Already coming into a Week 5 road game without running back Ryan Grant and tackle Mark Tauscher on offense, plus safety Morgan Burnett and linebackers Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar on defense, the Packers saw more players – and key ones – continue to drop out of the game as the injuries have piled up in staggering fashion.
In the first quarter of Sunday’s 16-13 overtime defeat, the Packers lost tight ends Jermichael Finley (knee) and Donald Lee (shoulder) as well as defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle). Then as the game wore on, linebacker Clay Matthews (hamstring) dropped out in the second half and special teamer Derrick Martin (knee) limped off in overtime.
And to top it off, had the offense gotten another chance after quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw an interception in overtime, the Packers wouldn’t have had him either. Rodgers sustained a concussion on the play and would have been replaced by backup Matt Flynn had the Redskins not succeeded in kicking the game-winning field goal with 8:06 left in the extra period.
“In all my years of playing, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Pickett, a 10-year veteran. “We’ve got to find a way to get back from all these injuries.”
The severity of the new injuries won’t be known until further tests are done on Monday. Finley told reporters afterward that his is not an ACL injury – he called it more of a “hamstring tendon” – and he’s hoping he might have to miss only one game, though players are often more optimistic than the doctors. With the NFL’s policy on concussions, Rodgers will have to pass a series of tests before he can even return to the practice field.
Matthews said he doesn’t feel he tweaked his hamstring as badly as he did during the Family Night Scrimmage, which led to him missing the entire preseason slate. It is the same hamstring that has cropped up as a problem each of his first two years in the NFL, though, so it’s hard to say how much rest he’ll need this time.
“If anything it’s just a little tightening right now,” said Matthews, who denied getting IV fluids in the locker room during the game, contrary to a press box report. “I think we’re just being smart. I feel good, I can still move around, there’s no pain, but we just have to be smart with these things because we don’t need another four-week setback.
“We’ll see once we get back in there Monday or Tuesday, see what the prognosis is, and take it from there. I’d like to say it’s definitely not going to be as long as what I’ve previously been through.”
Matthews left the game late in the third quarter with the Packers leading 13-3. His absence clearly had an impact on the defense, particularly the pressure on Washington quarterback Donovan McNabb.
Matthews had 1 ½ sacks and numerous other pressures up until that point, but after he left the game the Redskins rallied for 10 points in the fourth quarter to tie the game and force overtime. The Packers did record two more sacks after Matthews departed, by end Mike Neal and linebacker Brady Poppinga, but McNabb was definitely not feeling as much heat through the final quarter and overtime.
“It’s very difficult (to watch the game slip away from the sidelines), especially when you think that you in some way can change the outcome of this game,” Matthews said. “I felt like I was having a pretty good game, getting after the quarterback, and I don’t feel like he could have made some of those passes if I was in there.
“It’s tough, it’s very tough. You want to be out there and have your best playmakers out there to win ballgames, especially when it comes down to the fourth quarter, the last drive and making plays.”
Finley felt the same way as far as the offense goes, considering he was the team’s leading receiver through the first four games of the season. The offense did roll up 427 yards on the day and had 13 points on the board midway through the third quarter, but it was blanked after that as Rodgers was facing more consistent pressure and seemingly couldn’t find a go-to guy.
“It’s one of those things,” Finley said. “If another guy went down on the receiving corps, I would have had to step up. All around the board we have to step up and make no excuses.”
The Packers weren’t going to use the injuries as an excuse for Sunday’s outcome, but obviously there are only so many injuries one team can handle over barely more than one quarter of the season.
The players refused to get down about it in the locker room afterward, however. There should be more definitive information as the week goes on as to how long everyone will be out – there were some reports last week that Barnett could be out for the season, though no final decision has yet been made – but whatever the news is, the team is determined to forge ahead.
“I think we can,” receiver Donald Driver said. “Everybody has to look at themselves and if you’re already making plays, you have to make more plays. That’s what we have to focus on.”
As frustrating as Sunday’s loss was, it’s worth remembering that even with so many players out, the Packers still had their chances to pull out a tough road win in a noisy stadium. They didn’t get steamrolled by any means with a slew of second-string players handling major roles, and those performances must be built upon.
“I don’t think it’s becoming too much,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “It’s a lot of guys going down, key guys, but from what I saw today, we’ve got guys that fight. That’s what we need out of our guys.”
The positives from the performance were that running back Brandon Jackson rushed for 115 yards in his best outing yet as Grant’s replacement; tight end Andrew Quarless had four receptions for 51 yards, including a big 21-yard grab to set up a game-winning field goal try at the end of regulation; and Neal, Poppinga and linebacker Desmond Bishop combined for three of the defense’s five sacks of McNabb.
But no team wants to play without full-fledged, established starters for any longer than it has to. So while the Packers won’t wallow in their misery and the healthy players will prepare to play, everyone will be hoping the team’s overall health starts turning around, and soon.
“These are key contributors and playmakers on our team, and anytime you lose them you’re definitely going to lose some volatility, if that’s even a word, to the offense and defense,” Matthews said. “It’s tough but at the same time it is a chance for these young guys to step up. Some of the best careers were made from young guys stepping up and never backing off.
“But at the same time, the ‘walking wounded’ so to speak need to hurry up get back and get healthy. It’s early in the season and there’s still a lot of football left to be played.”