Maybe some time without their star quarterback is just what the Packers needed (but they'll thank the football gods he decided to return)

BECAUSE HE'D been there before, Aaron Rodgers knew the question that would bubble up in his brain after he broke his right clavicle last October, costing him the back end of the season. And sure enough, just as in 2013 when he had the same injury, there it was: Am I done playing?

The idea of embarking on yet another NFL season is daunting enough at 34, but throw in a severe injury and it can be even harder to get the motor restarted. So Rodgers listened again to his body and to his mind—and it didn't take long for the forces within to offer the answer: Let's do this again.

"It was right away," says Rodgers. "When I see [retired Packer] James Jones standing on the sidelines today [at camp], as much as you think about the fun touchdowns, you think more about the times in the locker room, the road trips, the flights, the get-togethers, the team-building events.... That's what you will miss when you're done."

It's pretty clear too, what the Packers will miss when Rodgers is eventually done. Including the game in which Rodgers was hurt, Green Bay failed to top 20 points six times in the 10 games without him, and they twice put up goose eggs. By comparison, they scored less than 20 points just three times in the 21 games before his injury, and Rodgers has never been shut out as a starter.

As hard as that time without Rodgers was, though, players and coaches say the experience will strengthen them in the long run. "There's always a benefit to negative situations," says coach Mike McCarthy. "Adversity strikes. There's shock—but it's really what you do going forward."

The Packers finished 7--9 and out of the postseason, but in Rodgers's absence, receivers Davante Adams and Randall Cobb found their voices in the huddle; same for linemen David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga and Corey Linsley. And rookie backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams got to see the offense from a different perspective—one without Rodgers's arm taking pressure off the running game. The defense was challenged too: forced to play often without a lead and with shorter breaks as the offense struggled.

"It opens up eyes, showing people how valuable [Aaron] is," says Adams. "You see the leadership void in the locker room. Someone needs to step into that, whether it's one person with a big voice or younger guys stepping up and leading by example."

Now Rodgers returns with an enhanced appreciation for everyone around him—and everyone around him has a renewed appreciation for number 12. "You have 11 guys on the same page, not 10 guys leaning on one," says running back Ty Montgomery. "When he's as good as he is, when he does some of the stuff he does, it's just like: Oh, well, it's all right. I didn't pick up my block, but he can throw the ball 50 yards while moving backwards and getting hit. Now, everyone's level of play will be where it needs to be—whether he's in the game or not."

It has been more than eight years since Rodgers led a crew of young players he'd come up with in Green Bay to a victory over the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. The hope now: That a young crew forced to grow up without him can get the Packers back to the Super Bowl.