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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

Aaron Rodgers as good at mind games as he is at football games

Credit: AP/Rick Scuteri

If the news that Aaron Rodgers will miss Sunday’s game against Kansas City because he has COVID-19 was big, the fallout from the circumstances surrounding that development was even more extensive.

Rodgers has been at the center of controversy before — remember the offseason drama about whether he’d retire rather than go back to the Packers? — but this has taken on a life of its own. In the process, his reputation has taken a hit like never before.

Let’s start at the beginning, when Rodgers was asked in August if he had gotten the COVID-19 vaccination. The assumption was that he had, but hindsight suggests that how he worded his answer hid the truth.

"Yeah, I’ve been immunized," he said. "There’s guys on the team that haven’t been vaccinated. I think it’s a personal decision . . . My desire to immunize myself is what was best for my body."

 

Notice his use of the word "immunized." He chose not to say "vaccinated" because he was in fact unvaccinated, as we now know.

ESPN reported this week that Rodgers used a homeopathic treatment in the offseason that he felt boosted his immune system, but the NFL rejected his request to be considered fully vaccinated.

Rodgers therefore was made to follow much stricter protocols around the Packers’ facility, including daily testing (vaccinated players are tested weekly) and wearing a mask while inside (vaccinated players are not required to wear masks).

The Vikings’ Kirk Cousins, the Bills’ Josh Allen, the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Colts’ Carson Wentz are known to be unvaccinated. Why wasn’t it widely known that Rodgers wasn’t? Because when he appeared in public settings such as news conferences, he didn’t wear a mask, which is required of unvaccinated players.

It also was revealed in recent days that Rodgers attended a Halloween party last weekend at a time when several Packers players and some coaches were in the COVID-19 protocol. Photo images taken at the party showed Rodgers not wearing a mask, another violation of agreed-upon protocols between the NFL and the NFL Players Association.

Wanting to clear the air about what he considered unfair criticism of his situation, Rodgers appeared on a YouTube show hosted by former NFL player Pat McAfee

and proceeded to draw even more negative attention.

Among other things, he said an NFL-affiliated doctor told him several months ago that "it’s impossible for a vaccinated person to get COVID or spread COVID.’’ That is simply not true, and an NFL source said no NFL-affiliated doctor had ever spoken with Rodgers. It’s disingenuous for him to use that disputed contention as a basis for his unwillingness to get the vaccine or to justify his skepticism about the vaccine’s effectiveness and how it works.  

Rodgers’ misinformed statements led to the severing of a longtime relationship with Prevea Health. The Wisconsin-based company announced Saturday it is no longer partnering with Rodgers.

"Prevea Health remains deeply committed to protecting its patients, staff, providers and communities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic," the company said in a statement. "This includes encouraging and helping all eligible populations to become vaccinated against COVID-19 to prevent the virus from further significantly impacting lives and livelihoods."

Rodgers said during the interview: "I realize I’m in the crosshairs of the woke mob right now, so before my final nail gets put in my cancel culture casket, I think I’d like to set the record straight on so many of the blatant lies that are out there about myself. First of all, I didn’t lie in the initial press conference. During that time, it was a witch hunt that was going on across the league where everybody in the media was so concerned about who was vaccinated and what that meant and who was being selfish and who would talk about it and what it meant if they said it’s a personal decision [and] they shouldn’t have to disclose their own medical information and whatnot. And at the time, my plan was to say that I’ve been immunized. It wasn’t some sort of ruse or lie, it was the truth."

Bottom line, he said he was immunized. Clearly, he wasn’t immune to COVID, because he got it.

If there had been a follow-up, Rodgers indicated he would have responded, "Look, I’m not some sort of anti-vax flat- earther. I am somebody who’s a critical thinker. You guys know me. I march to the beat of my own drum. I believe strongly in bodily autonomy and the ability to make choices for your body, not to have to acquiesce to some woke culture or crazed group of individuals who say you have to do something. Health is not a one-size-fits-all for everybody. And for me, it involved a lot of study in the offseason, much like the study I put into hosting Jeopardy! or the weekly study I put into playing the game."

Rodgers also invoked Martin Luther King Jr. when he said, "The great MLK said you have a moral obligation to object to unjust rules and rules that make no sense. In my opinion, it makes no sense for me."

That said, if Rodgers had truly objected to the rules, why didn’t he admit he is unvaccinated and state his case openly rather than waiting until he had tested positive for COVID?

Rodgers had hoped the controversy would die down after he addressed the COVID questions earlier this summer, but by not being fully transparent then, he opened himself up to the criticism and second-guessing he has experienced since contracting the disease.

That criticism is deserved. He misled people about his vaccination status — or, if you prefer, he lied. He put others around him at risk. And he ultimately let his teammates down by choosing a path that made it more difficult and time-consuming to get back on the field. All because he put himself above the team . . . and above the science of vaccination.

Here’s hoping Rodgers remains healthy — he says he feels fine and could play on Sunday if he were allowed to do so — and that he can get back to playing the kind of MVP-caliber football that has helped the Packers become Super Bowl contenders again.

And here’s hoping that Rodgers’ dubious and/or debunked claims about vaccine side effects don’t add to an already divisive debate that continues to fan the flames of a pandemic that already has cost more than 750,000 American lives.

