GREEN BAY, Wis. — The Green Bay Packers are playing to win in the present, even if their NFC playoff chances are slim.
Fact-finding about their younger players — including backup quarterback Jordan Love — can wait, general manager Brian Gutekunst insisted this week. He said he doesn’t want the team’s final four games to serve as auditions for Love and other inexperienced players who could be vital to the team’s future.
Although the Packers entered their long-awaited bye week at 5-8 following a 28-19 victory over Chicago, they are still alive in the NFC playoff chase.
While the Minnesota Vikings can clinch the NFC North title by beating or tying the Detroit Lions, the Packers would finish 9-8 if they can win out, beginning with their “Monday Night Football” post-bye matchup at home against the fading Los Angeles Rams (currently 3-9).
The defending Super Bowl champions have shut down quarterback Matthew Stafford for the rest of the year because of a spinal cord contusion.
After the Rams, the Packers travel to face Miami, then return home for a Jan. 1 matchup with the Vikings and a Jan. 9 regular-season finale against the Lions.
“We were certainly expected to be competing for a championship — and we are still in it, if we’re able to dig our way back into this thing,” Gutekunst said. “We still kind of feel like we have the ability to do that. But this season has not gone as we expected.”
Despite trading away All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams in March, the Packers believed they still had a Super Bowl contender, led by what they thought would be one of the NFL’s elite defenses and the back-to-back reigning NFL MVP, quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Instead, the defense has been such a disappointment that there are questions about whether coordinator Joe Barry will be fired at season’s end. Rodgers has struggled both with injuries (a broken right thumb, injured ribs) and with the inexperienced pass-catching targets around him.
Even with rookie second-round pick Christian Watson scoring eight touchdowns over the past four games, Rodgers enters the final stretch having thrown nine interceptions (the most he’s had in a season since he threw 11 during the team’s Super Bowl-winning season of 2010) and with a passer rating of 92.4, which would be his lowest in 15 years as a starter.
With Rodgers’ injuries, the team’s long-shot playoff chances and Love’s strong showing in 10 fourth-quarter snaps against Philadelphia two weeks ago, it would make sense to take a look at Love and other youngsters during the final month.
Even Rodgers himself acknowledged the possibility of not playing once the team is eliminated from playoff contention, although in 2018, after the firing of Mike McCarthy with four games left to play, Rodgers still started all four games before suffering a concussion in the season finale against Detroit.
“Look, I’d love to finish the season out. But I understand this is a business,” Rodgers said. “There’s a lot of us older guys who play a decent amount and they might want to see some younger guys play.
“Hopefully, we don’t have to have that conversation. But if that conversation comes up, I’ll approach that with an open mind and without any bitterness or resentment," he said.
Asked if it would make sense to not play just to rest up and heal from his injuries in advance of next season, the 39-year-old Rodgers, who has yet to say whether he’s planning to play in 2023, replied: “I mean, that’s an assumption that this place won’t look any different next year. Again, that’s part of the conversation.”
Gutekunst, though, said he believes the coaches and the personnel staff have seen enough of Love in practice and in his limited regular-season playing time to know what he’s capable of doing.
“We’re really pleased with his progression and what he’s been able to do,” Gutekunst said of Love. “I think from our end of it, we’ve seen what we need to see.”
Gutekunst also implied that Rodgers and other veterans still may play even if the Packers are out of contention — in part because he believes winning matters, even if a postseason berth is unattainable.
“I think winning’s a culture thing,” Gutekunst said. ““I just think that’s what this place has always been about. And at least while I’m here it’s always going to be.”