With the top seed wrapped up, the Green Bay Packers are faced with the dilemma of how much should the starters play in their Week 18 contest at the Detroit Lions. Looking back, it’s not the first time the Packers have faced this type of conundrum.
Rest or rust?
That’s the balance the Green Bay Packers need to strike heading into this Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions. Having clinched the NFC’s top seed and a first-round bye, how much the Packers’ regular starters play in a game with no impact on their playoff seeding remains to be seen.
This exact situation is hardly new to the franchise, though.
Curly Lambeau, Vince Lombardi, Mike Holmgren, and Mike McCarthy all faced similar scenarios at one point in their tenures. How they handled it, though, varied not only from coach to coach, but also from one season to the next.
1936: Rest the Starters
Lambeau’s 1936 Packers clinched the Western Conference title with one week remaining in the regular season, leaving Green Bay with an inconsequential contest at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cardinals. The Packers opted to rest many starters for the game, though Clarke Hinkle and Arnie Herber did see limited action late in the game. Though the offense did little, Green Bay’s defense held the Cardinals out of the endzone in an eventual 0-0 tie.
The rest seemed to help the following week at New York’s Polo Grounds, as the Packers claimed a 21-6 win over the Boston Redskins in the NFL Championship.
1944: Play the Starters
Eight years later, Lambeau took a different strategy to the “rest vs. rust” debate. With the Western Conference crown wrapped up, the Packers trekked to Chicago’s Comiskey Park to take on Card-Pitt – a team formed in a one-year merger between the Cardinals and Pittsburgh Steelers due to player shortages during World War II.
Yet, Green Bay opted to play many of their starters for the majority of the game. Irv Comp and Don Hutson connected on a pair of scoring passes, while reserve back Paul Duhart scored two rushing touchdowns in the 35-20 win.
After a three-week layoff, the Packers claimed their sixth NFL title with a 14-7 win over the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds.
1961: Play the Starters…Kind of
The Packers secured their second-straight Western Conference title with two games to spare. Yet, Lombardi opted to play many of the starters during the team’s traditional late-season West Coast swing. Of course, “many” is the key word there.
In mid-November, Paul Hornung, Ray Nitschke, and Boyd Dowler had all been called up for active military duty. Both Nitschke and Dowler were sent to Fort Lewis, Wash., while Hornung was told to report to Fort Riley, Kan. Though Dowler was given weekend releases and didn’t miss any time, Hornung and Nitschke weren’t as lucky with each missing two games during the final stretch.
Nonetheless, Lombardi played on without his star back and linebacker in a 22-21 loss at San Francisco and a 24-17 win at the Los Angeles Rams. Two weeks after the win in LA, Hornung got an extended release – courtesy of President John F. Kennedy – to help the Packers to a 37-0 rout of the Giants in the NFL Championship at Green Bay City Stadium.
1966 and 1967: Rest the Starters
Much like Lambeau before him, Lombardi opted to rest starters the second and third times he faced the “rest vs. rust” debate. In ’66, Lombardi sat Bart Starr and started Zeke Bratkowski in the regular season finale at Los Angeles, while also giving more playing time to rookies Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski. In the end, the Packers would claim a 27-23 win over the Rams. Two weeks later, they secured the NFL title with a win over the Dallas Cowboys, then followed with a triumph over the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I.
The following year, the Packers had three games remaining when they captured the inaugural Central Division title. Though they played many of their starters in a win at Minnesota and a narrow loss at Los Angeles, Lombardi opted to sub out many of his starters throughout a listless 24-17 loss to the Steelers, hoping to avoid further injuries to an already injury-riddled squad. However, Green Bay still went on to win in both the NFL Championship and Super Bowl II.
1972: Rest the Starters
One week removed from clinching a surprising NFC Central Division championship, Dan Devine held many of the starters out in a 30-20 win over the lowly New Orleans Saints. The game, though, became more of a comedy of errors, with the two teams combining for five blocked kicks in the first half. One of those blocks was returned by Willie Buchanon for a 57-yard touchdown, while punter Ron Widby picked up a blocked Chester Marcol field goal attempt and completed a 34-yard pass to Ray Nitschke.
The rest, though, did little to help, as the Packers were stifled the following week by Washington in the NFC Divisional Playoffs, 16-3.
1997: Play the Starters
For all the success in his tenure, Mike Holmgren only encountered this situation once. Securely placed as the NFC’s second seed, the Packers played their starters most of the game in a 31-21 win over the Buffalo Bills. The game, though, did not come without its worrisome moments. On his first pass attempt, Brett Favre was leveled by Buffalo’s Phil Hansen and stayed down for a few moments before regaining his composure and finishing the game with two touchdown passes before giving way to backup Steve Bono.
Come playoff time, the Packers claimed a second-straight NFC title with wins over Tampa Bay and San Francisco before falling in Super Bowl XXXII to the Denver Broncos.
2004: Rest the Starters
A week removed from an NFC North-clinching win at Minnesota, Mike Sherman’s Packers ended the 2004 regular season with a 31-14 win at the Chicago Bears. Sherman started the game with the regular starters, but started pulling many of them after Green Bay went up 21-7 early in the second quarter.
One week later, the Packers’ season came to an end with an ugly 31-17 Wild Card loss at Lambeau Field to Minnesota.
2007 and 2011: Rest the Starters
The one coach who maintained a consistent approach when put in the situation multiple times was McCarthy, who mostly rested his starters in two such instances. In 2007 against Detroit, the Packers took a similar approach to 2004. After staking out a 21-3 lead, many starters were pulled as Green Bay coasted to a 34-13 win. Four years later, McCarthy went a step further, making stars like Aaron Rodgers, Charles Woodson, and Clay Matthews inactive for a thrilling 45-41 victory over the Lions.
The results of resting starters was mixed for McCarthy, though. The 2007 playoffs saw the Packers top Seattle in the Divisional Playoffs before falling in overtime in the NFC Championship to New York. Meanwhile, the three-week layoff for many of the offensive starters in ’11 may have played a role in the team’s slow start in an eventual 37-20 upset loss at the hands of those same Giants.