Silverstein: Packers can go ahead and play their starters, but leave these three on the sideline
GREEN BAY – When it comes to the question of resting starters in a meaningless game in Detroit, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur’s only concerns should be quarterback Aaron Rodgers, receiver Davante Adams and nose tackle Kenny Clark.
They are the only indispensable players on the roster.
If any one of them gets hurt Sunday at Ford Field and can’t return in time to play in the divisional round of the playoffs, the Packers are sunk. It would be four months of work down the drain in a 17th game the players never wanted in the first place.
Go ahead and play your starters, but leave those three on the sideline.
We know based on LaFleur’s news conference Wednesday that he plans to play everybody who’s able even though the Packers have home-field advantage and a first-round bye locked up. He made that decision in consultation with his coaches, the players and presumably general manager Brian Gutekunst.
It’s very possible that LaFleur is playing some games and telling everyone he plans to play his starters to get them to stay focused this week, only to announce Sunday he has changed his mind. He may have already told Rodgers of his plans.
But Rodgers spoke as though he was playing Sunday. He didn’t seem so locked into it that he would have a fit if LaFleur changed his mind. When asked if he had any doubt he would be at his best in the divisional round Jan. 22-23 should he be idle the two weekends prior, he said he had none.
At age 37 and a veteran of 20 postseason starts, he’s a guy who can still skip practice all week and throw for three touchdowns. Just ask the Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns.
“It’s more, it would seem, to get out there to stay sharp, to be efficient and keep the momentum going,” Rodgers said of why he would play. “But I wouldn't have any doubts were later in the week, Matt to say, ‘Hey, you know, I think I want to shut you down, Marcedes, Davante,’ some of these guys.
“I wouldn't have any worries, but I do feel like going out there and keeping the momentum going and putting a good performance out there — last game of the year — does have some merit.”
In theory, it sounds good.
Recent history doesn’t really provide a definitive answer as to whether a team that has clinched home-field advantage should sit its best players in the season finale.
The greatest coach of all time, Bill Belichick, let Tom Brady play in 2007 when the New England Patriots were chasing a perfect 16-0 season and probably regretted it because the finale was played against the New York Giants, who went toe-to-toe with Brady and Co. that day and gained the confidence it took to win the rematch in Super XLII.
Seven years later, Belichick rested Brady and a bunch of other starters in the season finale before the bye. The Patriots fell behind 14-0 to Baltimore in the divisional playoff game, but won 35-31, and then stormed to their first Super Bowl win in 10 years.
Others, such as New Orleans’ Sean Payton (2018) and Kansas City’s Andy Reid (2020), held out Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes in Week 17 and won divisional playoff games.
Of course, there are several examples of teams resting starters and losing in the divisional round. The Ravens (2019) were one of those teams and afterward, coach John Harbaugh said if he had to do it over again, he would have played quarterback Lamar Jackson and others.
LaFleur said his decision to play starters is partly a gut feel, but he said he also has data from studies his staff has done and from a study done when he was with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017, and the consensus is that it’s smart to give players some time off.
As far as the entire game, his gut says no. He doesn’t like the idea of conceding a game or treating it like the preseason, when the object isn’t to win.
“I have a hard time going into any game saying that doesn't mean anything,” he said. “I think every time you go out there, you're trying to perform your best.
“So, all our guys that are playing, which is the majority of our team, they’ve got to go in with the mindset that they're going to play the entire game. And if and when we decide to pull some guys, it's going to be totally more of a feel-type thing.”
If LaFleur does plan to play Rodgers, he better not put him at risk with empty backfields and lots of long-developing pass plays. The coach of the year award, for which he’s in the running, will fly into someone else’s hands if Rodgers, Adams or Clark gets hurt.
The risk for Rodgers on Sunday is that someone steps on his ailing left pinky toe again and it causes him to miss practice during the bye and the week after. Practice isn’t as much for him as it is for those around him, who need to know when he might change plays at the line, how he’s going to read coverages and where he’s going to place the ball if the defense reacts a certain way.
“The bye is helpful, but we're still going to practice on the bye; it’s not like we’re going to take an entire week off,” Rodgers said.
With that being the case, he can still get in two days of work this week, two more the next week and three leading into the divisional game. Considering he hasn’t been practicing much at all since coming back from COVID-19, those workouts should suffice for maintaining sharpness and chemistry.
If they want Rodgers to be a part of the game, let him call plays as Mike McCarthy once did during a preseason game.
As for Adams, you could make a case for playing him briefly so he can break Jordy Nelson’s franchise record for receiving yards in a season. He has 1,498 and needs 22 to surpass Nelson's record set in 2014.
Right now, the only team in the NFC with anything close to what the Packers have with Rodgers and Adams is the Rams’ Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp. They’re in the running for the NFC West title, so both will be playing, and coach Sean McVay will hope nothing happens to either.
There’s no reason to risk losing the best passing combination in the NFC.
The same goes for Clark, who may not draw the attention Rodgers and Adams do. But anyone who saw the defense collapse without him against Baltimore knows he must be 100% for the playoffs.
Clark wants to play but said he would have no problem being ready in three weeks if he’s held out. It just makes too much sense to hold out a guy who has had a groin injury during the year and spends his time getting mauled for 50 plays a game.
A lot of people around here remember the Packers losing after McCarthy rested players during the finale of the 15-1 season in 2011, but blaming that loss on rust is questionable. There were uncharacteristic fumbles from John Kuhn and Ryan Grant and a few misses from Rodgers, but mostly it was the horrible defense that hadn’t stopped anybody all year that cost the Packers the game.
A decade later, the Packers have reasons not to play every starter against the Lions. Their names are Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams and Kenny Clark, and they mean too much to this team to risk them even playing a down.