Aaron Rodgers is returning to the field Sunday, but he said he's not coming back to save this season for the Green Bay Packers.
He might need to do more than that. The 2017 season is in dire need of saving, not only for the Packers but for the entire NFL.
Rodgers, the standout quarterback from the Packers, is expected to be in the lineup this Sunday in Charlotte against the Carolina Panthers after being sidelined for two months because of a broken collarbone. Other NFL teams wish they were as fortunate.
Amid a trying season in which the sport's leaders keep talking about the need to get the public's focus away from the off-field controversies plaguing the NFL at every step, the allure of the on-field product has suffered from the absence of some of the league's best and most popular players. This season has been more about those who aren't playing than about those who are.
The list of star players who have been sidelined by injuries includes not only Rodgers but fellow quarterbacks Carson Wentz of Philadelphia and Deshaun Watson of Houston, New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., Texans defensive standout J.J. Watt and Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman.
Indianapolis quarterback Andrew Luck hasn't played all season. The Dallas Cowboys are about to play their sixth straight game without suspended running back Ezekiel Elliott.
When it comes to the injuries, those within the league shake their heads at the misfortune.
"Well, it's certainly been frustrating to us," Packers President Mark Murphy said this week at the NFL owners' meetings in Dallas.
But Murphy, a former safety for the Washington Redskins, knows it's about more than his own team. It's about the entire league.
"You look at J.J. Watt, Odell Beckham Jr.; Andrew Luck hasn't played a down," Murphy said. "I don't know. Every year, because you're in it, seems like more. I don't know how it compares to previous years in terms of marquee players."
The league gathers and analyzes injury data each season. NFL officials said this week they weren't yet ready to say whether the injury rate is any higher this season. But they certainly know that the impact of the injuries has been problematic, given the caliber of the players involved.
"Deshaun was getting ready to have what looked like it was going to be ridiculous rookie year," said Atlanta Falcons President Rich McKay, the chairman of the NFL's rule-making competition committee. "Wentz was playing as good as any player playing in our game today. And Aaron Rodgers is now coming back. We'll see. High-profile injuries always are upsetting because they do drive a lot of the popularity and focus of the game. But as far as 'Is it different than years past?' I don't know yet."
The Packers at least can look forward to Rodgers's return Sunday. They probably would have been one of the league's top teams if Rodgers had been available all season. Instead, they are 7-6 and clinging to long-shot hopes to reach the NFC playoffs.
"Obviously I think there's an expectation of the way I play on Sunday and how I'm gonna play," Rodgers said when he met with reporters this week. "I enjoy those expectations. I enjoy meeting those or exceeding those. . . . Hopefully it gives a lift to some of the guys. But I'm not coming back to save this team. I'm coming back to play quarterback the way I know how to play it. And hopefully we all raise the level of our play collectively and find a way to win these three games."
The Eagles have been the league's best and most complete team for most of the season as Wentz, in his second year, elevated his play to league-MVP caliber. But after he suffered a torn ACL in his left knee last Sunday, they must try to win a Super Bowl with fill-in Nick Foles. Watson was well on his way to being the NFL's offensive rookie of the year and establishing himself as one of the league's next-generation headliners at quarterback before tearing an ACL .
The dimming of the on-field star wattage comes at the worst possible time for the NFL. It is a season that has been dominated by off-field issues.
President Donald Trump and some fans have sharply criticized players who have protested during the national anthem before games and the league's handling of the matter. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who began the players' protest movement last season, filed a grievance accusing teams of colluding to keep him out of the league. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones threatened to sue to block the five-year contract extension for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Attendance is down about 1 percent from last season, Goodell said this week, and the league has had to deal with sagging TV viewership.
"Our world is changing dramatically in terms of fans and how they're receiving our content and the experience they're having in the stadiums," Falcons owner Arthur Blank said Wednesday in Dallas. "And obviously player relationships are critical, and player safety is critical. The view of the outside world of the league is very important to us."
After the season, the sport's leaders will review the injury data and try to determine if there are any trends. Representatives of the league and the NFL Players Association meet each year at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. The competition committee deliberates and makes rule-change proposals to the owners to be considered at the annual league meeting in March. Player safety is an annual focus of that process.
"I've been in it a long time," McKay said this week at the owners' meetings. "So I've seen plenty of years when there's been a lot of high-profile injuries. Every year that I kind of think, 'Boy, the injury numbers are higher than usual,' I'm surprised at the end of the year that they're not. So I am one that says withhold [judgment] until you see the final numbers.
"And then I think you do go back and you look by position of, 'Is there some trend there? Is it quarterbacks? Is it lower-leg injuries to quarterbacks? Did it happen inside the pocket? Outside the pocket?' Because I think all that data can lead you to a point where sometimes you say, 'You know, we need to change something because a certain type of injury is happening to a certain type of player in a certain type of play.' I don't know. I haven't seen anything that says that yet. And so I think I'd just want to be one that says because I've been burned before [by jumping to conclusions about injuries], I want to wait and see."
In the meantime, there's not much for the NFL to do other than lament its bad luck.
"We've put such a focus on improving the health and safety of the players in the game," Murphy said. "It's just frustrating that even though we've taken steps and I think we're making progress, there's still a lot of work to do."