Dougherty: Why Packers are making right call starting Aaron Rodgers against Jets

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) directs the offense before the snap Dec. 9 against the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau Field in Green Bay.

There’s a strong case to sit Aaron Rodgers this Sunday.

But there’s a stronger case to play him.

The Green Bay Packers are making the right call by playing Rodgers against the New York Jets.

The argument to sit Rodgers is compelling: The Packers are investing more than $30 million a year in him, and his performance is vital to their prospects for the next several years. Why take any risk of serious injury by playing him in games that don’t matter?

If he tears his ACL, it would be catastrophic. He’d miss the entire offseason and probably wouldn’t be ready for Week 1 in 2019. So don’t take any chances. Just sit him.

It’s a valid point and deserves serious consideration. There surely are similar circumstances where it would be the right call.

But not here and not now.

The fact that Rodgers wants to play, and presumably has pushed hard to play, is a good sign. It speaks in part to his hypercompetitive nature. But that’s not the reason to play him.

The reason to play him — that decision rests with general manager Brian Gutekunst and team President and CEO Mark Murphy — is all about leadership and accountability. Rodgers was exactly right this week when he offered why he should play.

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“If I want to be listened to and followed and looked up to,” Rodgers said, “how could I stand here and say that these games that don’t matter for playoffs, I’m going to cash it in?”

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

Sitting Rodgers would send a terrible message to the locker room unless there’s a good injury reason to do so, as there was last year, when the Packers fell out of the playoff race after his return from a broken collarbone. They had to sit him then. It was clear watching him throw against Carolina he wasn’t fully recovered.

But Rodgers’ knee and groin injuries now aren’t of that nature. He has played without a knee brace for several weeks, and despite the groin strain from last Sunday he has been a full participant in practice all week. He’s healthy enough to play his game.

To pay him the most lucrative contract in NFL history in August, watch him and the team have a subpar year, and then sit him the last two games now that the playoffs are out of reach? That would undermine Rodgers’ leadership going forward. He’s had, by the standards he’s set, a bad year. He needs to stick it out for himself and his teammates. This game is all about commitment and adversity, and quarterbacks set the tone for their teams. This isn’t about this year, it’s about next season, and the one after that, too.

So it was for Brett Favre back in 2005, when he had a bad year (70.9 rating) and the Packers finished 4-12. They were out of the playoffs by early December, yet Favre finished out the year.

More recently, in 2015 and '16 the New Orleans Saints were eliminated from the playoff hunt with three games left. Yet Drew Brees played all three games both years.

In 2015, the San Diego Chargers finished 4-12, yet Philip Rivers played every game. And in 2013 and '14, Atlanta finished 4-12 and 6-10, yet Matt Ryan finished out both seasons.

That helped their teams down the road.

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While this is mainly about leadership and the locker room, let’s face it, Rodgers and his receivers need the work, too.

As the starter, Rodgers will get all the snaps in practice plus two games of live action to work with rookies Equanimeous St. Brown and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and first-year tight end Robert Tonyan, among others. With the recurring timing and “detail” issues in the passing game this year, they need every snap with Rodgers they can get.

Yeah, the Packers’ new coach probably will run a new offense next season, but that won’t render these snaps worthless. There’s enough that’s universal in route running and non-verbal communication and chemistry to make the work valuable regardless of scheme.

Don’t get me wrong, the risk of playing Rodgers is real. I get that.

Others who want to sit him surely will add that the Packers are better off losing these games anyway for draft position. Protect Rodgers and maybe get higher picks. Fair enough.

But even if momentum doesn’t carry over from one season to the next — it doesn’t — there still are better reasons for starting Rodgers this week.

Teams need to see their quarterback is with them through thick and thin, and Rodgers and his receivers need the extra work to boot.

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