What Happens When Aaron Rodgers Just... Disappears?

You think these are the Zombie Packers? You should spend a week in Green Bay. The rest of these guys have been out here the whole time. And they ain't done yet.
photo of Tyler Dunne Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterNovember 9, 2017

So this is what life without Aaron Rodgers looks like.

Packers head coach Mike McCarthy is playing a game of tic-tac-toe against the opposition's chess. Quarterback play is both lousy and drowsy. Backup Brett Hundley dinks 'n' dunks 'n' misses open receivers until you doze off, wake up and wish this were all some cruel dream.

Linemen are carted off with injuries. There goes right tackle Bryan Bulaga with a torn ACL.

Anger mounts here in Green Bay. As the Packers locker room empties after this 30-17 loss to Detroit on Monday night, before ducking out the exit, cornerback Damarious Randall tries to bite his tongue…but he cannot.

"It seemed like Matthew Stafford knew everything we were in," Randall says. "It seemed like we were very predictable. It's hard to beat an offense like that whenever the quarterback knows where to go with the ball before he snaps it."

The Packers suffered a 30-17 loss on "Monday Night Football" against the Lions.
The Packers suffered a 30-17 loss on "Monday Night Football" against the Lions.(Getty Images)

Translation: Blame the coaches, not the talent.

Urgency mounts here in Aaron Rodgers country. In a five-minute span, both Randall and cornerback Davon House announce that this week's game against the Chicago Bears—the Bears!—is an absolute must-win.

So, yeah: About a Hail Mary’s toss from the stadium, down here on Holmgren Way, fans are drinking away their sorrows at Anduzzi's Sports Club. It's packed. The bass booms. The beer flows. Yet when Lil Wayne's "Green and Yellow" remix blares, few engage. And when Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" plays, a portly Lions fan stuffed in a Calvin Johnson jersey suddenly breaks into dance in the dining area.

All surreal scenes for a franchise that's made the playoffs eight seasons in a row.

Life without Rodgers is pain and misery and, hey, make sure you take an Uber home, Lions fans.

There are NFL teams losing their star power. And then there's the Green Bay Packers losing a two-time MVP who'll go down as one of the greatest ever. Rodgers will be enshrined in the Packers Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He'll have a street named after him, and his number will be retired.

Now he's relegated to the sidelines—to mimed warm-ups in the end zone—and it's on the rest of this team to prove that, hey, life does go on. So, yeah: How is that supposed to happen, exactly? B/R Mag spent a week with the Packers to find out.

Aaron Rodgers shattered his right clavicle against the Vikings in October.
Aaron Rodgers shattered his right clavicle against the Vikings in October.(Getty Images)

The moment Minnesota Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr drilled Rodgers into the turf, he didn't only shatter Rodgers' right clavicle. He also shattered the hopes and dreams of the state of Wisconsin. There's a sliver of optimism Rodgers could return by late December—if the bone heals, if the gods of Lambeau oblige—but the Packers could also be nothing but debris off the I-43 by then.

Many already consider this a dead team walking. Told this in the days leading up to the Lions game, players begged to differ.

From defensive tackle Kenny Clark: "We're going to keep fighting. Hopefully we get to that point where we make the playoffs and make a playoff run."

To veteran defensive tackle Mike Daniels: "Everybody just has to do their job the best they can. And when that happens, great things happen."

To safety Morgan Burnett: "We have a positive group, a confident group."

To grinning running back Aaron Jones: "They're lying to themselves. Just turn on the TV and they'll see on Monday night."

Monday night arrived and, uh, the world was introduced to the Zombie Packers. To all the warts Rodgers has masked for years.

"Everybody just has to do their job the best they can," defensive tackle Mike Daniels says. "And when that happens, great things happen."
"Everybody just has to do their job the best they can," defensive tackle Mike Daniels says. "And when that happens, great things happen."(Getty Images)

The good news? The standings are discombobulated. There's still time. More good news? Burnett points to a speech Randall Cobb gave moments before Rodgers was pile-driven into the turf. He can still hear the receiver's words inside the visitors' locker room at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Cobb stood up to tell everyone that they all hailed from different walks of life. Everyone faced adversity in their own way. Everyone is here for a reason.