Odell’s last stand

Odell Beckham Jr. dazzled the NFL during his first three seasons with the Giants, averaging 1,374 receiving yards and 11.7 touchdowns a year and looking like a future Hall of Famer. Oh, and of course, there was that dazzling one-handed catch against Dallas that captivated the nation.

But ever since, he has been surrounded by drama — much of it his own making.

The Giants tired of his act in 2019 and shipped him to the Browns months after signing him to the richest contract for a wide receiver in NFL history. And now Beckham’s divisiveness in the Browns’ locker room has ended his run in Cleveland. He was released on Friday, less than a week after his father, Odell Beckham Sr., posted a video showing his son wide open on several passes that Baker Mayfield threw elsewhere — something that was viewed as an attempt to force the Browns to trade Beckham by this past Tuesday’s deadline.

It’s a shame, really. Say what you will about Beckham’s antics, but the feeling here is mostly one of disappointment. He had all the tools to be a transcendent player for the entirety of his career, but his inability to channel his energy the right way, combined with injuries, has diminished what could have been one of the most remarkable runs in NFL history.

Here’s hoping he can find a way to make it right before time runs out.

Where does Beckham end up? Assuming he isn’t claimed on waivers and can choose his next spot, there are several potential teams. Among them: the Saints, Ravens, Raiders, 49ers and Packers.

One team that shouldn’t be on that list: the Giants. Returning to the team that drafted him — the team he alienated so much that it got rid of him — simply doesn’t make sense. Especially with Dave Gettleman still the general manager, and especially with the Giants having little realistic chance of making the playoffs.

Best to move on somewhere else for a fresh start.

Wilson is on notice

Before suffering a knee injury two weeks ago against the Patriots, Zach Wilson struggled through most of his first five games, often holding the ball too long, taking too many sacks (19), throwing too many interceptions (nine) and scoring too few points (67).

Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s system was second-guessed, with suggestions that it wasn’t suited for Wilson’s skill set. And the skill position players were not performing as well as they could have.

But now that Mike White and Josh Johnson have shown that the Jets can indeed move the ball and score points — White beat the Bengals, 34-31, last Sunday and White and Johnson put up 30 points against the Colts on Thursday — we can safely assume it’s not LaFleur’s fault.

It’s on Wilson.

So when he does make his return, perhaps as early as next week against the Bills or a week later against Miami, he will be under far more scrutiny. And if Wilson struggles again, don’t be surprised if Robert Saleh goes back to either White or Johnson.

Are Bills just like ’85 Bears?

The 1985 Chicago Bears were one of the most dominant teams in NFL history, a group that went 15-1 during the regular season and swept through the playoffs — including a 21-0 win over the Giants — to win Super Bowl XX.

Today’s Buffalo Bills don’t have the swagger of that unforgettable Bears team, but they do resemble them in one important way. Consider:

Buffalo leads the NFL in scoring offense and scoring defense — only the fourth team since 1970 to lead the league at this point in both categories.

Two of the other three — the Bears in 1985 and 2006 — went to the Super Bowl. The other was the 2019 Patriots, who were beaten in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

The Bills average 32.7 points per game and allow 15.6. The ’85 Bears at this point in the season averaged 29.9 points and gave up 14.3.

Today’s game is much more wide open than it was in 1985, which makes the Bills’ defensive showing all the more impressive.

It’s safe to assume this year’s Buffalo team won’t go down in history like the iconic Bears team. For starters, they’ve already lost twice, although they lead the AFC East at 5-2. And it’s hard to imagine this buttoned-down Buffalo team coming up with a "Super Bowl Shuffle" dance routine similar to the one made famous by Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, Refrigerator Perry & Co.

Kupp’s historic run

His name doesn’t immediately come to mind when you talk about the NFL’s great receivers, but Cooper Kupp of the Rams is changing that narrative.

He leads the NFL with 924 receiving yards and 10 touchdown catches and is second with 63 receptions. How prolific is that run? No other player in the Super Bowl era has produced that many receiving yards and touchdowns in the first eight games of a season.

Kupp needs 76 receiving yards against the Titans on Sunday night to become the fifth player to record at least 1,000 receiving yards and 10 TD catches in the first nine games of a season. The others are Hall of Famers: Raymond Berry (1,147 and 10 in 1951), Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch (1,163 and 13 in 1960), Don Hutson (1,166 and 16 in 1942) and Jerry Rice (1,006 and 11 in 1990).

Side note: How ridiculous is it that Hutson put up those numbers at a time when the running game dominated NFL offenses?

Extra points

Is Justin Jefferson the second coming of Randy Moss? The Vikings’ second-year receiver already owns the NFL record for most receiving yards by a rookie (1,400 in 2020), and he has 563 yards this season. With 37 receiving yards against the Ravens on Sunday, he’ll reach 2,000 receiving yards in 24 games, one fewer than former Giants receiver Victor Cruz, and move into second place. Beckham owns the record with 2,000 yards in his first 21 games . . . Rookie Najee Harris has been terrific in the Steelers’ backfield, providing a much-needed boost to the rushing attack. Harris is second among rookies with 752 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns. He has a touchdown in four straight games and is a big reason the Steelers are in position for another AFC North title.

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