packers' season in ways other teams don't even want to think about.
"Philosophically, that's one of the flaws of the National Football League," one longtime NFL scout opined to me this week. "It's so quarterback-driven. Quarterbacks are paid an extraordinary amount of money. If you have one, you're an immediate contender. If you don't have one, it's really hard to win. And if you find one, you set your team up around that guy, then he gets hurt, your season's almost lost."
There are exceptions, of course -- namely the 2016 Dallas Cowboys, who plugged in rookie fourth-round draft pick Dak Prescott after Tony Romo's preseason back injury and roared to a 13-3 record. But Prescott was a relative anomaly and had a stud rookie running back, Ezekiel Elliott, behind the NFL's best offensive line to ease the burden.
To contextualize the loss of Rodgers, I asked NFL Media Research to pull a list of quarterbacks since 2000 who started six games or fewer because of injury the year after making the Pro Bowl. There are only six: Kurt Warner (hurt in 2002), Michael Vick (2003), Tom Brady (2008), Romo (twice, in 2010 and '15), Peyton Manning (2011) and Teddy Bridgewater (2016). None of those teams made the playoffs, going a combined 35-56 in games without their starting QB. The ever-steady Patriots did go 10-5 without Brady; on the other end, the 2003 Falcons without Vick went 2-10, the 2011 Colts without Manning 2-14 and the 2015 Cowboys without Romo 1-11.
In nine games without Rodgers over the past five seasons (including two games in which he was hurt in the first quarter), the Packers are 2-6-1. During his last extended absence in 2013, the Packers started three other QBs -- late-in-camp additions Scott Tolzien and Seneca Wallace, plus Matt Flynn -- before Rodgers returned to save them in Week 17. The speed with which they announced Rodgers might miss the rest of the 2017 season doesn't leave much hope for similar heroics this time. (He underwent surgery Thursday.)
The best way to overcome this type of history is to develop more NFL-caliber quarterbacks -- which is precisely what the Packers have been trying to do with Brett Hundley, a fifth-round pick in 2015 who will make his first-ever NFL start Sunday against the Saints. As Packers coach and respected QB developer Mike McCarthy said this week, he has invested three years in Hundley and two in new backup Joe Callahan. Any thought of pursuing Colin Kaepernick or some other veteran is a distant Plan C or D right now, and wouldn't fit with the Packers' approach to personnel under McCarthy and GM Ted Thompson anyway.
After conversations with coaches, scouts and executives from several teams that have played the Packers this season, I get the sense they have a fighting chance to buck the trend and find a way to extend their eight-year playoff streak, even if it's hard to imagine Hundley playing near the level of Rodgers, a two-time NFL MVP who creates so much of their offense off-schedule.
Accuracy has been among the questions about Hundley since he came out of UCLA. His footwork and overall mechanics haven't always been really detailed or precise. But Hundley showed command of the Packers' system in his third preseason this past summer; some NFL teams grade him as a functional starter. In relief of Rodgers last week -- on the road, behind a decimated offensive line, against an excellent Vikings defense, without many practice reps -- Hundley was 18-of-33 passing for 157 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions.
"He made some really nice throws. He made some bad decisions under duress," one high-ranking personnel executive who watched Hundley last week told me. "There was a lot going on. Obviously, didn't play great, but I did think he showed [promise] sometimes. If he gets a week of prep, he's big (6-foot-3, 226 pounds), he's athletic, he's got a pretty live arm. ... It's kind of the unknown."
There are a lot of weapons to work with in the passing game: Davante Adams, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Martellus Bennett. The backfield group isn't bad either, led by Ty Montgomery and rookie Aaron Jones, though injury questions along the O-line cast doubt on how effectively they can count on running the ball. Rodgers covers up plenty in the protection phase, too. The Packers' defense is more talented than it was during their struggles four years ago, as well, even with ongoing injury issues at cornerback. They're always a tough, well-coached team.
One opposing coordinator who faced the Packers this season predicted McCarthy will utilize more "big" packages with extra tight ends, leaning on a combination of the run with a quick passing game, plus bootlegs and other concepts to get Hundley out of the pocket. In turn, opponents figure to stack the box.
