- Elizabeth Merrill
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GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The preseason headlines should be old and yellow.
They were written in a different time, eons ago, when the sun seemed to shine a little brighter in the northern regions of the Midwest. The NFL Network checked in back then with Nick Barnett, a strapping, healthy linebacker for the Green Bay Packers, about preseason hopes, predictions and hype.
Super Bowl or bust? they asked. "Super Bowl or die," Barnett said with a smile.
Five months later, the oatmeal-colored sky spits ice and snow, and Barnett's stall sits empty on the Row of Doom. The men along this stretch of lockers play football, get hurt and don't come back for the rest of the season. First it was Barnett, whose locker is at the end. He went down with a wrist injury in early October and wound up on injured reserve. Then came fellow linebackers Brad Jones, Brady Poppinga and Brandon Chillar.
"I've tried not to think about it," said Charlie Peprah, who happens to be Chillar's locker neighbor. "Just recently, Brandon Chillar was like, 'Man, it's moving down. I'm hanging on.' Then he goes down and tries to joke and say I'm next.
"But I'm not going anywhere."
Peprah looked around, stopping short of knocking on his wooden seat. In the background, country music played; around him, a group of guys who were strangers a couple of months ago laughed and milled about. There is no time for the weak or the superstitious in this season that started with Super Bowl predictions and has turned into an episode of "The Doctors."
There is no time to wonder who might be next. In Week 14, the latest chapter unfolded when quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered his second concussion of the season. The injury, and the subsequent 7-3 upset loss at Detroit, illustrated the fine line the Packers have been walking -- or limping on -- all season. They have 13 players on injured reserve. They've scoured waiver wires and promoted practice-squad players, which is normally a recipe for disaster in the NFL. But somehow they're hanging on at 8-5 and in the playoff hunt -- on the heels of the NFC North-leading 9-4 Chicago Bears -- as Sunday night's game in New England looms.
The line might finally snap if Rodgers can't go and the Packers drop their second straight. But for 14 weeks, their defense has defied statistics and logic. Nine of the IR players were on the defense and yet the Packers are No. 1 in the league in scoring defense.
It's not the sexiest story in the league. That point rang true Friday, when coach Mike McCarthy held a news conference. At the time, his team was 8-4. And McCarthy, speaking in a spacious hall, commanded just a handful of reporters.
"I think I read an article a while ago where someone called us the no-name defense," said linebacker Desmond Bishop, who played mainly special teams before being elevated to a starter this fall. "I kind of took that a little personal.
"No matter who's in there, we kind of get plugged into one power source. We go out there as one."
With a stack of clothes and half of his life stuffed into a Ford F-150 pickup, Howard Green turned away from the Manhattan skyline and pulled south. He had an 18-hour drive ahead of him, plenty of time to clear his mind. Like the Packers, Green had no idea what was coming next. He'd just been cut by the New York Jets, the third time he had been waived in two months. It was late October, not exactly the best time to be unemployed in the NFL.
Green popped open an energy drink, cranked his music and prayed. For a team to call him. For a team that needed him.
Seventeen hours into his drive, about an hour away from his hometown near Baton Rouge, La., Green's agent called. The Packers wanted him in Green Bay ASAP. They had a flight ready for him, but Green was stuck in rush-hour traffic. He ditched his truck on the side of the road and had a family member whisk him to the airport.
There had been concerns in New York about Green's weight. The defensive end tipped the scales somewhere around 360. But Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers never questioned Green's heart. They worked together years ago in Houston, and now Capers was in a pinch. His defensive line was ravaged by injuries. The week that preceded Green's call was so bizarre it was almost comical.
The Packers suited up five defensive linemen for a nationally televised Sunday night game against the Minnesota Vikings. As defensive line coach Mike Trgovac was getting dressed, he was informed that starting end Cullen Jenkins had hurt his hamstring during pregame warm-ups. And it got worse. Roughly seven plays into the game, defensive end Ryan Pickett was out with an ankle injury.
Like most teams, the Packers have an emergency backup, an offensive lineman who can be inserted in the event of a catastrophic day. But Trgovac's "regulars" were whittled down to a rookie and two second-year players.
At one point in the game, rookie C.J. Wilson was so tired that he pointed to his face mask, a signal that he needed a breather. Problem was, Capers had just called for the "Okie" package, which requires three linemen.
