MINNEAPOLIS -- Shock. Denial. Pick whatever word you want, it was there in the Green Bay Packers' locker room after Aaron Rodgers' potentially season-ending injury in Sunday's 23-10 loss at Minnesota twisted what looked like an early path towards Super Bowl contention.
Clay Matthews said he wouldn't address rumors, before being told the Packers had already confirmed Rodgers has a broken collarbone. Randall Cobb asked reporters who had announced it. Jordy Nelson said Rodgers meant "everything" to the Packers, which somehow sounds like an understatement about the two-time NFL MVP's value.
"I'm looking at the tunnel the whole time like, 'I know I'm going to see 12 walk back out. I'm know I'm going to see 12 walk back out,'" veteran defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois told me, sitting at his locker after most other players had cleared out. "But when I ain't see him, I'm like, you've got to remember, once upon a time Aaron was sitting behind a quarterback named Brett Favre. Now we've got another dude sitting behind Aaron Rodgers."
This wasn't really Jean Francois equating 24-year-old Brett Hundley to a young Rodgers before he makes first NFL start -- which will come next Sunday against New Orleans with Joe Callahan as the backup, coach Mike McCarthy said, knocking down whatever speculation may follow about the Packers signing Colin Kaepernick or another veteran QB immediately. (No surprise, given how the Packers have run their personnel department for years under general manager Ted Thompson.)
This was acknowledgment that there is no going back. That Rodgers is, quite possibly, not coming back to save them as he did after another broken collarbone in 2013 after Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr took him down Sunday with a hit that had Rodgers barking as he left the field. That Hundley -- a talented, but raw underclassmen who slid to the fifth round in the 2015 draft and has trained mostly in the shadows behind Rodgers since -- is going to have to seize this role immediately to keep the loss of his brilliant mentor from punching the wind out of this team.
"I understand for a lot of people from the outside looking in, they'd be like, 'Uhh, this is not going to run.' But there's only that one piece went down, and that piece showed another piece experience," Jean Francois said. "Now it's your time to display it. Now it's time to show why the Green Bay Packers won't trade you. Now you've got to see why the Green Bay Packers won't send you to another team. ... Now the light's on him."
The final numbers weren't pretty for Hundley on Sunday: 18-of-33 passing for 157 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and a 39.6 passer rating in 3 1/2 quarters of relief behind an offensive line that had three starters leave with injuries against an excellent Minnesota defense. A fairer assessment will come in the weeks ahead, when Hundley gets first-team practice reps and a game plan molded around what he does well. For the moment, the Packers are tied with the Vikings for the NFC North lead at 4-2.
When Hundley took over Sunday, I immediately thought back to a conversation I had with McCarthy early in training camp last year, before Hundley's second season and first as Rodgers' top backup. McCarthy was speaking about the value of teaching the history of his offense to quarterbacks, teaching them why plays and concepts exist, rather than just how to execute them, when he brought up his young QB unprompted.
"I've had conversations with Brett Hundley -- he can't get enough," McCarthy told me then. "He wants to know why I'm going to call this. And he has a tremendous mentor in Aaron, and Aaron is the most forthcoming mentor quarterback I've ever been around as far as the time and the energy and helping the younger quarterbacks."
Now that mentorship will be put to a test nobody wanted, and just when the Packers -- as McCarthy told me on the phone Friday -- were getting into a groove and finally getting healthy.
If Hundley flops, who knows what the Packers might do? Back in 2013, they tried to roll with Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien before signing their old backup Matt Flynn off the street just to buy time until Rodgers could return. They're certainly hoping it doesn't come to that this time, or at least they will be once the loss of one of the NFL's brightest stars sinks in.