Packers 17, Browns 11: A risk resting Rodgers

Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Joe Callahan (6) scrambles against the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY -  Well, maybe this will work.

Last summer, coach Mike McCarthy played Aaron Rodgers 32 snaps in the Green Bay Packers’ opening exhibition game against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, 14 against the Pittsburgh Steelers and nary a one in the final two games.

Rodgers responded by playing his best football of the 2015 season in the first three games of the regular season when the Packers rolled up 96 points in a 3-0 start.

In the end, however, the plan for Rodgers didn’t bear fruit. For a myriad of reasons, Rodgers went on to have the poorest season of his 11-year career and the Packers bowed out short of the Super Bowl for the fifth straight January.

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McCarthy is borderline obsessive when it comes to order of substitution in the summer game. Rest assured he deliberated long and hard before deciding the best course this year was to put Rodgers on the sideline in sweat clothes Friday night for the exhibition opener against the Cleveland Browns.

The Packers won the 67th Upper Midwest Shrine Game, 17-11, before a crowd of 74,261 at 81,435-seat Lambeau Field.

Years ago, a head coach in Green Bay wouldn’t dare not play a healthy starting quarterback for at least for a series or two in an exhibition home game. In those days, coaches felt something of an obligation to provide some entertainment value for a sellout crowd, and the feeling persisted among football people that a quarterback needed to get knocked around a few times to prepare for the season.

Those days are long gone, but still it’s unclear which philosophy is correct.

“It’s out of my hands … (but) I feel like I’m ready right now,” Rodgers said early in the week. “The practice reps are really important. We’re playing against a great defense every single day. Those reps are as important as a game.”

The Packers begin the season with road games at Jacksonville and Minnesota. The Jaguars have made several significant additions on defense, and the Vikings might have one of the NFL’s premier defensive platoons.

McCarthy is well aware Rodgers and the offense must be sharp early. What he must avoid is those 1-2 starts of 2012, ’13 and ’14.

The passing attempts for Rodgers in August took a nosedive beginning in 2013. After averaging 47.6 exhibition attempts in his first five years (2008-’12) as a starter, he had 43 in 2012 before averaging just 27.0 the past three years.

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His 24 attempts in 2013 ranked fourth among the Packers’ quarterbacks before his 33 attempts in ’14 and 24 in ’15 ranked third.

Last year in Foxborough, Mass., McCarthy took a chance by exposing Rodgers for those 32 snaps. Two of Rodgers’ three series reached the red zone, and try as they may the Packers came away with only three points.

As lethal as the offense was last September, it was almost equally ineffective in the first three games of 2012 and ’14. The first time Rodgers didn’t dress for an exhibition opener was in 2014 at Tennessee.

By sitting Rodgers against the Browns, McCarthy now will face the decision whether to play him Thursday night against Oakland at Lambeau Field. The Raiders’ pass rush led by linebacker Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin figures to be more of a challenge than Cleveland’s.

Road games against San Francisco and Kansas City are to follow.

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Afterward, McCarthy said, “History will tell you he’ll play next week (against the Raiders).”

Tom Clements, the associate head coach, liked what he has seen from Rodgers so far.

 “We’ve had some extra practice with the Hall of Fame Game, even though we didn’t play it,” Clements said Wednesday. “We’re kind of watching how many throws Aaron has each practice. But he’s been sharp. He’ll be ready when the season opens.”

The Packers had practiced 12 times leading up to the opener, with eight conducted in pads. None of the work included live tackling.

Hue Jackson, the new coach in Cleveland, incorporated periods of full contact in about two-thirds of his practices. His approach is almost the exact opposite of McCarthy’s.

No matter what happens, quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt exuded confidence in Rodgers.

“You’d like to roll it out there and see what it looks like before the first day opens up,” Van Pelt said this week. “If that’s the case, whatever it may be, I have all the confidence in the world Aaron’s ready to go.

“Once you get to that age (32), you’ve got two MVPs under your belt, you look like you’ve looked in practice thus far … I think he’s been unbelievable in this camp.”

Rodgers joined linebackers Julius Peppers and Sam Barrington as the Packers’ three healthy scratches. Another 14 players sat out because of injury. In all, the Packers were minus eight starters.

The fact that wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb didn’t play might have been another reason why Rodgers didn’t play.

Certainly, there must have been anxiety on the part of general manager Ted Thompson and McCarthy over the possibility of injury in their first full-contact work in seven months. The best development for the Packers was the fact the team made no announcement during the game of any new injuries.

Because Brett Hundley, Rodgers’ understudy, has been out for about 10 days with an ankle injury, rookie free agents Joe Callahan and Marquise Williams each played a half.

McCarthy’s first series looked like something out of the Twilight Zone. His formation on the opening five snaps was two tight ends and one back. Eddie Lacy carried four times for 24 yards to start the game. It was old-school football.

It’s a long way from NCAA Division III Wesley (Del.) to the NFL, and it was understandable if not expected that Callahan would be nervous and off-target early.

Callahan, however, was much more effective in the second quarter, especially in a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive to send the Packers off at halftime with a 10-5 lead that they never relinquished. His passer rating was 97.0; Williams finished with 24.4.

“Joe did a lot of really good things,” McCarthy said at halftime in remarks distributed by the team. “He managed the run game. I thought he was excellent.”

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