Monday night utterly clarified the direction of the Green Bay Packers’ season without Aaron Rodgers. Playing at home, coming off a bye and facing their historical doormat, the Packers held favorable conditions to make a stand. In response, they crumbled. They lost to the Detroit Lions, 30-17, only after a cosmetic, final-second touchdown embroidered the final score.
Backup quarterback Brett Hundley, it can now be definitively stated, is not saving Green Bay. Since Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in the first quarter of Week 6, opponents have outscored the Packers, 79-44, with two of three games at Lambeau Field. A bye week full of first-team practice reps for Hundley provided no evident regrouping. Take away Green Bay’s meaningless, 75-yard drive in the final 100 seconds, and the Packers gained only 236 yards Monday night.
Coach Mike McCarthy, so defiant about the Packers’ prospects and quarterback situation after Rodgers’s injury, now sits at 4-4 and in third place in the NFC North. The playoffs seem like a distant dream. When Rodgers went down, so did the Packers’ season.
In the middle of the bleakness, the Packers can seize a unique opportunity. During Rodgers’ tenure, the Packers annually have picked at the bottom of the draft, the one drawback to possessing one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. They can salvage their season without Rodgers through losing not a little, but a lot. They are bad without Rodgers. They should be as bad as possible and tank for the highest draft pick they can get.
NFL teams with elite quarterbacks are rarely afforded the chance to add a top-ten draft talent. The Packers have not picked in the top 20 since 2009. They have still managed to build their roster almost exclusively through draft, hitting on first-round defensive building blocks such as Nick Perry, Datone Jones and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix while unearthing plenty of gems — Mike Daniels, Davante Adams, David Bakhtiari — in later rounds.
But picking near the top of each round would give the Packers a unique chance to restock their roster with Rodgers still in his prime. Even if the Packers wanted to rely on their ability to find value later in rounds, they could turn a high pick into multiple later picks and create depth.
The Packers aren’t in position now to pick high in the draft, but the garbled nature of the standings means that could change quickly. Only 10 teams have fewer than four wins, and just four — the Buccaneers, Giants, 49ers and Browns — have fewer than three. The Packers are only a couple weeks away from the bottom of the league.
In the NFL, unlike the NBA, tanking is more circumstantial than strategic. It is hard for an NFL team to tank. An NBA team really can tear itself down, because it can build the makings of a contender with just three or four key players. By sitting just one or two players, it can nearly ensure defeat. The margin between the best teams and worst is vast. In the NBA, rookies and younger players can be excellent and electric, but rarely spearhead winning teams.
In the NFL, all those factors are reversed. With 22 starters and 53 players, NFL teams cannot afford to stop adding good players in the draft, because it would take too long to restock a totally barren roster. With the exception of the Browns, any NFL team is a threat to win just about every week. Rookies and second-year players, at some positions, are the very best players in the NFL.
The Jets are a prime example. They thought they would nose-dive into a high draft pick. The Jets couldn’t get rid of all their good players, or stop adding good players in the draft. It turned out some of those players formed a formidable defense and better-than-expected offensive weapons for journeyman Josh McCown, who has proven mere competence can go a long way at quarterback.
Contrast the Jets with the Giants, who expected to contend for a Super Bowl. They lost their best player, Odell Beckham Jr., to injury. Their quarterback aged quicker than they realized. Their holes at linebacker were deeper than expected. Suddenly, they’re 1-7 and headed for a top-five pick.
And so while the Packers didn’t plan on tanking, it now represents their best option. The mechanics of tanking in the NFL are more difficult, too — players’ careers are too short for them to assent to sitting out, and the bottom half of every roster is effectively showcasing themselves to the entire league on a weekly basis. But the Packers should do what they can. When starters are nursing even minor injuries, the Packers should push them to rest and develop younger backups. Later in the season, they should consider benching healthy starters, to avoid injury and decrease their chances to win.
The Packers are going nowhere without Rodgers in the present. At least they can turn their season into a means of building a better team around him for the future.
>>> In dealing with Jameis Winston’s balky throwing shoulder, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not going to make the same mistake the Indianapolis Colts made with Andrew Luck. In a season that is lost, anyway, the Bucs shut down Winston for at least two weeks, letting him rest a right shoulder that contains a sprained AC joint.
The Colts permitted Luck to play through his shoulder injury in 2015, and they are still facing the consequences, as Luck has not played at full strength — and mostly not played at all — for nearly three years. And Luck’s future remains murky, as he will not even throw as he continues rehab from offseason shoulder surgery.
The 2-6 Bucs are trying to stifle any major issues before they arise. Winston couldn’t finish the 2-6 Bucs’ 30-10 loss to the Saints after playing through pain since Week 6, when he first suffered the injury.
“They feel like he needs to rest for a couple of weeks and that’s what is going to happen,” Tampa Bay Coach Dirk Koetter said. “They’re saying this is not structural, but they want to shut him down.”
>>> The Jets are not finished with FitzMagic yet. Ryan Fitzpatrick will start Sunday against the Jets for Tampa Bay, as Connor Hughes writes, in place of Winston. Fitzpatrick and the Jets have a lot of history, most of it colored by the acrimonious contract talks before last season that led a one-year, $12 million deal, which preceded a terrible season for both Fitzpatrick and the Jets.
>>> There wasn’t much fallout from the handful of brawls that took place on fields Sunday. The NFL suspended Mike Evans one game for his blindside shove of Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore, but every other player involved in a fight — notably Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Green — did not receive a suspension. One tidbit emerged: The Jaguars needed security in the locker room to prevent Ramsey from fighting Green after the game, Michael DiRocco and Katherine Terrell report.
>>> Bill Belichick clarified his stance, slightly, about the timing of the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. On Boston-based radio station WEEI, Belichick acknowledged the Patriots could have gotten more than a second-round pick — which the Patriots ended up receiving from the 49ers — for Garoppolo had he traded him before April’s draft. But he also made clear he didn’t care.
“There was no market to trade Jimmy in April, on our end,” Belichick told WEEI. “I don’t really care what the offer was. I don’t even know what the offers were, or would have been. There was no interest on our end in making that deal. It didn’t really matter what the offer was, or would the offer would have been. I don’t really know what they were because we never entertained it.
“As I said, we had the best depth at that position probably of any team in the league, or at least we felt like we did. Maybe other teams felt different, I don’t know. We had great depth at that position. It was a tremendous situation to have a quarterback of the caliber we’ve had the past call it two and a half years from when Jimmy was ready. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t sustainable.”
Translation: Belichick decided he needed to let the situation play out as long as he could. He had a 40-year-old quarterback in Tom Brady, and he wanted to hold on to Garoppolo as long as he could in case Brady faltered. When Brady remained the best quarterback in the NFL, Belichick needed to trade Garoppolo now or risk losing him in free agency, because giving him the franchise tag wasn’t feasible, for two reasons: It would have given New England all kinds of salary cap issues, and it would have meant Garoppolo, the backup, would make more than Brady, the starter.
>> Belichick wants former NFL personnel executive Gil Brandt in the Hall of Fame, Phil Perry writes. Brandt was instrumental in shaping how NFL franchises run scouting departments. Belichick got on the topic because Brandt ran the Cowboys, and Belichick was asked about tying Tom Landry on the all-time wins list at 270, third in league history.