When inside linebacker A.J. Hawk saw cornerback Charles Woodson surrounded by trainers after taking a hard fall at the end of the first half of Super Bowl XLV, he knew Woodson was done for the game.
At halftime, Hawk and the rest of the team would learn that Woodson had broken his collarbone. But it wasn’t just their Pro Bowl cornerback who would drop out with an injury: wide receiver Donald Driver (ankle) and cornerback Sam Shields (shoulder) would also exit after the first half. Shields came back in the fourth quarter and quickly left again.
“It's like the whole next-man-up type mentality, but luckily for us, we had a lot of guys that had ... it wasn't like this was gonna be their first action,” Hawk said. “They've played throughout the year a lot just in different times, not as consistently. So we had a ton of depth I feel like throughout that year and that was another time when we absolutely needed it.”
Players such as cornerbacks Jarrett Bush and Pat Lee were well-prepared to see increased playing time during Super Bowl XLV because the Packers rode the injury carousel all season. By the end of the year, 15 players had been placed on injured reserve. That included six Week 1 starters: tight end Jermichael Finley, running back Ryan Grant, inside linebacker Nick Barnett, safety Morgan Burnett, right tackle Mark Tauscher and linebacker Brad Jones.
“The thing that saved us, that kept us going, we had so many injuries early we were able to survive during the middle of the season and caught fire at the end,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think it says a lot about the locker room. They hung in there and wound up beating a hell of a football team (the Steelers) that day.”
In total, 31 players who spent time on the 53-man roster missed at least one game due to injury. Twelve of those players were starters, including quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who sat out of Week 15 against the New England Patriots with a concussion.
“We were resilient, with all the injuries that we had, all the ups and downs that we had throughout that year, we stayed the course,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “We didn't point fingers and we came together when the time was meant to come together. We took all of those trials, those tribulations, we brought them together and we got stronger from them.”
Next man up
From rookies to veterans, a variety of players of all experiences were called on as injury reinforcements throughout the season. In some cases, those reinforcements would become permanent solutions. By the end of the season, 180 games were missed by all players due to injury.
Rookie right tackle Bryan Bulaga on starting in place of Mark Tauscher in Week 5 vs. Washington: “It was, ‘Oh s---.’ It was definitely, ‘Oh s---,’ because I never lined up at right tackle. In high school, in college or in training camp. I only played left tackle and some left guard and I had never been in a right-handed stance my entire time playing football from youth all the way till that point in time. So I was a little bit freaking out.
“Thank God that I had (right guard Josh) Sitton next to me the whole way because he was like, he was bringing me along for the ride. That's just what it was. He was able to help me out so much and if I ever had a quick question as we were walking up to the line, he was able to answer it like that.”
Inside linebacker Desmond Bishop on taking over for Nick Barnett: “I learned to be ready from a mistake I made early in my career. I want to say it was my first or second year and after so many games of not playing, I just got kind of complacent, let's just say, and I wasn't all the way focused. Nick went down, I think it was against Minnesota and I got in, I got my opportunity and I wasn't all the way ready and I gave up a touchdown, and I came back in that game and still gave a solid performance, but that one play was a learning lesson for me.
“Eventually I did get my opportunity and when I did, I ran with it. I had been preparing for it. So to get in and get in with A.J, it was a seamless transition for me and A.J. is such a good guy. He doesn't really say much, he just kind of leads by example and I had been watching his example for the previous few years. So I thought we meshed well.”
Wide receiver Jordy Nelson: “I think we just all kind of had to rely on one another from Week 1. I mean, if you look at Philly and how we lost Ryan Grant and Barnett a couple of weeks later. Everyone says next man up, but it's more like everyone got defined roles, like this is your job right here to be this part of the offense or this part of the defense and then someone else would take care of his part.”
Bush: “In your mind, you have to set the intention that you are a starter, even though you may be a second teamer to hit the field. Overcoming those injuries, you have to rely on that next person to step in and fill in and communicate with that person that we’re hitting on all cylinders right now and you have to fill in, we need you. That’s a whole thing that helps you bring along a player who is not up to speed. That seems to get him going, to motivate him.”
Nose tackle Howard Green (after being claimed off waivers midseason to bolster injury-depleted roster): “I was released (by the New York Jets) on Monday, took off driving about 1 p.m. Tuesday, drove all night Tuesday, Wednesday, stopped for fuel and I was probably about 30 minutes from my house in Perryville and ended up getting a phone call. I was like, ‘Whoa, I passed up the New Orleans airport already.’ Baton Rouge was another 45 minutes up the road. It's 5 o'clock traffic, so one flight didn't work, I missed it. Then I was able to get a later flight, 7:45 out of New Orleans. That was working for me. I got to Atlanta, but the flights are delayed because of tornadoes and stuff. Everything stopped right there. My flight was supposed to leave at 6 this morning, I don't think I got out until 9 or 10 this morning. I had to turn around to New Orleans. I was in my truck, my 450, I drove about 2,000 miles one trip.”
Resilient on the road
In the Packers’ Week 15 matchup against the Patriots, the offense would play without Rodgers who suffered a concussion the week before. With backup quarterback Matt Flynn at the helm, the Packers were still a competitive team.
Although the Patriots won 31-27, the Packers finished the game on the New England 15-yard line and ran out of time to take the lead. Despite the loss, the Packers were encouraged by their performance without Rodgers.
The loss dropped the Packers to 8-6 on the season and made their final two games must-wins to make the playoffs.
Williams: “After that game, we were like, ‘Man, Matt came in and did his thing today. What if Aaron was out there? What if Aaron was out there and some of the other guys that we were counting on?’ But it didn't matter at that point. We obviously had to win the last two games to get into playoffs. We had the Giants and I think we had the Bears. We had to win those two games to get into the playoffs and we were confident enough to go in in there and I think that's kind of when it all came together. I think right after that that loss it came together, because we knew that we had what it takes.”
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers: “So we played the New York Giants and beat them fairly handily and then we had the Bears coming in and there was speculation on whether the Bears were gonna play their players because they had already won the division. But they did and it was a close, hard-fought game. We won 10-3 and we had to make some plays down in the goal line and red zone to win the game.”
Bulaga: “I don't think people knew the momentum that we had beat the Giants and beating the Bears to get in. You can't make that up. The rest is, well, not to sound cliche, but history.”