Risk and Reward Remain at the Center of Aaron Rodgers' Return

Zach KruseSenior Analyst IDecember 19, 2013

Dec 15, 2013; Arlington, TX, USA; Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy (right) talks with injured quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the sidelines during the game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The fractured collarbone of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will not be completely healed by the time the Pittsburgh Steelers arrive at Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon. 

This medical certainty continues to ensure that the balancing act between risk and reward will remain the primary factor in whether Rodgers plays or not in Week 16.

Simply, does the ever-increasing reward of Rodgers returning—with two wins now needed to get Green Bay into the postseason—outweigh the always declining risk of re-injury and probable surgery on the collarbone?

The ultimate decision lies in the qualified hands of Dr. Pat McKenzie, the Packers team physician. And he'll make his next and most important assessment soon enough. 

Rodgers hasn't played since Nov. 4.
Rodgers hasn't played since Nov. 4.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Packers are expected to announce whether or not Rodgers will play Friday afternoon. Exactly a week earlier, McKenzie declared Rodgers unfit, forcing the quarterback to sit out Green Bay's season-reviving win over the Dallas Cowboys

Rodgers has now missed six games and all but one series of another after cracking his left collarbone on Nov. 4. But might the balance finally be tilting in reward's direction?

On his weekly radio show at ESPN Milwaukee, Rodgers acknowledged the risk-reward part of the decision process. 

“I think there has to be, on some level, a risk-reward conversation,” Rodgers said. “You have to base that on the evidence you see on the scan, but also how I’m feeling and if I’m able to do normal football movements without pain. That obviously goes into the equation.”

In terms of team reward, the Packers probably couldn't ask for much more incentive. Two straight wins, plus some help from the Detroit Lions, have set Green Bay up with an opportunity to win its last two games—home vs. Pittsburgh and away at Chicago—and secure a third straight NFC North title. 

Backup Matt Flynn, who continues taking all of the first-team reps this week, has delivered back-to-back wins. But having Rodgers under center would drastically increase Green Bay's chances of beating the Steelers and Bears over the next two weeks. 

Return of the Best? Aaron Rodgers Since 2010
No.NFL Rank
Passer Rating110.31st
Passing Yards15,0786th
Passing TDs1273rd
Completion %67.13rd
Yards per Attempt8.471st
Wins404th
Source: Pro Football Reference

There's also individual risk. Any hit to an unstable collarbone could cause a displacement that would require surgery to repair. No self-respecting team physician should sign off on a scenario where a player is at a greater risk of re-injury and potential surgery than normal. 

It's abundantly clear Rodgers wants to play and feels ready to return. If he had his way, Rodgers probably would have faced the Cowboys last Sunday.

Even head coach Mike McCarthy has begun publicly expressing his own opinion that Rodgers appears prepared to play, at least in football terms. 

For the second straight week, McCarthy said his quarterback looked fine on the practice field. 

"He looks sharp," McCarthy said Thursday, via Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. "He definitely looks better this week. He looks like he’s ready to play."

It appears obvious that both Rodgers and McCarthy would sign off for a return to the playing field. But it's just as clear that the situation is out the hands of both men. 

GREEN BAY, WI - SEPTEMBER 15:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers confers with head coach Mike McCarthy duirng a timeout against the Washington Redskins at Lambeau Field on September 15, 2013 in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Ge
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

This is a decision based on the medical experience of McKenzie and the long-term vision of general manager Ted Thompson. Without the consent and approval of both, Rodgers won't play. 

"It's an organizational and a medical decision at this point," Rodgers said, via Rob Demovsky of ESPN. 

Thompson is a team-constructer, both in the short and long term. He understands the pressure of now, but also the integrity of the player's long-term health. His job depends on Rodgers being a primary piece for the next several years. 

McKenzie's job is solely dependent on making a decision based on the immediate risk and long-term health for his player.

"I think (Dr. McKenzie) trusts me on how I'm feeling," Rodgers said. "It doesn’t mean I'm not going to battle him.”

There is certainly external pressure to clear Rodgers, and it's becoming clearer that internal pressure—from Rodgers and even McCarthy—is readily present. But McKenzie must still give an accurate and honest medical opinion to Thompson, who signed Rodgers to a $110 million deal this past spring. Together, the two will come to a consensus on Rodgers' availability. 

McKenzie and Thompson have already proven to be conservative in nature. Too much is at stake not to be. But can decision-makers in this instance be too careful?

"I don't think it's defensive. Either he's healed up enough where the doctors are comfortable or he's not," Bleacher Report's Will Carroll said in a recent interview. "The Packers and Rodgers don't have to wait for clearance, but they'd be crazy not to."

And that's where balancing the risk and reward becomes so difficult. Teams must stay true to their medical principles while also assuming that there's already inherent risk in playing the game. 

Dr. David Chao, who was the former team physician for the San Diego Chargers, recently wrote about the delicate balance between risk and reward in a situation like Rodgers'.

"It is a balance of risk (re-injury) and reward (playing)," Chao wrote at National Football Post. "It also involves balancing the patient’s desires with an informed consent of the risks. This is why being a good team physician is an art, not a strict science."

The question for Week 16 might be as simple as whether or not Rodgers and McCarthy can present enough evidence to McKenzie and Thompson for the two to be comfortable signing off on a return. 

By Friday afternoon, we'll know that answer.