"I said, 'You can't,'" Trgovac recalled. "So he went back out and actually made the tackle on the next play."
Green's arrival was just as frenzied and exhausting. He was picked up days before the Packers were set to travel to New York and play the Jets, days after Green packed up and left the big city. He arrived in Green Bay on a Thursday night and spent the next 2½ days cramming with Trgovac and new teammates.
He had two tackles in the Packers' 9-0 victory at the Meadowlands.
"I appreciate the guys on this team," Green said, "because they helped me so much during that time. If I wasn't quite sure about something, they'd tell me, 'Oh, you line up here.' The veteran guys, they accepted me with open arms.
"I love it here. I like this type of environment. It's quiet, it's easy, it's kind of slow-paced. It's all about what's going on right here in this building. What's going on in this locker room is what makes this whole area of Green Bay. This is what it's all about."
Green isn't the most unlikely fill-in. Sam Shields was an undrafted rookie who played just one year of cornerback in college. Linebacker Frank Zombo got exactly two calls in the hours after he wasn't drafted in the spring -- one from Green Bay, the other from his home-state Detroit Lions -- and was considered an iffy bet to crack the 53-man roster.
But Zombo has become sort of a local cult hero, in part because of his name, but also because he looks as if he just stepped off the cast of "Jersey Shore." He picked Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews as his mentor, even though Matthews is just a year older.
If football hadn't panned out last summer, Zombo had a plan. He'd go to physical therapy school and marry his fiancée, whom he's dated since high school.
"Who would've thought, you know?" Zombo said. "I was fighting to even make the team.
"I just planned on going into the season, giving it everything I had, knowing this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If I didn't make it I wouldn't have any regrets. That's basically how I attacked it every day, in preseason and all through camp. That's how I still go at it. Every day, I'm fighting for my job. That's what you have to do."
This past Sunday, Zombo sprained his knee at Detroit. McCarthy said he would be "challenged" to make it back this week. And the long list of the infirm stretched on.
"I don't mean to be callous," McCarthy said. "Personally, you feel terrible when a player gets hurt. But it puts you to another section on your call sheet. You have to handle that, because [injuries] ultimately happen during a game.
"I address the roster every Wednesday when it's changed. I don't have a big step-up speech or a man-up speech. I think that's a given."
Packers general manager Ted Thompson walked briskly into an empty room wearing a blue fleece jacket and a preoccupied look. So much has changed. For two years, Thompson was skewered for being the man who sent Brett Favre packing, who prompted the Favre payback tour against the Packers. Now Favre is 41 and fading, no longer a factor, and Thompson has slipped into public oblivion. He appears to like it that way, being the no-name executive. It means people will leave him alone to do his plotting.
His quarterback, Rodgers, is considered one of the NFL's elite; his Packers are still in the hunt for the NFC North title with the help of a deep roster forged through careful draft picks. Anything can happen, the players say. Thompson doesn't really want to talk about any of it.
It was this past Friday, two days before Rodgers' concussion and Zombo's knee, and maybe the frosty-haired Southerner suspected something. He said Detroit was much better than its 2-10 record. He said he couldn't even think about playoff scenarios.
Thompson has to keep tabs on everything else. He has an emergency board in his office, a list of available players the Packers can call upon in case someone else is hurt. But that list is dwindling. And some players, like Rodgers, don't have a quick-fix solution.
There are at least a dozen reasons the defense has managed to carry on. Capers' system is flexible; the Packers' defensive roster is young and talented. The defense hasn't lost its Big Two -- Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson.
But the offense has been under pressure since Week 1. That's when running back Ryan Grant went down, ending any hopes of a balanced offense. A few weeks later, the Packers lost starting tight end Jermichael Finley.
If Rodgers isn't cleared for Sunday, then little-used backup Matt Flynn will likely get the call, and this feel-good season of the scrub could take an ugly turn. So the Packers keep duct-taping and adjusting, knowing they won't get much sympathy, especially in New England. It's football. Nobody outside Packer Nation cares.
"You can't get this attitude of 'Woe is me,'" Thompson said. "I have good friends around the league who are on other teams. And as much as they like me and want us to do good, they don't care. They've got their own set of problems that they're working through.
"Sometimes, it just happens."
Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
The Green Bay Packers have 13 players on IR, including nine on defense. But somehow, they're hanging on and still in the playoff hunt as Sunday night's game in New England looms.