Safety Atari Bigby and cornerback Al Harris, who both have spent the entire season on the physically-unable-to-perform list as they rehabbed from their respective injuries, practiced for the first time on Wednesday. Whether they will be active this Sunday against Minnesota and if they are, how much they will play, are questions that will likely take the full week of practice to answer.
Both players did individual drills and also rotated in during some team (11-on-11) work on Wednesday, and Head Coach Mike McCarthy said he and the coaching staff would look at the film of practice each evening this week to help them make a decision on the players' availability for Sunday. The return to practice for Bigby and Harris starts a three-week window in which the team can activate them to the 53-man roster at any point.
"We'll let the practice time and we'll let the week or weeks answer those questions," McCarthy said. "We're going to just take our time. It's good to look out there and see a number of bodies at a particular position.
"It's great to have them out there. They are refreshed and they are energized. We're going to work them through and we'll see where we are day by day and by the end of the week. Will it be this week, next week, time will answer that question."
With Harris out of the lineup, Tramon Williams has slid into a starting spot opposite veteran Charles Woodson with rookie Sam Shields manning the nickel corner position when healthy. The depth at safety has been put to the test of late with rookie starter Morgan Burnett sustaining a season-ending knee injury in Week 4. With backup Derrick Martin also lost for the season due to a Week 5 knee injury, veteran Charlie Peprah has stepped into a starting role each of the past two games opposite Nick Collins.
For the 35-year-old Harris, the wait to get back on the field has been a long one since sustaining a torn ACL and other damage to his left knee last season vs. San Francisco in Week 11. The veteran cornerback played in 175 straight games to start his career until missing four contests in 2008 due to a lacerated spleen, and had never gone through anything comparable to the rehabilitation he endured over the past year.
"You just appreciate the little things," Harris said. "Just being out there, being a part of the guys, being in the huddle, all of that, you kind of take that for granted when you have been around for so long. When you are forced to sit out of that, then you look at it a little differently."
Harris said he was hopeful that he would be activated for Sunday's game, but repeatedly stated that if and how much he played would be decisions that would fall to the coaches and medical staff.
"I'm not going to do anything that will diminish me, my character, my reputation or do anything that will be a liability to the team at all," Harris said. "So I am going to stick with the plan and do what I need to do."
For Bigby, the time away from football hasn't been as extensive it has been for Harris, but the six-game absence following his August ankle surgery matched the longest stretch of his career due to injury (six games in '08 due to a hamstring injury). Bigby said he isn't experiencing any pain in his ankle and now the focus is trying to get back into game shape, which is difficult to replicate in practice.
"Since I haven't played a game in the past few months, I really don't know but I felt good," Bigby said. "I am running around. I could be a little bit more explosive, could be a little bit stronger, but I feel like I am on the right track and I feel good. I am excited to see what happens this weekend."
If either player is active on Sunday, it would probably be unrealistic for them to handle a full workload after such a long layoff, but Bigby said his approach will be one of a starter expecting to play every snap in case his number is called.
"They have to look at the tape and evaluate my performance in practice," Bigby said. "That will tell the story as far as me playing or not.
"I felt like I moved pretty well out there. I felt fluid. It felt like riding a bike, but of course I want to do stunts (laughing). We'll see how it goes."
Player safety a focusOn Tuesday, the NFL announced that three players had been fined a total of $175,000 for helmet-to-helmet hits this past Sunday.
Pittsburgh linebacker James Harrison ($75,000) and Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson ($50,000) were fined for unnecessarily striking a defenseless receiver, while New England safety Brandon Meriweather ($50,000) was fined for a pair of helmet-to-helmet hits.
The fines were issued by Ray Anderson, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations,* *who informed the players in letters that, "Future offenses will result in an escalation of fines up to and including suspension."
"I think it has been an area that they have focused on the last six years that I have been in the league," quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "Every year it seems like player safety is at the top of their list. I think it is good. When you are fining guys $5,000 or $7,500 for hits when they are making millions of dollars, that's not going to mean as much to them or really get their attention.
"I think each case needs to be looked at individually, and if you can try and look into the intent. This is a violent sport, so often you are not going to be able to avoid some of those hits."
Bigby, known as one of the more physical players on Green Bay's defense, said the league's crackdown on helmet-to-helmet hits was discussed briefly during a team meeting on Wednesday.
