The Green Bay Packers will wrap up their preseason schedule on Thursday when they travel to Kansas City to meet the Chiefs. Like all preseason games, who wins and who loses is completely irrelevant and the game will primarily determine who wins position battles, competitions for roster spots and who makes the practice squad.
But head coach Matt LaFleur has a tough decision to make when it comes to this game. Should he play his starters to give them some work before the games start to count September 11th in Minnesota, or should he rest them and play it safe to prevent injuries.
In the Packers preseason opener against the 49ers, LaFleur sat out 33 players including Aaron Rodgers and most of the team’s starters on both offense and defense. That number went down slightly to 30 in the second preseason game against the Saints.
With one preseason game left, LaFleur has a choice to make. Should have his starting players risk injury and play a quarter or more of the final preseason game against the Chiefs or should he have the start the season without taking the field in a game situation since last January’s playoff loss?
“I see benefits on both sides, but I also see some things that you’d be kicking yourself if something went wrong in a game that doesn’t count on your record,” LaFleur said. “There’s benefits to going through the mental preparation of getting yourself ready for a game. Just working out the kinks of your pregame or whatever it might be. Also, just going out there and playing and having the confidence. I want to go through the next couple of days, see where we’re at, and make a decision.”
Each way there are potential benefits and problems. If LaFleur doesn’t play his starters at all, they could come out flat like they did last season against the Saints. That was by far the Packers worst performance of the season, a 38-3 trouncing where neither the offense nor the defense seemed ready to play. The offense gained a total of only 229 yards and Rodgers was removed from the game in the second half. Defensively, the Packers made Jameis Winston look like a Hall of Famer as he threw for five touchdowns in just 20 attempts.
This season, the Packers have a divisional game in Week 1. That makes it more important to earn a win. The Vikings are considered the biggest threat to the Packers bid to repeat as NFC North Division champions for the fourth straight year.
If the starters do play there are benefits for sure. The biggest may the idea of giving Rodgers time to develop chemistry and timing with his new receivers. Veteran Sammy Watkins has never played in a regular season game with Rodgers and injuries robbed him of valuable practice time in training camp.
More importantly, rookies like Christian Watson, Romeo Doubs and Samori Toure have also never played with Rodgers in a game situation. While Rodgers has been critical of the young players lack of consistency when it comes to hands and route running and knowing what to do when plays break down, getting them in game situations with him could speed that process up just a little bit.
On the defensive side of the ball, most of the starters have not appeared in a game this preseason either. Getting the defense snaps against a talented Chiefs offense that features Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and ex-Packers wideout Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Getting the defense game reps before the season starts would certainly have its benefits.
But the most obvious danger to playing starters in a preseason game is the potential for injury. The Packers cannot afford to lose Rodgers, Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon, Rashan Gary, Jaire Alexander, Adrian Amos, De’Vondre Campbell and many other quality starters to injury in a game that doesn’t really matter.
The starters would probably play anywhere from one series to a quarter. That lowers but does not eliminate the chances of a serious injury occurring. Rodgers has indicated if he plays in a preseason game, he will want to play a quarter or more to get a feel for the game rather than just making a token appearance.
LaFleur hasn’t reached a final decision yet. “The correct answer is whatever works,” LaFleur said. “You look back a year ago, and you’re like, ‘Well, if you would have played the guys in the preseason, would you have gotten whipped like you did in Week 1 vs. the Saints?’ I don’t know what the answer is. But I do think we had a pretty successful year, I would say, until it wasn’t at the end. To me, a lot of it comes down to that feeling of what you need to get out of it, what you want to see and where you’re at as a football team.”
The clock is ticking. LaFleur has less than two days to make his final decision. LaFleur will do what he feels gives his team the best chance to win in Week 1 and beyond.
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