GREEN BAY – At the line, Aaron Rodgers knew this two-point attempt was doomed. A blitz was coming into the teeth of the Green Bay Packers' play call, removing the throwing lane.
Rodgers was on scout team Tuesday afternoon, mimicking the Philadelphia Eagles' offense almost 48 hours before their preseason opener – “Aaron plays a damn good Carson Wentz,” Brett Hundley would put it – but sometimes competitive juices flow.
No play is unimportant enough to let fail. Not even a scout-team two-point conversion. So Rodgers called an audible, abandoning the left side of the field for the right, where he knew double slants would beat man-to-man coverage on the goal line.
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Rodgers was right, of course. From the slot, Randall Cobb snuck inside undrafted rookie cornerback Lenzy Pipkins. It was an easy conversion, except for one detail. Rodgers’ audible reached into the recesses of his receivers’ memory.
It was a signal, Cobb said, his quarterback hadn’t used in four years.
“He just came up to me,” Cobb said while sitting at his locker later, “and said, ‘That was a blast from the past, right?’”
On exhibit was the chemistry that develops when a receiver and quarterback spend years together, perfecting the nuances of their craft. It’s a history the Packers appear poised to rely on once again this month.
Coach Mike McCarthy isn’t holding his play-time meeting until Wednesday morning, but already it’s clear who won’t be on the field Thursday night. Hundley, preparing for the Eagles, took first-team reps throughout the past two practices. Receiver Jordy Nelson said he doesn’t expect to play. Starters who aren’t on the inactive list will find the sideline sooner than later.
Nelson warned not to make any long-term predictions. He expects to get some snaps in the second and third preseason exhibitions, though neither is likely to be extensive playing time. If the past is any indication, starters will be mostly spectators through much of the four exhibitions.
“You always analyze how you went into the regular season from the preseason,” McCarthy said, “but so many different variables go into that. I understand everyone wants to know how much this player or that player is going to play, but it’s really the combination of players at a certain time, who they’re going to be playing against. You try to line it up the best you can, because it’s about getting as much information for the evaluation for these games.”
Talent evaluation, not regular-season preparation, is the value McCarthy finds in preseason exhibitions. From young players, he wants to see who responds in a game setting.
Veterans can anticipate very few snaps.
No team risks overusing their key players in the preseason, knowing a season-ending injury in a meaningless exhibition could threaten their season. The Packers saw that first hand in 2015, when Nelson jumped to catch a pass and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee when he landed.
“I’ve never had a good preseason game,” Nelson said. “I think my best preseason game was the year I tore my ACL. So my goal is not to be successful in preseason.”
Since Nelson’s injury, it’s possible no team has curtailed preseason snaps from key starters – and certainly its quarterback – more than the Packers. Rodgers saw his preseason virtually disappear last year. For the first time in his career, he appeared in only one preseason exhibition, getting two drives at the third game at the San Francisco 49ers.
Rodgers’ one appearance trailed the league’s other elite quarterbacks. Drew Brees and Russell Wilson appeared in all four exhibitions last summer. Tom Brady and Andrew Luck appeared in two. Ben Roethlisberger made one appearance, but his 17 pass attempts were almost double Rodgers’ nine.
“I think coach is doing something smart,” left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “Obviously, you don’t want to jeopardize your players and have something bad happen, especially in a game that statistically doesn’t go in the win-loss column.”
Whether it's smart hinges on results. No, the Packers didn’t have a major preseason injury in 2016, but they hardly finished the season a picture of good health. Sam Shields was lost for the season in Week 1. Eddie Lacy was placed on injured reserve after Week 6.
A lack of preseason snaps did not prevent crippling injuries on both sides of the ball.
It might have contributed to a slow start on offense.
No matter what elements of an offense are on the field, there’s no simulating how it operates with the starting quarterback. Coincidence or not, it took the Packers' offense several weeks to find its rhythm in 2016. Despite last season’s slow start, Rodgers isn’t pining for more preseason snaps.
“I don't think there's any correlation with that, no,” Rodgers said.
To a man, players on the Packers' offense believe practice reps prepare them better for the regular season than preseason snaps. Soon, the Packers will start mixing practices designed to prepare for their first regular-season opponent, the Seattle Seahawks. Nelson said starters increase their practice reps later in camp, getting them in shape to play 70, 80 snaps in a regular-season game.
Sometimes, the quarterback might pull out an audible that hasn’t been used in four seasons.
“I think that chemistry is something that can be built in practices,” Cobb said. “We’ve all been able to build that chemistry over the years. It’s just fine-tuning those things in practice in different looks that we see, and making sure we’re on the same page in those moments.”
The Packers have a pair of new tight ends (Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks), along with a new starting right guard (Jahri Evans), to implement on offense. Ty Montgomery got 13 games in the backfield last season, but the Packers' starting running back is still new at his position.
For the most part, their transitions likely will continue with Rodgers watching from the sideline.
As for last season, Rodgers said a confluence of factors was more influential to the Packers' slow start than who was – or wasn’t – on the field during the preseason.
“It’s really about identity,” Rodgers said, “and finding what the identity is on offense, the balance of run-pass that we’re going to have, and the personnel groupings. We just didn’t find that until later in the season last year, when we finally went with Ty (Montgomery) at running back and went with some more spread stuff against Chicago. Then he kind of reined it in a little bit, did some more true running back stuff with Ty.
“We have to figure out what those personnel groups are from the start.”
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