OK, there's no magic-wand solution at QB.

But this is a team that's tested, that believes it can win—because its lesser-known leaders been tested beyond the field, many times before.

And now only time will tell.


The declaration is made at 1:20 p.m. on a Saturday.

Mike Daniels has had enough.

Enough of your disrespect. Enough of your cheap shots.

Two days before Green Bay's MNF game, the team's 6'0", 310-pound human wrecking ball offers a warning shot to every player who dares to step on the field against these Green Bay Packers.

Surrounded by a small group of recorders and cameras, he brings up the Bears' Danny Trevathan's cheap shot on Packers wide receiver Davante Adams, the Vikings' Barr driving Rodgers into the turf and asks aloud, "When are we going to retaliate?" Daniels doesn't want teammates knocking players out, per se, but he does want everyone who plays against the Packers to know "we mean business."

The media around him leaves, and Daniels only sharpens his rhetoric.

"The best thing is we've got guys who want to bring it and will bring it," defensive tackle Mike Daniels says. "They're going to bring it."
"The best thing is we've got guys who want to bring it and will bring it," defensive tackle Mike Daniels says. "They're going to bring it."(Getty Images)

"It's understanding that teams hate us," Daniels says. "They knock our guys out of the game and then taunt us."

Too often, Rodgers is left bailing out a pattycake defense.

"Let's call a spade a spade," Daniels says. "The last two divisional games, two of our much better players, two of our good friends, two of our brothers got knocked out of the game to violent hits. You've got to return the hate with hate. I remember what one of my teammates said about our Iowa State rivalry when I was at Iowa. He said it's not a love-hate relationship; it's a hate-hate relationship. That's kind of how we have to be.

"The best thing is we've got guys who want to bring it and will bring it. They're going to bring it."

Believe it or not, Daniels didn't always exude such UFC bombast. Back in elementary school, he was scrawny, weak, bullied and terrified of spiders. Classmates used to sneak behind him and slip rubber spiders down his shirt one moment, then smack him in the back of the head the next. One day in first grade, Daniels returned home in tears.

So his dad devised a plan. He had his son do pushups, situps and squat jumps again and again and again. Daniels unleashed all hell on the wrestling mat and the football field. No, he never sought revenge in the form of haymakers.

"It's understanding that teams hate us," defensive tackle Mike Daniels says. "They knock our guys out of the game and then taunt us."
"It's understanding that teams hate us," defensive tackle Mike Daniels says. "They knock our guys out of the game and then taunt us."(Getty Images)

It was the raw intimidation Daniels craved then. And it's raw intimidation Daniels craves now.

This Packers defense is getting bullied, punked. So right here, right now, Daniels promises change.

"See the way that dude leveled Davante? See the way Aaron got crushed into the turf?" he says. "It's got to piss you off. It does. And they're divisional games! I remember against the Lions, one of the guys put Aaron in a full nelson just to be a jerk. Guys are too comfortable treating us any way they want to.

"We can't let that happen anymore."

Monday arrived, and on Detroit's first series, Daniels head-butted a player, drawing a 15-yard penalty, and the Packers scared no one. Stafford knifed through this defense with ease.

Back to the drawing board.


The Packers' passing game has become a shell of itself. Dull, predictable, boring. Without Rodgers, it wouldn't matter if Jerry Rice in his prime was lined up wide. 

So Aaron Jones, a rookie from UTEP, a son of military parents who says "yes, sir" at least two dozen times in conversation, is the 2017 Packers' last best hope on offense.

This rookie, who was the 18th running back drafted…no…wait. Jones politely cuts in to clarify he was the 19th running back and the 182nd player overall drafted. Yes, this 22-year-old is Green Bay's best chance at salvaging the 2017 season. A 125-yard game against Dallas and a 131-yard effort against New Orleans is proof positive.

What's losing your quarterback? Jones has been forced to adapt to change and turmoil his entire life.

"You are forced to be mentally tough at that point," running back Aaron Jones says. "As a little kid, having your parents taken from you? That's tough."
"You are forced to be mentally tough at that point," running back Aaron Jones says. "As a little kid, having your parents taken from you? That's tough."(Getty Images)

The word "war" itself triggered visions of the Civil War and World War I through the mind of a young Aaron Jones. That's what he was learning in school. He pictured blood and guns and violence and the possibility that his parents would not return home to El Paso, Texas, when both headed to Iraq in 2003.

