GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur grinned.
The night before, the Green Bay Packers coach had gotten into a slightly contentious back-and-forth with a Canadian reporter after Thursday’s preseason loss to the Oakland Raiders in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The reporter wanted clarity on why quarterback Aaron Rodgers and 32 others hadn’t played in the debacle of a game played on a truncated 80-yard field, and LaFleur was doing his best not to create an international incident or anger the Raiders, whom the Packers will see in regular-season play as well.
And so, when the subject came up Friday afternoon, LaFleur interjected, “You really want to go there?” but did so with a smile before the question was half over.
In the end, this much was clear: LaFleur went into the game intending to have Rodgers play. That was the plan. But when he saw that Raiders coach Jon Gruden wasn’t playing any of his first-line guys (including quarterback Derek Carr) and when he saw the turf conditions at IG Field, something inside told him not to put the two-time NFL MVP — and the player who’ll have the most say in the team’s success in LaFleur’s rookie year as head coach — in harm’s way.
“I think that’s fair to say,” LaFleur said. “It was just something in my gut. I was told when you get this job, to always trust your gut. The risk/reward wasn’t worth it to me.”
And so, Rodgers won’t play a single snap in preseason games this summer, since next Thursday night’s finale against the Kansas City Chiefs will be devoted to getting one last look at those players engaged in position battles or scratching to make the 53-man roster, with final cuts set for Aug. 31.
Rodgers told the Packers TV Network during an in-game sideline interview that his back, which forced him to miss last week’s game at Baltimore, was not an issue and was not the reason he didn’t play against the Raiders. And in the days leading up to the trip to Winnipeg, Rodgers had very clearly stated that whatever happened against the Raiders wouldn’t impact how he felt about the offense or the team’s chances in the rapidly-approaching Sept. 5 season opener against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.
“I feel very comfortable in the offense — conceptually, philosophically, enunciating the plays, getting us in the right formation, getting the checks within the play easily figured out. I feel very comfortable with it,” Rodgers said. “If we didn’t play (in the preseason), I’d feel great going into Week 1. If we did, I wouldn’t really be worried too much about the results. If we go down and score a touchdown (against the Raiders), it’s not going to give me any more confidence than I already have in the scheme. If we go three-and-out, it’s not going to dampen any confidence that I have in what we’ve established so far in the training camp practices.“
For all the talk about the coach and quarterback’s relationship, they sound like they’re in agreement on that. And they’re hardly alone in their thinking that preseason games aren’t worth the risk, as a host of other NFL head coaches have held their quarterbacks and key players out of exhibition action so far. Earlier in the week, Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay — LaFleur’s longtime friend and former boss — announced that his starters wouldn’t see a minute of action in Saturday’s game against Denver, and he left many of his key players behind in Southern California when the Rams traveled to Hawaii for last week’s game against Dallas.
McVay sat most of his starters all of last preseason as well and his team reached the Super Bowl.
“You say, ‘If something were to happen, is it really worth that risk in our mind?’ We just felt like that answer is no,” McVay said. “That’s the approach that we’re taking, I totally understand if people don’t agree with that, but we always make decisions that are in the best interests of our team. That’s just really for this unit. Does that mean we’ll always have that luxury? I think if you have a different number of returning players, then the narrative on that is a little different.”
The mentality applies to more than just Rodgers. For instance, while LaFleur had said he wanted to see running back Aaron Jones against the Raiders because he hasn’t been tackled since last season, Jones was among the healthy players who were held out of the game. And LaFleur knows that because he’s installing a new offense, there’ll be second-guessers if Rodgers and the offense struggle early in the regular season.
“I think everybody has a different philosophy,” LaFleur said. “It really goes back to being confident in the work that you get in throughout the entire preseason (and) training camp. I think that’s a big reason why you see a lot of these teams that are scrimmaging multiple teams (in joint practices) to get the necessary competitive work yet not put those guys at risk in those games when guys are live and you’re going to the ground. I think that’s something that we’ll look into in the future, as well.”
Finding a balance
LaFleur admitted that it’ll be a challenging week of practice with his starters focusing on preparation for the Bears while the second- and third-string units need to prepare for the Chiefs so they can put their best feet forward in their competition for roster spots.
To that end, LaFleur floated the idea that he might divide up the team and have the starters work at one end of the field and the 2s and 3s at the other end at the same time. LaFleur has used some variation of that approach during the offseason practices and in camp. The Packers have practices on Sunday and Monday, but they are closed to the public and only partially open to the media.
“We’re actually going to sit down as a staff and go over the schedule for the week because you would like to get a jump on the season opener,” LaFleur said. “There are still some positional battles that are going on and you want to make sure these guys going into the last preseason game are well-prepared in terms of what they’re going to see, so they can go out and play good quality football.
“A lot of it is going to depend on who’s available for us from an injury standpoint — how we can potentially split up the team and have two different practices (going) on.”
ESPN and the NFL Network reported that wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown escaped a more serious injury and only has a high-ankle sprain that will sideline him four to six weeks. St. Brown’s status as roster cuts is unclear, though, as he’d have to be on the 53-man roster for one day after cuts before he’d be eligible for injured reserve with the possibility of returning during the season. ... LaFleur announced that he would not be giving any injury updates until required to do so in advance of the opener, so he would not discuss St. Brown’s injury or injuries suffered by inside linebacker Curtis Bolton (knee) and outside linebacker Rashan Gary (unknown). … LaFleur said he thought the defense “definitely” did better in the tackling department after missing 43 tackles in the first two games. “I thought our effort by everybody was really good, too,” LaFleur said. “There were a few too many in the first half but I thought we calmed down and got after it pretty good in the second half.” … LaFleur acknowledged that with Bolton’s injury, GM Brian Gutekunst and the scouting staff are “looking at every available option” at a position where Oren Burks (chest) is already sidelined. “We’re brainstorming as a staff, as well, to see what we have to do,” LaFleur said. “I’m pretty confident that we’ll find the right solution.”