Emma: Without Aaron Rodgers, Hope In Green Bay Reaching Its Brink

By Chris Emma—

GREEN BAY, Wis. (CBS) – Take a stroll up Lombardi Drive heading northwest and you’ll pass by Bart Starr Drive, Reggie White Way and Holmgren Way. Not too far ahead stands Lambeau Field, appropriately the largest building in Titletown.

Even on the dreariest of November days, the Green Bay Packers’ fabled home is visible from just about any unobstructed view in town. The surrounding streets, so quiet when it’s not a Packer game day, bear the names of those who’ve starred on center stage at Lambeau.

There will be a day not too far in the distance in which Lombardi Drive intersects with an Aaron Rodgers Road, honoring the latest great Packer to continue the franchise’s long history of success. But these days around Green Bay are different. Enthusiasm is tepid, and hopes are feeling desperate.

Coach Mike McCarthy, who already has a road named in his honor, is left defiantly defending 24-year-old quarterback Brett Hundley while his Packers fight for another postseason. The dynamic of the NFC North race changed after Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone against the Vikings on Oct. 14. He underwent surgery four days later and may not play again this season.

Fresh off a bye, the Packers are 4-3 and chasing the 6-2 Vikings for first place. The Packers have yet to win in the two contests since Rodgers’ injury and face a matchup against the Lions (3-4) at Lambeau Field on Monday night before a short week of preparation for the Bears (3-5). The division rivals all sense the opportunity without Rodgers.

“We’re going to go out there and we’re going to be a balanced offense, we’re going to be productive and we’re going to win the game,” McCarthy said as he looked ahead to Monday night. “And Brett’s going to lead the charge on offense. That’s the way we’re designed and that’s our approach to this football game.”

Two weeks after a fiery response to questions about the possibility of signing free agent Colin Kaepernick, McCarthy expressed faith in Hundley when asked about reports that Packers management tried to sign Brian Hoyer, released by the 49ers on Monday. He also didn’t confirm or deny the reports to be true.

“The sample size on Brett Hundley is way too small to come to conclusions about what you think he is as a quarterback,” McCarthy said. “I’m fortunate to work with him each and every day. I believe in him as a quarterback.”

Hundley is grateful for the faith of McCarthy in the aftermath of a challenging first start at quarterback. But the only way to keep that faith is by winning football games. Even McCarthy conceded that in his latest offering of praise.

Green Bay has grown accustomed to winning from its quarterbacks. The great Brett Favre led the Packers to 11 playoff appearances, two NFC championships and a Super Bowl title during his 16 years as quarterback. He was followed by Rodgers, who has brought the Packers to the playoffs in eight of his first nine seasons leading the team.

It’s up to Hundley to make it nine consecutive playoff berths for the Packers and carry on a tradition of excellence for quarterbacks in Green Bay.

“It’s nice my name is Brett,” Hundley joked. “That goes a long way here.”

For all the success enjoyed, the Packers know what it’s like to have their backs against the wall, too. In 2013, then-Bears defensive end Shea McClellin sacked Rodgers and broke his collarbone in Chicago’s win in early November.

The Packers managed to stay alive in the NFC North hunt, and Rodgers returned in Week 17 at Soldier Field, breaking the Bears’ heart with a go-ahead touchdown strike on fourth-and-9 to a wide-open Randall Cobb with 38 seconds left. Rodgers can be designated for a return from injured reserve this season, and the Packers haven’t ruled out a return.

In 2014, after the Packers opened 1-2, Rodgers went before the media with a statement revered in Green Bay: R-E-L-A-X.  Sure enough, Green Bay went on to the division title.

And just last November, the Packers were 4-6 when Rodgers expressed confidence that they could run the table. They did just that, winning six straight to finish the regular season and grab the NFC North title.

“Hopefully it’s no different this year,” linebacker Clay Matthews said. “We have to take it year by year, but you have to look at the bigger picture and what we’ve accomplished – good teams find a way to win in tough games and tough spots. This is no different. Obviously, prior years and prior years, but it’s experience to draw from.”

The Packers returned from their bye week refreshed physically and mentally. Matthews spent his time off “really embracing the Wisconsin lifestyle,” as he put it. Hundley spent some time clearing his head before preparing again for his second career start. General manager Ted Thompson was apparently evaluating alternatives at quarterback.

Good vibes filled the Packers locker room as they returned from Wednesday’s work. The Packers stand confident in what’s to come, but Titletown is a darker place this season.

Without Rodgers, hope in Green Bay has already reached its brink.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670 and like his Facebook page.

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