"You are forced to be mentally tough at that point," he says. "As a little kid, having your parents taken from you? That's tough."

Mom stayed on one side of Iraq and Dad on the other. For several months, Aaron lived with his aunt and uncle...without a clue what was happening on the other side of the globe.

"You don't know if your parents are going to come back," Jones says. "You don't know if you're going to see them ever again. You don't know if that's your last time hugging them goodbye."

Now Mom and Dad are home, retired and safe. And Aaron is the one beam of hope on this offense.

He's not even verified on Twitter and could probably stroll down Washington Street in downtown Green Bay without anyone noticing him. But Jones believes he's just as good as Leonard Fournette, as Kareem Hunt, as Christian McCaffrey, as any rookie running back in the NFL.

"People are doubting us," running back Aaron Jones says. "We just have to put our head down and work, have that chip on our shoulder and turn them into believers."
"People are doubting us," running back Aaron Jones says. "We just have to put our head down and work, have that chip on our shoulder and turn them into believers."(Getty Images)

"I've always felt like that," he says. "I always felt like I belonged. I just felt like I was overlooked. Maybe because of my school. Maybe because of my size. I don't know why, but I always felt like I was overlooked. Somehow, I always find a way to conquer, to get people's attention. And once I finally get my chance, people are like, 'Hey, he can play.' And people are like, 'Where's he been this whole time?' I've been here. But nobody's paid attention."

Now he needs to conquer, and fast, because this sorry Packers offense is desperate. And 12 yards on five carries against the Lions isn't exactly conquering.

He's not concerned.

In the locker room, Jones displays the "A & A All the Way" tattoo on his left shoulder and a birth date over the right, tributes to his twin brother. A bond with Alvin Jr. helped him through those childhood years.

Hands on his hips, he holds his head high.

"People are doubting us," Jones said afterward. "We just have to put our head down and work, have that chip on our shoulder and turn them into believers."


If the Packers have any shot, period, of keeping this season alive, a starter on this defense must take Daniels’ brashness to heart. Someone. Anyone. That someone is nose tackle Kenny Clark.

The 2016 first-rounder has a rare blend of power and quickness. You don't see 314-pound people move like this. As for that element of nasty that Daniels wants? "Them drafting me," Clark says, "that's what they were going to get." He's ready for the identity of this defense to change.

"I'm a guy who's never going to shy away from adversity," Clark says. "I've been through adversity my whole life."

"We're going to keep fighting," nose tackle Kenny Clark says. "Hopefully we get to that point where we make the playoffs and make a playoff run."
"We're going to keep fighting," nose tackle Kenny Clark says. "Hopefully we get to that point where we make the playoffs and make a playoff run."(Getty Images)

So here's his adversity: His father is in prison. Has been since 2005. And Kenny Clark Sr. is in prison for a murder he says he did not commit. Kenny Sr. said he was innocent then and maintains his innocence today.

In 2005, Clark Sr. was convicted of the second-degree murder of Misael Rosales in San Bernardino, California. Numerous appeals since then have been denied.

"I'm playing for him," Kenny Jr. says, "and playing for my family."

All along, Kenny Jr. has maintained a strong relationship with his dad. They talk often. And at California Men's Colony, a lower-security prison in San Luis Obispo, his dad has access to games. He's already watched five of Clark's games this season on TV, and officers at the facility fill him in on the details of Clark's play.

"He's seen me progress," Clark says, "and he knows it's a big year for me."

"I'm a guy who's never going to shy away from adversity," nose tackle Kenny Clark says. "I've been through adversity my whole life."
"I'm a guy who's never going to shy away from adversity," nose tackle Kenny Clark says. "I've been through adversity my whole life."(AP Images)

To this day, Clark Jr. believes his father is innocent. He says there's still a chance his father will be released on appeal. That image of his father taking a seat at Lambeau Field motivates him daily.

So, like Jones, he doesn't stress. Written across Clark's bicep is Psalm 23:6: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. He's made mistakes. Dad has made mistakes, too. Before the conviction, Kenny Sr. spent 20 months in prison for robbery.

