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Silverstein: Matt LaFleur will be put to test by demands of 17-game Packers schedule


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GREEN BAY - Now that it is official that the NFL will play a 17-game regular season, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur has some decisions to make in creating training camp, regular-season and bye-week schedules that keep his team healthy.

The Packers didn’t exactly catch a break when the NFL added a road game against back-to-back Super Bowl participant Kansas City as its 17th game. It means the Packers will play 10 games against 2020 playoff teams, including five against division champions from last year.

As critical to who was added to the Packers’ schedule, however, is how an extra regular-season game and one less exhibition game will alter the way LaFleur approaches the new format.

Figuring out how much time a team can spend on the practice field over an 18-week regular season without stretching the limits of what the human body can endure will be a challenge for everyone. Dealing with the potential of bodies breaking down over 40 days of training camp and 18 weeks of practice and games could be an enormous challenge.

Commissioner Roger Goodell put the best face possible on it by suggesting that all the league was doing was taking snaps a player might play in the exhibition season and moving them to the regular season. He even went on to say that data shows that the risk of injury is greater in the games that don’t count than the ones that do.

There are all kinds of explanations for that, but the bottom line is most starters sit out one or two of the exhibition games and might play 30 snaps maximum if they do suit up. In no way can you equate 15-30 exhibition game snaps with 65 regular-season game snaps.

The increase in regular-season snaps can’t possibly lower injury risk and there is the potential for players to log 1,300 or more snaps in a season even without making it all the way to the Super Bowl.

Last year, only one starter on the Packers’ top-performing offensive line made it through the year without missing any snaps due to injury.

Left guard Elgton Jenkins played 1,038 of 1,040 offensive snaps during a breakout Pro Bowl season, then added 146 more in the playoffs for a total of 1,184. Now the NFL wants him to take on another 60 or so snaps.

And don’t forget, this was during a year when there were no offseason workouts and no exhibition games due to COVID-19, so the amount of stress on Jenkins’ body wasn’t near what it stands to be this year.

The argument is that the number of games won’t be going up from the last full season, but that’s a ridiculous argument because Jenkins, for instance, didn’t play a snap in the Packers’ final two exhibition games in 2019. So, just because there will be one less exhibition game doesn’t mean he will be exchanging exhibition snaps for regular-season snaps.

If you factored in the exhibition snaps he played in ’19 with last year’s regular-season total, he would have played 1,259 snaps for the season. Imagine if 2020 would have been a year like 2015 when the offense played 1,147 regular-season snaps; Jenkins would have been around 1,350 snaps.

Coaches aren’t going to come out publicly and second-guess the owners who pay their salaries, but they most certainly will be brainstorming with their assistants on the best way to make it through what amounts to 29 weeks of football from the start of training camp to Super Bowl Sunday.

Team president Mark Murphy said after the 17-game schedule was approved during a virtual owners meeting held this week that he understands there is concern about how players are going to stay healthy. As a former NFL player, he has been through seasons where there were no limits on two-a-day training camp practices and the amount of days pads were worn.

“For me, it’s a difficult issue,” Murphy said. “You’re going from 16 games to 17, more wear and tear on their bodies. But I do think when you step back and look at it, our preseason product is not good for fans. Veterans are playing less and less in the preseason.

“I think not only with the safety rules, we’ve done so many things to make the game safer. This is something we’ve been looking at and thinking about (for a while).”

If there’s anyone who’s hyper-conscious about player health, it’s LaFleur. His practices get shorter as the year goes on, he limits work to walk-throughs when he thinks his team looks sluggish and he is never into beating his team up in training camp to get them ready for the regular season.

This year, the regular season doesn’t start until the week of Sept. 9-13 and assuming the Packers open on Sunday the 13th, the players will report July 27 and play their first exhibition game on the weekend of Aug. 13-14. Games will be played as usual the two weekends after that, but then there will be an open weekend where no games are played.

Just as fans are getting fired up for the regular season, there will be a “bye” week.

For the head coaches, a decision will have to be made about how much to practice that week. Maybe the veterans get the week off and the younger players compete for roster spots in practice. Maybe veterans work on the game plan for the opener the first half of practice and then let those competing for roster spots finish up.

Or maybe it’s an extended week of training camp with everyone working normally.

The problem is that the collective bargaining agreement states that only one padded practice can take place during the “bye” week and everything else must be done in helmets and shells. The deadline for the cutdown to 53 is expected to be on Saturday after the final camp practice week.

It wouldn’t be surprising if LaFleur was very careful with his veterans.

“We learned a lot from last year,” Murphy said. “Obviously we didn't have any preseason games, but there were some things that we saw that really made a lot of sense from a player health and safety standpoint – a longer strength and conditioning period, a longer ramp-up period.”

Something Murphy thinks will help is that there’s a chance most of the exhibition games will be played on Saturdays, instead of Thursday and Friday nights, making for a more uniform training camp. He said the Thursday games set up short weeks that taxed players even more than they did in the regular season since coaches need to do more than just the traditional short-week walk-through in training camp.

Once the season starts, not much should be different except that instead of making eight road trips this year, the Packers will make nine. Depending on how the league schedules games and divvies out prime-time assignments, the Packers could have a challenging schedule.

In addition to Kansas City and the three NFC North locations, they have road games at Arizona, Baltimore, San Francisco, New Orleans and Cincinnati. There will be just one bye week as usual, so how the schedule plays out could have big ramifications based on travel clusters and how many games in a row a team plays without a week off.

At the end of the year, it’s not hard to imagine a team which has its playoff seed locked up resting players. Teams with playoff berths locked up that are worried about limping into the postseason could rest players, too.

An advantage the Packers could have with an extra regular-season game is if they earn a home playoff game or two. The playoffs won’t start until Jan.15-16 because of the extra game, and while it didn’t happen this year, odds are good a weekend or two in mid- or late-January will feature frigid temperatures, which the Packers like to think is in their favor.

For now, the fear of over-working players will be on every coach’s mind and the ones who manage their practices the best just might stand tallest at the end. It’s just one extra game, but for a league that maximizes every dollar, it'd better hope it doesn’t wind up diluting its product through massive numbers of injuries.

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