"It's a tough rule and there are some tough consequences, I know that," Bigby said. "So hopefully I am not in a position where I have to compromise thinking about a fine and thinking about defending a pass.
"A guy might jump this play, the ball might be low this play, a guy might bend his head this play, a guy could slip. There are a lot of scenarios that will cause a helmet-to-helmet. I guess you just have to be careful and hopefully you're not in a situation where you are in a gray area and they have to review it."
One last trip?
Vikings quarterback Brett Favre will be playing in a stadium-record 120th career regular-season game at Lambeau Field on Sunday night, and the former Packers signal-caller said on Wednesday that this will be his final trip to play at Green Bay barring a postseason matchup between the division rivals.
"This is my last go-around," said the 41-year-old Favre in a conference call with Wisconsin reporters. "I've of course played a ton of games in that stadium, and not once did I ever step in that stadium – it was obviously different last year – (and) did not respect and feel very privileged to be on Lambeau Field.
"Every touchdown I've thrown in that stadium was as joyous as the next, so I've always savored the moment, never took it for granted. This will be no exception."
Favre's first visit to Green Bay in an opposing uniform came last season in Week 8 when he was welcomed back primarily with boos from the Lambeau crowd.
"I try not to think about it," Favre said. "I know what I left behind there and the commitment I made to that team, and how I played. I wouldn't trade it for anything. I'll say it today, I'll say it five years from now, 10 years … that was an unbelievable experience for me. My career speaks for itself. I thought it was a perfect fit for both. That fan base is as good as any in all of sports. That's no secret to anyone. No one loves their football more than Packer fans.
"It was a response that obviously I was hoping not to have, but that's the way it went. I'd like to think still deep down inside that people would think differently, but in the heat of the moment, that's the way it was."
Injury/participation updateRookie running back James Starks, who has been on the PUP list all season because of a hamstring injury, also returned to practice on Wednesday.
The sixth-round draft choice did some individual drills but is not as far along as Bigby and Harris because of his inexperience, having also missed his entire senior season in 2009 at the University at Buffalo due to a shoulder injury.
"I'm going to work hard and I'm going to try to give my all no matter what," Starks said. "I am coming back, and whatever is asked of me to do, that's what I'm going to do. I don't feel far behind or things like that, but I've just got to get better as a player. That's my goal and that's what I am trying to do."
Linebacker Brady Poppinga (knee) and defensive end Mike Neal (shoulder) are out for Sunday. McCarthy said Neal was "just not really progressing" from his injury.
Safety Nick Collins (knee), wide receiver Donald Driver (quad) and linebacker A.J. Hawk (groin) did not participate in practice. McCarthy referenced the fact that Driver rarely misses practice, and admitted he was "a little concerned" about Driver's availability for Sunday.
Linebacker Clay Matthews, who missed the first game of his career this past Sunday vs. Miami due to a hamstring injury after not practicing all week, was a limited participant on Wednesday.
"Clay had a good workout today," McCarthy said. "Tomorrow, how he feels in the morning will be the true test. But everything went very well in his work today. Hopefully he is past this and we can get him back out on the practice field.
"I think he'll be a big factor (in the game) if he is healthy and hopefully he is. We'll look for him to go out and play to the level that he has established in such a young career. He'll be a big part of the game plan if he is ready to go."
Linebacker Brandon Chillar has been sidelined with a shoulder injury the past three games, but returned to practice on a limited basis on Wednesday.
"Brandon practiced well today," McCarthy said. "I had a chance to watch him and we'll see how he is tomorrow. But I thought he looked a lot better today than he did last week."
Tackle Mark Tauscher (shoulder) returned to practice as a limited participant after missing the last two games and not practicing the last two weeks. Chad Clifton (knee), defensive end Cullen Jenkins (hand), defensive end Ryan Pickett (ankle) and cornerback Charles Woodson (toe) were also limited.
For Minnesota, safety Husain Abdullah (concussion), tight end Jim Kleinsasser (groin) and cornerback Lito Sheppard (hand) did not participate in practice on Wednesday.
Favre (ankle/right elbow), cornerback Chris Cook (knee), tackle Chris DeGeare (ankle), defensive tackle Letroy Guion (toe), linebacker E.J. Henderson (knee), defensive end Brian Robison (ankle) and center John Sullivan (calf) were limited.
Additional coverage – Oct. 20