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Cornerstone players injured as Packers take unnecessary risk in final weeks of 2018

Joe Philbin was coaching for his professional life. Players always want to play. The front office needed to step in and save Green Bay from itself.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers never should have been on the field to risk the concussion he suffered in Week 17.
Appleton Post Crescent-USA TODAY NETWORK

The Meadowlands Miracle never should have happened. Coming back from two scores down to win a road game — which turned out to be the only win away from Lambeau on the year — brought joy and excitement to the fanbase. However, the price was too high. Jaire Alexander left the game injured. David Bakhtiari pulled up lame. Aaron Rodgers gutted out through multiple ailments. Davante Adams took a shot to his knee, an issue bad enough to keep him out of Week 17.

These were hits the Packers’ franchise players never should have taken.

Aaron Rodgers should want to play if he’s healthy enough to go. All of his points about leadership and gutting it out for his guys, those are valid points worth considered. Okay, they’ve been considered, you’re sitting.

Joe Philbin would never stand up to the star quarterback insisting on playing. He’s coaching for his livelihood. The players want to play, not just to avoid the collar on the road this season, but because plenty of guys on this roster may not have a place in Green Bay next season. They want to show out in the final weeks of the season playing to win. Rodgers wants to put an ugly-for-him season in the rearview mirror. For a brief, glimmering moment in New Jersey, he did.

On the first possession of the Week 17 game, Rodgers’ season ended as it had began: hurt. Concussions add up and make a player more likely to get them in the future. Sam Shields could tell you that. Risking brain injury to the most important guy on the field for a game that means nothing is a dereliction of the team’s responsibility to its players and its long-term outlook.

It’s all fun and games until your franchise player rattles his gray matter. And for what? To beat the Lions?

This isn’t the same as leaving the star basketball player in the game with three fouls in the first half, trusting him not to pick up a cheap one before the half. We are talking about the bodies of these players, their very livelihood. Their brain health. Ask Randall Cobb or Clay Matthews what wear and tear can do to the body.

Adams now has to rehab a knee injury. Rodgers added risk for future concussions. Alexander won’t be able to immediately start on a Year 2 leap body program because he’s dealing with a groin problem. Bakhtiari clearly gutted it out to protect Rodgers, as evidenced by his removal from the game after Rodgers exited. It was the All-Pro left tackle who gave up the pressure that got Rodgers hurt. Not only will he have to rehab an injury to start the offseason, simply his being out there while injured may have helped lead to another player’s injury.

And not just any injury: Aaron Rodgers’ brain.

We can’t isolate just this week either, though the decision to play Rodgers without Adams in the game and with a gimpy Bakhtiari, two backup guards, the backup running back, and practice squad receivers was indefensible. Rodgers shouldn’t have been out there is because Adams and Bakhtiari were already hurt. How did they get hurt? Playing in a meaningless Week 16 game, one of them on a play that literally didn’t even count!

What’s the upside of subjecting Rodgers to more hits while throwing to a fifth-round draft pick and two receivers who may not even be on the team next season? Are we sure Jimmy Graham will be around in 2019, making it vital for him to get more game reps with Rodgers?

It doesn’t matter that none of these injuries are likely to trickle into 2019. That’s entirely beside the point. The risk itself should be concerning for the franchise, one entering the most pivotal offseason in a decade.

Does Josh McDaniels really need one more reason to spurn the chance to leave the Patriots? Would injury questions cloud the willingness of Lincoln Riley or Pat Fitzgerald to leave college for the NFL?

Someone needed to be at the wheel for all of this and it should have been Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst. They needed to step. Circumstances hamstrung Philbin, while competitive vigor always trumps player safety among the players themselves. They’re not thinking about the long-term view. That’s up to the people in the organization who get paid to take the long view of everything.

Just take the most cynical viewpoint of all of this: the Packers sit Rodgers, Adams, Bakhtiari, Alexander (and that might literally be the full list of players worth sitting given how many other key guys are already hurt). Lose to the Jets. Lose to the Lions, even in embarrassing fashion and it’s “Well, they weren’t trying to win. They were trying to protect their guys and give some young players a chance.”

That’s not just a better narrative, it resonates within the locker room and through the halls of 1265 Lombardi Ave. How much worse does it now look that the Packers watched as literally every last meaningful player on the team get injured and got their doors blown off at home?

By stubbornly acquiescing to Rodgers, Green Bay only legitimized the narrative that he’s really coaching the team. This was an opportunity for the Packers front office to save the players from themselves for the long-term health — figuratively and literally — of the franchise. They failed miserably.