How one hit changed so much for the Vikings, Packers and the NFL
EAGAN, Minn. — Aaron Rodgers took a shotgun snap during Week 6 of last season, shuffled to his right and skirted out of the pocket before flicking a pass downfield.
Simultaneously, Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr diagnosed the play as best he could: He stepped up and ran full speed ahead toward the Green Bay Packers quarterback. What resulted was a head-on collision.
Rodgers took a clean hit from Barr just as he released the ball, and at first glace it seemed like a harmless NFL play. But the narrative quickly changed when Rodgers stayed on the turf, writhing in pain.
After that, nothing was the same, for the Vikings, the Packers or the rest of the NFL.
Rodgers was diagnosed with a broken collarbone, which essentially ended his season. He played one game down the stretch before shutting it down when the Packers were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
Barr, meanwhile, was vilified by some as a dirty player, though he brushed off those comments as the Vikings went on a run that took them all the way to the NFC Championship.
In the aftermath, Rodgers appeared on a late-night talk show with Conan O'Brien and gave his account of what happened after the fateful play. Barr gave him the "finger (and) suck-it sign, he said, which prompted him to yell back. Barr later responded via Twitter saying Rodgers started the entire exchange by yelling profanities in his direction.
The teams will go head-to-head on Sunday afternoon at Lambeau Field with the two-time MVP quarterback expected to be active against the Vikings for the first time since the incident. While the particulars of that play will likely be debated for some time, the game itself should serve as a turning of the page of sorts for both teams.
But the impact of that play is still being felt.
How it changed things for the Vikings
OK. Please stick with us as we venture down this rabbit hole.
For the Vikings, last season was one of the best in franchise history. That said, something people might not remember is that they actually entered the Week 6 game against the rival Packers with a ho-hum 3-2 record.
Truthfully, the Vikings had been fairly underwhelming to that point, with a 26-9 beatdown at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers on their resume to go along with a bad 14-7 loss to the Detroit Lions.
As everyone knows by now, the Vikings went on to win 10 of their final 11 regular-season games with quarterback Case Keenum leading the charge. While the Vikings had already squeaked past the Chicago Bears a week earlier, the win over the Packers seemed to be a launching point.
While it's not fair to say the Vikings would have lost to the Packers at U.S. Bank Stadium had Rodgers not been knocked out in the first quarter, it's reasonable to assume they could well have lost at Lambeau Field in Week 16. Rodgers boasts a 6-2 home record against the Vikings since taking over as the full-time starter in 2008.
Instead, the Vikings faced backup Brent Hundley and rolled to a 16-0 win to establish themselves as kings of the NFC North. While we can't assume Vikings' losses against Rodgers considering well they were playing last season, you can assume the Packers would have battled for a NFC North crown had their QB never gone down.
Entering that pivotal Week 6 matchup, the Packers were leading the NFC North with a 4-1 record. After that, the Vikings got hot, pulling away and essentially locking up the North with more than a month left in the regular season. Meanwhile, with Rodgers no longer part of the equation, the Packers lost four of their next five games to fall out of the playoff race.
What if the Vikings hand't been able to gain that separation? Maybe they wouldn't have gone on such a magical run. Maybe they wouldn't have finished one win away from the Super Bowl. Maybe they wouldn't have gone out and broke the bank to bring in Kirk Cousins this offseason. Maybe they wouldn't have entered this season as Super Bowl favorites.
Since there are a lot of moving, and hypothetical, parts to this, it's fair to contemplate the ways that one play, Barr crushing Rodgers, sped up the timeline of the franchise. It might've turned the Vikings from a middle-of-the-pack playoff team into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
How it changed things for the Packers
No rabbit holes necessary here. If Rodgers hadn't been hurt, certain higher-ups within the organization would probably still have jobs. With Rodgers at the helm, the Packers had enjoyed eight straight playoff appearances, and six NFC North titles, heading into last season.
As soon as Rodgers got hurt, the franchise as a whole had no problem chalking 2017 as a lost season. Still, someone had to pay the price for the fact that the team was abysmal in the absence of just one player. That ended up being general manager Ted Thompson, who "transitioned" into a new role as senior adviser to football operations.
It was a blockbuster move for a franchise so resistant to change within the walls of 1265 Lombardi Avenue.
Longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers also was fired a couple of days after last season ended.
With Rodgers back, the Packers appear to be as dangerous as any team in the NFC, his world-class talent more than capable of making up for the erosion of talent across the locker room.
With Barr likely still receiving hate mail for that one play more than 11 months ago — he wouldn't substantiate this claim — perhaps new Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst and new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine should send him their gratitude when they see him this weekend.
It's likely that neither person would be in the current role without him.
How it changed things for the NFL
While the NFL has made concerted effort to protect franchise quarterbacks such as Aaron Rodgers over the past few seasons, it upped the ante this offseason.
In a decision that can be directly tied back to Barr driving Rodgers into the turf last season, it's now a penalty for defenders to put their full weight on a quarterback when making a tackle. NFL referee Pete Morelli said last month that Barr's hit would be a penalty this season, adding that defenders are expected to roll off as soon as they make a hit.
The new rule has already has some defensive players miffed, including Vikings tackle Sheldon Richardson, who was called for roughing the passer last week after crushing San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. Asked to describe the play from his perspective, Richardson called it a "perfect-form tackle."
What could he have done differently?
"Not touch him at all," Richardson suggested. "That's it I guess. It's a quarterback league and they want it driven by (quarterbacks). Like they're the only people that get paid. It is what it is."
Asked about it again this week, Richardson doubled down, saying the rules committee is full of "offensive-minded guys" that refuse to look at things from a different perspective.
"Nobody from defense is up there," he said. "They just feel like if Aaron Rodgers, or somebody, isn't out there (on the field), 'Oh, the NFL's not the same.' "
It's not just the Vikings that have felt the change this season. Last week, Packers linebacker Clay Matthews was penalized for a late hit on Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
"It seems like the referees are taking a pretty hard-line stance on hits on the quarterback," Matthews said, adding that it feels like the new rule favors offensive players more than defensive players. "They are just trying to put an emphasis on quarterbacks and unnecessary quarterback hits."
As for this weekend, Barr doesn't plan to seek out Rodgers before the game, for no other reason than he plans to follow his usual pregame routine.
"I'm going about my normal business," he said. "I don't usually talk to opponents before the game, so I'm not too concerned about that."