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Aaron Rodgers, COVID and the Big Picture

Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss Sunday's game against the Chiefs. The ramifications could go much deeper than just the one game.

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers won’t play on Sunday at the Kansas City Chiefs. Maybe he won’t be available to face the Seattle Seahawks the following week, either.

That’s the short-term fallout of the Green Bay Packers’ three-time MVP quarterback testing positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday.

What happens over the long term could permanently alter the future of the franchise.

By saying he was “immunized” instead of vaccinated misled reporters and fans. It’s a bad look but, ultimately, irrelevant to the bottom line of winning and losing. What matters is what the people at 1265 Lombardi Ave. knew.

According to ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky, Rodgers “petitioned the NFL to have an alternate treatment that he underwent before he returned to the Packers” for training camp in late July. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Rodgers “received homeopathic treatment from his personal doctor to raise his antibody levels.” That wasn’t good enough for the NFL. Without taking one of three approved vaccines, Rodgers would be deemed unvaccinated.

So, Rodgers’ vaccination status presumably wasn’t a secret among the people that matter – namely the front office, coaches and his teammates.

To say Rodgers contracted COVID because he was unvaccinated is short-sighted. In September, the state of Wisconsin reported a breakthrough COVID rate of 513 per 100,000 vaccinated people. Of course, star receiver Davante Adams, who is vaccinated, tested positive for COVID last week and didn’t play against Arizona. Players – and people of all walks of life – will continue to get COVID. That’s life, unfortunately.

But it’s impossible to ignore the possibility that a vaccinated Rodgers would have been a healthy Rodgers or, at the least, an asymptomatic Rodgers capable of returning in time for this week’s game. For a team that’s gone all-in on winning a Super Bowl this season, with contract after contract restructured during the offseason to being this team back largely intact after last year’s loss in the NFC Championship Game, a loss with Rodgers in the COVID protocol could mean the difference between a first-round playoff bye and a first-round defeat.

Moreover, the Packers have won seven in a row despite a wave of injuries to high-profile players. This is a team that has momentum and confidence on its side. What if Rodgers misses two games? Again, that's life with COVID. Nobody, not the future Hall of Fame quarterback and not the person selling concessions, is safe.

Really, though, this isn’t about whether Rodgers is vaccinated. As running back Aaron Jones put it, “There’s guys across the league who are not vaccinated. And to say that they’re not committed to their team, I think that that’s not true.” Rodgers no doubt has a reason to not be vaccinated. You might not like it but that decision should be respected.

Here is the larger issue: What if he misses a game or two and the league finds that Rodgers intentionally skirted the rules? The NFL has done everything in its power to persuade – or bribe – players to get vaccinated. There are two sets of rules for the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. What stronger message to players than to suspend the three-time MVP for a game or two?

Under that scenario – purely hypothetical of course – Rodgers might not play again until December. Remember the case of the 2019-20 Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA team in which Rodgers has an ownership stake. The Bucks were an unstoppable juggernaut until COVID shut down the entire league. When play resumed, the Bucks never regained that momentum and were blown out of the playoffs.

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Who knows, maybe Jordan Love will lead the Packers to victory on Sunday, Rodgers will return the following week and the team will keep on rolling. After all, the Chiefs barely beat Daniel Jones and the woeful Giants on Monday night. But the potential is there for this to derail what has the makings of a special season.

Then, there’s the longer-term view.

What if Love does in 2021 what Rodgers did in 2007? When the indestructible Brett Favre was injured at Dallas, Rodgers got his first real playing time and almost led the Packers to victory. The rest is history. Rodgers took over as the starter in 2008 and embarked on a legendary career.

Twenty-six games into his career, Love has thrown seven passes. Sunday will be his first real opportunity. Remember, the Packers drafted Love for a reason – and it wasn’t just to provide depth at the most important position in the game. They drafted Love for him to become the eventual starter. From the moment he was drafted on April 23, 2020, the timeline has been clear. Love would replace Rodgers in 2022, giving the team a full season to determine whether he was worth the hefty financial investment that is the fifth-year option on his contract.

Rodgers, of course, potentially turned that timeline on its ear by winning MVP honors last season and playing exceptionally well to start this season. Rodgers, who will turn 38 on Dec. 2, is aging gracefully. From a pure wins-and-losses perspective, there’s no reason to move on from him other than, A, financial and, B, stubbornly clinging to the plan of succession.

All of which comes back to an immunized Rodgers acting like, at times, a vaccinated Rodgers.

Unvaccinated players are supposed to be masked while inside the facility. Throughout the season, the Packers have had their unvaccinated players talking to reporters only through Zoom. Rodgers has spoken in person from the media auditorium and without a mask. Unvaccinated players who are inactive for games are supposed to be masked on the sideline. Rodgers was not masked for the preseason games.

As noted by ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert, unvaccinated players are not allowed to gather in a group of more than three players, coaches or staff members. Rodgers dressed as John Wick for a Halloween party.

Is that the extent of the violations? Or the tip of the iceberg? Presumably, the league will be digging for those answers.

It’s up to the team to police its players. As the league noted in a statement to SI.com’s Albert Breer, “The primary responsibility for enforcement of the COVID protocols within club facilities rests with each club.” Failure to enforce those protocols comes at a cost. Last season, for instance, the New Orleans Saints were fined $500,000 and forfeited a seventh-round draft pick for COVID violations. The Saints and Las Vegas Raiders were fined $250,000, and coaches Sean Payton and Jon Gruden were fined $100,000 apiece, for not properly wearing face coverings on the sideline during their Week 2 game.

Are the Packers guilty of having turned a blind eye toward enforcement of COVID policies? Or did the team try but Rodgers simply ignored them?

If it’s the latter, then Rodgers will have been guilty of something far more important than parsing words. He will have been guilty of putting himself ahead of the team, and the team will have been guilty of letting it happen. At that point, perhaps team president Mark Murphy will decide to press the reset button, trade Rodgers next offseason and begin anew with Love.