Packers Hang on, But Again Take Ball From Rodgers’s Hands

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Green Bay was burned in the playoffs, and it’s becoming a troubling trend that Matt LaFleur won’t just let his MVP QB go win the game.

The Fox broadcast crew trailed Mason Crosby around the sideline after this third missed attempt at a game-winning field goal, giving us that critical, perverse window into the immediate moments following the worst part of someone’s day.

With kickers this feels especially cruel, given that so much of their task is mental and, like all of us, there are days when certain synapses just aren’t firing the way we’d like them to. You and I spill our coffee, forget the key fob for our sedan and then hit the curb while parking on the way to work. A kicker can’t untweak a plant foot in front of 70,000 people (and most NFL kickers, by the way, do not have specific coaches who can deal with their psyche, just a punter friend to lob the occasional Hang in there buddy).

The framing of the camera shot is obvious. That he is The Man Who Made the Mistake or The Man Who Is Blowing It, when the reality of the situation is far more open-ended. What about the coach who kept sending him out there knowing Crosby’s (somewhat) fragile state? Especially when that coach, the Packers’ Matt LaFleur, also happens to have the single most talented quarterback in the NFL.

Crosby ended up winning the game with a 49-yard field goal after three straight misses on Sunday (plus a missed extra point), but did so on a fourth-and-inches at the Cincinnati 32-yard line, just after the two-minute warning in overtime. On the previous possession—again, after two straight Crosby misses—LaFleur opted to play for a field goal despite being handed the ball at the Bengals’ 17-yard line. On that possession, LaFleur called a pair of handoffs, lost five yards and kicked on third-and-15.

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LaFleur went 13–3 in each of his first two seasons and beat the 3–1 Bengals on Sunday, so perhaps this feels a bit pedantic (quite pedantic?) after the Packers’ fourth straight win, but not when you consider that he memorably sided against his quarterback in last year’s playoffs as well. LaFleur’s decision not to allow Rodgers to try to score on a fourth-and-goal in the NFC title game, with the Packers trailing by eight, was so egregious that it spawned a viral moment on the Jeopardy! set when a puzzled fan felt the need to ask Rodgers, then hosting the game show, why the Packers had taken the ball out of his hands.

“That’s a good question,” Rodgers said at the time. And while he seemed happy on the sidelines for his long-time teammate, who gets to avoid the continued mental uppercuts through the entire flight home, you have to wonder if he’s at all curious about the coach’s penchant for conservative game management.

Rodgers has quite literally invented football moves. He has created things on the field that did not exist before he came into the NFL. He has changed offense and quarterback play as we know it, and he maintains a mind meld with one of the best receivers in the NFL that can seemingly be called upon in any critical moment. LaFleur, too, is exceptionally gifted at providing Rodgers and Davante Adams with opportunities to connect, even when every defensive coordinator in the league knows where the ball is going.

So why the disconnect when the game is on the line? LaFleur has the easiest out in the business, being able to say that he has the best quarterback in the NFL. In any critical, manageable situations this fact and this fact alone takes precedent. Who would question him? Who would debate this? Crosby is a decorated kicker talented enough to have lasted in Green Bay since 2007, but he is not the Aaron Rodgers of kicking. If Crosby was, he’d be drilling 74-yard field goals with regularity and converting half his onside kicks with theatrical, looping bounces that are completely uncatchable for the receiving team.

While I understand the segment of the Packers’ fan base that is somewhat resistant to a complete Rodgers takeover, the likes of which he seemed to attempt this offseason with more front office gravitas and a seat at the personnel table, this is not kowtowing to a star who has, at times, been mercurial. This is simply common sense.

Taking the ball out of Aaron Rodgers’s hands did not end up costing the Packers today. But it has before, and they shouldn’t let it again.

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