For about a decade now, NFL teams without exception have been playing their starters less and less during preseason games. The Packers have been even more cautious than most. For example, last year quarterback Aaron Rodgers appeared only in the second preseason game, in which he completed two of four passes for 35 yards and scrambled once for a five-yard gain. Aaron has indicated he expects to play in the upcoming game in Baltimore.
LaFleur’s toughest decision so far in his new job might just be: how much to play the teams expected starters during the final three preseason games. The decision takes on additional importance because the initial two regular-season tilts are against intra-divisional favorites Chicago and Minnesota.
Last year I advocated that, due to the Packers playing the Bears and Vikings in the first two weeks of the season, the Packers should increase the starters’ playing time so they would be at a high state of readiness for those critical early encounters. I think that argument can be made even more compellingly now.
McCarthy chose the less risky option, though the result was not conclusive: a miracle comeback against Chicago and a tie against the Vikes. The Packers very easily might have gone on to Game 3 without a win under their belts.
Both of those 2018 games were played at Lambeau. This year – surprise – the Packers open against the Bears and the Vikes again. The first game of the LaFleur era, however, is being played at Soldier Field – and it’s the lead-off to the NFL season. No pressure, huh Matt?
If LaFleur goes the injury-avoidance route, fans ought to be braced for another slow start: with fourteen minutes remaining in last year’s opener, the Bears had a 20 to 3 lead and the Packers’ offense appeared dead in the water. It was then that Rodgers got in sync, with a 36-yard TD to Geronimo Allison, a TD pass to Davante Adams, and with two minutes to go a 75-yard catch-and-run TD by Randall Cobb – the longest pass play of the season for A-Rod.
We won’t have Cobb for this season’s opener, but we should have Aaron Jones, who was under suspension for those first two critical games last time.
Playing Time Considerations
There are three competing goals every NFL head coach must try to balance during the preseason: getting the best possible looks at players competing to make the team’s final roster, giving the projected starters sufficient playing time to be ready at the start of the season, and limiting preseason injuries to key players.
Some argue that starters can be made ready for game time during largely tackle-free practices. Others argue that roster determinations can be made based mostly on low-contact practices.
We know how Rodgers feels. A couple years ago, Aaron referred to preseason games as “meaningless,” and went on to indicate that a team can get all that needs to be done in practice sessions rather than during the exhibition games. That might be true with respect to Aaron and some other veteran players, but this team is no longer a largely veteran group.
A bunch of players at key positions have been professionals for only one or two seasons. Even more to the point, Green Bay has a new head coach and mostly new coaching staff, a completely revamped offensive scheme and approach, a new offensive playbook, and a swarm of new arrivals from other teams.
Most teams give projected starters some playing time in the second preseason game, and more time in the third game, then rest them during the final preseason contest. If so, we’ll get our best preview of this team’s potential when they play the Raiders on August 22, with the next best chance for an appraisal being against the Ravens on August 15 – both are “away” games.
This preseason, the NFL has games spread out over Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. By some quirk, all five of the Packers’ initial games take place on Thursday evenings.