GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur’s default setting, as has been well established, is to take responsibility when things go wrong.
Team coming out flat early in a game? His fault. Disappointing offensive performance? His fault. Mismanaged game situation? His fault.
But the Green Bay Packers head coach did something on Monday not many coaches have ever done: He took the blame for a player’s injury.
LaFleur basically said that veteran wide receiver Sammy Watkins’ hamstring injury, which he sustained during practice last Wednesday and has landed Watkins on injured reserve for at least three more games, was because LaFleur and the coaching staff mismanaged the players’ workload last week, leading to Watkins’ hamstring pull.
“I feel awful about that, because I feel like we probably pushed our guys a little too hard in that regard,” LaFleur explained, pointed to how the team’s 27-10 win over Chicago a week earlier had been a physical, prime-time game that merited more recovery time.
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Watkins’ injury happened during an in-pads practice, something LaFleur has often avoided after particularly physical games, opting instead for jog through-style practices he refers to as “above-the-neck” practices.
Watkins was placed on IR on Saturday, before the Packers’ 14-12 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and cannot be activated until after the Oct. 16 game against the New York Jets at the earliest.
Speaking at minicamp in June, Watkins blamed himself for past injury problems, which had derailed the 2014 No. 4 overall pick’s career on multiple occasions.
“I can’t stop injuries. What I can try to do is prevent them,” Watkins said at the time. “I think my career has been good — got a Super Bowl (with the Kansas City Chiefs) — but I’m here trying to revive my career and play at the highest level and be the best that I can.
“When I’m on the field, I can catch balls, I can score, and I’m a dominant player. But the key is staying on the field.”
Watkins started training camp on the non-football injury list with a mild hamstring strain but was cleared a few days into camp. Watkins blamed the injury on working out immediately after arriving in Green Bay and not properly hydrating himself as he flew into town that day.
“I told the coaches, ‘My back is against the wall. My career hasn’t been what I projected it to be, and it’s a great opportunity for me to come here, play hard, catch a ton of balls, compete at the highest level and win games and fight to stay healthy,’” Watkins said in June.
“That’s been the knock on my career — to stay on the field. I think this is the best place to stay healthy, stay on the field and catch a lot of balls.”
LaFleur said Monday that Watkins had kept his word about doing more to prevent injuries — and that the injury happened anyway.
“He’s done everything in his power to be in great shape, and he is in great shape,” LaFleur said. “You look at the volume and the workload and you’re always trying to look at yourself critically in thinking about what we could’ve done better.
“We’ve had a few too many soft-tissue injuries, so that probably tells you that we’re maybe pushing it a little too much. … I’ve got our guys looking into workloads from the past couple years to where we are at this point, and we’ll make any adjustments that we need to to make sure that we have everybody available for Sundays.”
LaFleur did say that he didn’t think rookie wide receiver Christian Watson’s hamstring injury, which forced him to miss Sunday’s game, was due to a load-management issue.
“That one’s a little bit more complicated, I would say, because I don’t really know how that came about, to be honest,” LaFleur said. “I think he’s doing a lot better so, hopefully, we’ll see where he’s at this week.”
Scratching his head
Count LaFleur among those struggling to explain how the Packers offense went from dominating the Buccaneers up until running back Aaron Jones’ goal-line fumble late in the second quarter to not being able to get anything going thereafter.
On the three series including the fumble, the Packers gained 206 yards — and gained 109 yards the rest of the game. They converted all five of their third-down situations — and converted only 1 of 10 after. Their final eight possessions after the fumble ended in seven punts and an interception.
And quarterback Aaron Rodgers went from completing 14 of 15 passes for 163 yards and two TDs before the fumble to going 13 of 20 for 92 yards and the INT thereafter.
“You sit there and you’re like, ‘All right. We can stop this. We can get this going again.’ And it just, for whatever reason, it didn’t materialize the rest of the game,” LaFleur admitted. “You want to talk about frustrating? You’re sitting there scratching your head, ‘What can we call to kind of jump-start this thing?’ And I thought we had some opportunities there, and then I thought there were a couple times we put our guys in some bad spots.
“Those are the things you’ve got to look at critically after a game and try to stay one step ahead of the competition, so I’m not sitting up here trying to explain myself the day after a game.”
Alexander avoids serious injury
LaFleur admitted he intentionally avoided talking to head athletic trainer Bryan “Flea” Engel before Monday’s 3 p.m. news briefing so he could honestly say he didn’t have any injury updates to share.
Nonetheless, a league source confirmed NFL Network and ESPN reports that cornerback Jaire Alexander, who left Sunday’s game in the first quarter with a groin injury, appears to have avoided a long-term injury. Whether he’ll be ready for this Sunday’s game against New England is unclear.
Asked by reporters if they could infer that Alexander was going to be OK because otherwise LaFleur would have said so, the coach smirked and replied, “You can do whatever you want. Anything you want.”
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