Son believes he's a reason for his dad to wake up every morning. He sends Dad game pictures. The two dissect Clark Jr.'s bull-rush. "Before I retire from the league," Clark says, "I want to get him here. For him to be able to watch me in a game? That'd be cool."

Surely, Clark Sr. stayed awake to see Monday's disheartening loss.


Randall Cobb's words that day in Minneapolis hit Morgan Burnett hardest.

That's deep, the Packers safety thought. That's real.

His own mind raced to his big brother, Cap, whose football dreams were crushed by a litany of concussions. A headfirst punisher at the University of Georgia, Cap Burnett was forced to quit football after concussion No. 6, a number that would soar into the double digits if you accounted for all undiagnosed concussions in high school.

After one final blackout, doctors told him he needed to stop. Cap cried. Cried some more. And then Cap dedicated himself to coaching and taught Morgan a safer way to tackle. He's a high school head coach now.

Big bro's message to Burnett this season? "Leave it all out on the field. No regrets."

Sage advice for the entire Packers roster. On Monday, the Packers looked like a team quitting on their season. Rodgers isn't swooping in, Superman cape and all, anytime soon.

"It seemed like Matthew Stafford knew everything we were in," cornerback Damarious Randall says. "It seemed like we were very predictable. It's hard to beat an offense like that whenever the quarterback knows where to go with the ball before he snaps it."
"It seemed like Matthew Stafford knew everything we were in," cornerback Damarious Randall says. "It seemed like we were very predictable. It's hard to beat an offense like that whenever the quarterback knows where to go with the ball before he snaps it."(Getty Images)

Players here must keep perspective.

There's Hundley, who's an ambassador for Athletes vs. Epilepsy. His sister, Paris, one year older, was diagnosed with epilepsy at 11 and has been in and out of the hospital 100-plus times.

There's Ty Montgomery, whose mother welcomed 17 foster kids into their home growing up.

There's Nick Perry, whose nephew was shot at a party in Detroit days before Perry was drafted by Green Bay. Derrick Perry Jr. was initially confined to a hospital bed with the fragment of a bullet still lodged in his head.

There's McCarthy, who lost his brother three days after that loss to Seattle two-and-a-half years back.

Everyone, it's true, experienced something that molded them.

"It's easy to be happy when everything's going your way," Burnett says. "But the true character of a person comes out when things are not going his way, and you keep a positive attitude and find a way to overcome. I feel we have a lot of guys like that in this locker room."

"We just need to stick together—play together—and the people in this locker room are all that matters."


This is a weird time for Wisconsinites. And you bet it's a weird time for the team itself. There is a small contingent here that was around in 2013, when Rodgers fractured his other collarbone. The Packers managed to do just enough then to stay in the hunt. But after three straight losses, this year's team looks like a paper tiger. A Rodgers-dependent, Rodgers-driven operation that's now tearing apart at the seams.

For two full generations, fall has been beautifully predictable—Miller Lite is currency, Old Fashioneds are sneaky-potent, time stops during hunting season, Brett Favre was the quarterback and Rodgers is the quarterback. From September 20, 1992, until that damn hit by Anthony Barr, Favre and Rodgers started 432 of a possible 441 games, including the playoffs.

So those weren't necessarily boos at Lambeau Field you heard, so much as disappointed groans.

"It's easy to be happy when everything's going your way," safety Morgan Burnett says. "But the true character of a person comes out when things are not going his way, and you keep a positive attitude and find a way to overcome. I feel we have a lot of guys like that in this locker room."
"It's easy to be happy when everything's going your way," safety Morgan Burnett says. "But the true character of a person comes out when things are not going his way, and you keep a positive attitude and find a way to overcome. I feel we have a lot of guys like that in this locker room."(AP Images)

Hundley lamented the one deep ball he fired centimeters too long, grazing off Adams' fingertips. McCarthy triple-downed on his belief in Hundley.

Fans at Anduzzi's, predictably, complained about the quarterback.

Truth is, Hundley is what he is: not Aaron Rodgers. For the Packers to save their season, they'll need something more.

"We need to think of what got us here," Jones says, "what we're going through and use that as motivation out on the field.

"When you need that little push, just think of that."


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.

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