One of the strangest stories of this already tumultuous NFL season broke on Christmas Eve, when Adam Schefter reported that teams wanted the NFL to force the Packers to release Aaron Rodgers due to a quirk in the IR rules. No, really. That’s a story now.
The confusion stems from two different categories of IR designation: major and minor. A player on “minor” category IR will be released from the team when he can pass a physical, as Kevin Seifert explains at ESPN. This would have happened to Bucky Hodges had the Panthers not claimed him off of waivers before he went on injured reserve with a concussion. The Chargers lost Nate Kaeding to something similar in 2012.
A “major” category IR, almost certainly where the Packers put Rodgers, is what we usually see (Carson Wentz or David Johnson, for example). The reason for the distinction is to prevent teams from manipulating the 53-man roster limit, and to prevent healthy players from being stuck in IR limbo. Otherwise, a player like Hodges could be held out of the NFL for a whole season due to a concussion that healed in September, simply because the Vikings wanted to retain his rights without using a roster spot.
The question is if Aaron Rodgers was put on season-ending IR with a major or minor designation. If the Packers put Rodgers on “minor” IR, they’d be knowingly signing him away like teams do with deep-roster players. A historic blunder like that would probably get Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson fired on the spot, since there’s no excuse for not understanding how IR designations work. Which is exactly why that’s probably not the case. We can give them at least that much credit.
If he re-aggravated the injury in the Carolina game, making it a rehab process that would render him unable to play for a hypothetical six-week span, the “major” designation is correct. But if he’s healthier than that, the Packers put a “minor” player on the “major” list, or worse, a fully healthy player.
Theoretically, the Packers could just say Rodgers was a “major” IR candidate like usual and it’d be hard to prove them wrong. The thing is, McCarthy specifically said after the Panthers game that Rodgers didn’t suffer a setback. Rodgers was healthy enough to come off IR in the first place, and the Packers went through intense rigor to determine that. There are loads of quotes and reports coming out of Green Bay that raved about Rodgers’ health. With no setback from that… what gives? He was either improperly activated or improperly shut down. McCarthy may have testified himself into a corner. So what happens to the Packers?
Many have posited that the league would give the Packers special treatment because of their standing as a franchise and Rodgers’ heavily marketed presence. Similar objections were brought up with “Golden Boy” Brady during Deflate-gate, or the “feel-good” Saints during Bounty-gate. It’s unlikely that would factor in, based on previous precedent. But it probably won’t have to.
The best argument the Packers have is one McCarthy has already proposed: the league signs off on all roster transactions. It would be unfair to allow the Packers to put Rodgers on IR when asked, then change their minds and punish them for something they had permission for. The league is just as at-fault as the Packers, but with Roger Goodell as judge, jury and executioner, that’s not likely to matter. Even though it really should.
The argument for releasing Rodgers is that he was more appropriately qualified for “minor” IR than “major” IR, and therefore the easiest solution is to just correct the mistake. McCarthy was open to the media about the fact that Rodgers’ status hadn’t changed, and they were simply keeping him out to preserve him and save the roster spot for Joe Callahan. But that’s not really Goodell’s style with these matters.
If the NFL did force Rodgers to hit waivers, it would be via the NFL taking an indirect action that they know has a huge, punitive effect. Switching Rodgers from “major” to “minor” IR isn’t inherently a punishment – the side effect is what would hurt the Packers. It’d be an indirect and bitterly unfair way to punish the team. As much as I’d love to see it as a Vikings fan, I can’t abide by that sort of arbitrary precedent-setting. Fines or draft pick confiscation is much more appropriate.
Ultimately, the Packers’ mistake was one of minor impact. They’re out of playoff contention, and there’s no functional difference between what they did and what the Vikings did with Adrian Peterson in 2016, ruling him out for two irrelevant weeks. But slightly under-deflated footballs probably didn’t impact a 45-7 shellacking of Andrew Luck’s Colts. Artificial crowd noise didn’t save the Falcons from a 6-10 season in 2014. The gravity of the mistake doesn’t tend to reflect the gravity of the punishment.
The way Rodgers’ rehab was reported was incredibly optimistic, and it’s obvious that the Packers shut him down because they were eliminated from the playoffs, and put him on an IR list he doesn’t belong to. That’s against the rules. The Packers pretty clearly engaged in improper roster manipulation by putting a healthy player on major injured reserve, and that carries a punishment toward the franchise. But it’ll likely be a generic one, and not a forced release of their Hall of Fame quarterback.
Even if they don’t lose Rodgers, Packers fans should be furious. McCarthy and Thompson have no excuse for not knowing the rules better. If the punishment is simply a fine, it won’t affect the team’s competitive chances much. But if it’s a loss of draft picks or something that does affect the team, Packers fans should be marching in the streets in protest of their team’s leaders messing up the most routine of transactions in an already nightmarish season.
Thanks for reading!