"If that Hundley guy can't throw the ball outside, then it reduces them to throwing slants versus that single-high (safety) stuff," the coordinator said. "Then, it's going to come to the receivers' run after the catch, breaking tackles."
Asked this week what he learned from the Packers' 2013 struggles without Rodgers, McCarthy said, "Don't try to do too much." He spoke repeatedly about mental errors and other mistakes that plainly frustrated him in the Minnesota game, deflecting the focus toward the reality that it's an 11-on-11 game.
The Packers certainly aren't the only team with a big injury. Everybody's fighting something right now. Their path to survival just seems a whole lot steeper than the rest because of the one they're missing.
The Five W's for Week 7
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WHO can explain Joe Flacco's struggles? One theory: NFL passing games are all about rhythm, timing and tempo, which is harder to build when you miss most of camp with a back injury, as Flacco did this year. "Even on tape, you can see there's not much rhythm," said one NFL personnel man who has broken down the Ravens recently. "He's not playing fast. He's just kind of deliberate." Flacco can still throw it, but his passing yards per game (162.7), per attempt (5.4), TD-INT margin (4-8) and passer rating (66.1) would all be the worst of his career. It doesn't get any easier on the road Sunday against the Vikings.
WHAT are the chances Teddy Bridgewater comes back as the Vikings' QB of the future? (submitted by @WarleyOwl) The Vikings have three weeks to evaluate whether Bridgewater is even up to playing this season. His mobility may never be the same after such a catastrophic knee injury. (One opposing coach who wasn't a big Bridgewater fan once told me elusiveness was among his best traits.) But there are positive signs, according to people who have seen more of him than I have. Bridgewater looks bigger physically, especially in the upper body. (When I asked him Thursday how much he weighs, Bridgewater said 250 - clearly a joke, but it does appear he's put on weight.) His arm has wowed people during the rehab process. He's beloved by teammates and is still only 24. Now he needs to get back his base and continue testing himself in what coach Mike Zimmer calls "uncontrolled environments". Case Keenum gets another start Sunday against the Ravens.
WHEN will an elite college kicker make a smooth transition to the NFL?Roberto Aguayo was a particularly highest-profile flop with the Bucs, who cut him in camp this year. The Chargers already cut rookie Younghoe Koo, and fellow Lou Groza Award finalist Zane Gonzalez of the Browns missed three straight field-goal tries in Weeks 4 and 5. One veteran special teams coach theorized this week that consistency in college can actually work against some young kickers, because they're not prepared when adversity strikes in the NFL. Everybody's going to miss kicks. When someone like Aguayo -- whose overconfidence, to the point of arrogance, turned off some coaches during the pre-draft process -- goes from missing nine kicks his entire college career to missing 11 as an NFL rookie (14 including preseason), he may not know how to stop the tailspin. Good sign for Gonzalez that he converted his only field-goal try from 41 yards last week at Houston.
WHERE have off-the-field issues impacted Ezekiel Elliott this season on the field? (submitted by @GoldChompers) His production hasn't been the same (3.7-yard average on 105 carries and two touchdowns so far, down from 5.1 and 15 TDs a year ago). It's only natural the uncertainty would weigh to some degree on Elliott, whose six-game suspension for domestic violence has been issued, upheld on appeal, stopped by the courts, reinstated by the courts and then stopped again over the past two-plus months. But everything I've heard from team sources about Elliott's approach has been positive -- running hard, good attitude, focused. He still has at least 80 yards in every game this season except his Week 2 stuffing at Denver. The strength of Sunday's opponent, the 49ers, is in the defensive front seven. They're allowing 3.4 yards a carry.
WHY was Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch suspended one game on top of his ejection Thursday night? That's pretty rare. But two issues were pointed out to me that made this situation unique, as detailed in the disciplinary letter sent by NFL VP of football operations Jon Runyan: 1) Lynch made "deliberate physical contact" with a game official; and 2) Lynch wasn't even on the field before injecting himself into the confrontation. It���ll be worth monitoring whether the suspension stands on appeal, as it sets a stiff punishment standard for not only putting hands on an official, but leaving the bench to join the fray, even if the goal is to play peacemaker.