GREEN BAY, Wis. — One season ago, the Packers made an early strategic decision. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers appeared in just one preseason game, for a total of two series, 26 snaps and nine pass attempts.
The result when the games counted and opposing defenses were untethered? The worst start of Rodgers’s spectacular career.
This season the Packers appear to be content to stick with last season’s blueprint, saving Rodgers for the regular season’s live action. Packers Coach Mike McCarthy has said nothing definitive, but all signs point to Rodgers sitting out a second straight preseason game when the Packers visit the Redskins on Saturday at FedEx Field.
Finding any sort of correlation between preseason performance and regular season results can certainly be a fool’s errand, and Rodgers has been terse when asked about possibly connecting any dots.
“I’ll do whatever Mike says,” Rodgers said this week. “He hasn’t said anything about playing time yet, so I’ll be ready to play whatever he wants me to. And if he doesn’t, I’ll be ready for that as well.”
In practices this week, Rodgers has worked mostly with the scout team, allowing the team’s backup quarterbacks to take reps with the first-team offense. While the Packers might be preserving Rodgers for the regular season, they’re also keeping him away from new additions to the offense and younger players who might benefit from meaningful action with the team’s franchise quarterback.
Typically, teams might give their starting quarterback a series or two in each of the first two preseason games, perhaps a full half in the third outing and then a night of rest in the fourth and final game. Last year marked the first time in his career that Rodgers appeared in only one preseason game, the team’s third.
Reflecting on that this week, the 33-year old quarterback seemed perfectly content with the lighter August workload.
“I felt great. It was nice,” he said. “I felt really good. We do stuff conditioning-wise to make sure we’re ready to go. My conditioning felt great.”
Coaches across the league wrestle with how much playing time to give their starters, particularly stars and franchise players. McCarthy certainly remembers two years ago when he lost wide receiver Jordy Nelson to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the Packers’ second preseason game.
But there’s also an upside to consider, especially as coaches try to incorporate new pieces and want to make sure their teams are firing on all cylinders come Week 1. This season Rodgers might be working with his best corps of pass-catchers since 2011, when he won the first of his two MVP awards.
In addition to a healthy Nelson, veteran receiver Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, Rodgers will have a pair of new tight ends at his disposal: Martellus Bennett, the former Patriot who signed a three-year, $21 million deal this offseason, and ex-Ram Lance Kendricks.
“I need all the reps I can with Aaron,” Bennett said. “Practice reps, game reps, meeting room reps. Any rep I can get with him, I’ll try to get, whether it’s just whispering to him — try to be the quarterback whisperer.”
The team also has several younger receivers — including DeAngelo Yancey, Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis and Jeff Janis — who could surely benefit from both practice and game time with the team’s No. 1 quarterback. That will likely have to wait at least another week, as will the continued development of new starting running back Ty Montgomery, a converted wide receiver entering his first full season at his new position, who is currently dealing with a leg injury. Joe Callahan, the second-year quarterback from Wesley, UCLA product Brett Hundley and Taysom Hill, the rookie out of BYU, split the time in the pocket during last week’s 24-9 win over the Eagles and will likely share quarterback duties Saturday as well.
Last year marked the only season in Rodgers’s 12-year career that he only saw action in one preseason game. He played in two games in 2014 and ’15, three games in 2010 and ’13 and all four preseason games the other years.
“I would assume this year with Denver being the third preseason game, I’ll play for sure in that one,” Rodgers said. “And the altitude will help with the conditioning, because it’s tough to play in. … If Mike wants to look at the other three for an extended time to make sure he feels good about what we got, we’re trying to work our timing in practice with the young guys and new tight ends. But you know, we’ll figure it out as we go.”
While the young receivers have showed the Packers might have more depth than recent years, Rodgers didn’t want to compare them yet with recent Green Bay groups.
“I think there’s a lot of stuff that needs to shake out for us to see what we got,” he said.
While the Packers’ August offense might offer few hints of what the regular season might hold, coaches will be closely scrutinizing the other side of the ball this weekend. Though the Packers won their preseason opener, the defense — particularly the first-team unit — was sloppy at times. Coaches counted 16 missed tackles total last week, including at least four on the Eagles’ opening drive.
“We expect to improve this week,” defensive coordinator Dom Capers said this week. “Every step in preseason, you guys watch us tackle every day on the practice field, and then all of a sudden you get in a real game and the level steps up. Now, here in about three or four weeks, it’s going to really step up and go from preseason to the regular season.”
Defense is an area of great importance for the team, a year after allowing the second-most passing yards in the league and giving up 44 points to the Falcons in an NFC title game loss.
“It’s something we’ve got to learn from because it’s obviously very important for us,” Capers said. “To be a good defense, we’ve got to be able to tackle.”
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