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By virtue of Aaron Rodgers' cunning wordplay blowing up in his and the Packers' faces, the NFL is going to be forced to hammer the team and the player for ignoring its COVID-19 protocols for unvaccinated players.

It's an embarrassment for a league that proudly navigated an entire regular season and postseason last year during the global pandemic, a league that enjoyed being a leader in the international sports community for its response to the virus. Now one of its established faces -- its reigning Most Valuable Player -- has been caught face-naked violating the protocols on a weekly basis with no apparent penalty yet.

League sources have confirmed to me that Rodgers is unvaccinated and that the Packers knew Rodgers was unvaccinated. Many may have been fooled into believing Rodgers was vaxxed, but the organization knew the deal all along.

"Yeah I've been immunized," Rodgers told the media when asked if he was vaccinated in late August. "You know, there's a lot of conversation around it, around the league, and a lot of guys who have made statements and not made statements, owners who have made statements. There's guys on the team that haven't been vaccinated. I think it's a personal decision. I'm not going to judge those guys. There are guys that've been vaccinated that have contracted COVID. So it's an interesting issue that I think we're going to see played out the entire season."

I'm not so terribly concerned that Rodgers misled the media. Yes, of course, I want players and coaches and interview subjects overall to be honest with me. But there's an underlying assumption in sports reporting that the coach or player at the lectern may not be telling you the truth and nothing but the truth in that exact moment. Rodgers should not receive any punishment for intentionally misleading/deceiving/lying to the media.

For the sake of argument, I'll give Rodgers and the Packers the benefit of the doubt that he followed the protocols for unvaccinated players -- to the letter -- on the team plane, in the locker room, in the weight room and in the cafeteria. That he showed up for daily testing. That he didn't gather in large groups away from the facility.

Where Rodgers has unequivocally been breaking protocol is in his weekly media availabilities. Those press conferences are held inside the team facilities and he has been without a mask in all of them.

From the joint NFL-NFLPA protocols: "All players and staff who are not fully vaccinated must wear masks (surgical masks are preferred; gaiters and masks with valves or venters are prohibited) at all times when inside the Club facility."

Rodgers is dead to rights here. There's no getting around it. He wasn't actively eating during his press conferences. They weren't held outdoors. He's clearly in violation of protocols, and one violation alone is worthy of a fine up to $14,650. Repeat offenses can result in a suspension up to four games.

The league suspended Tom Brady for four games for "integrity of the game" issues, and even that can be debated to this day. If health and safety of NFL players is the league's top priority, would a player violating the health and safety protocols rise to a similar level of punishment? Somewhere close?

Perhaps, but here's the rub: The league is culpable, too. The league saw the maskless Rodgers at all those press conferences, and we know that because he regularly makes news with his media sessions. They would have known Rodgers was unvaccinated, and either didn't put two and two together or didn't bother to care.

"The primary responsibility for enforcement of the COVID protocols within club facilities rests with each club," a statement from an NFL spokesman read Wednesday night. "Failure to properly enforce the protocols has resulted in discipline being assessed against individual clubs in the past. The league is aware of the current situation in Green Bay and will be reviewing with the Packers."

In that statement, the NFL points the finger squarely at the Packers. But ... the league could and should have noticed the blatant violations. Just like the league could and should have noticed the blatant violations with unvaccinated Minnesota quarterback Kirk Cousins, who speaks to the media inside the club facilities each week without a mask.

Not only did the Packers continue this ruse with Rodgers (because they seat unvaccinated players on Zoom for interviews), but the league could have had the wherewithal to, at the very least, alert two of its clubs about their most prominent players violating the protocols. It did not.

This is a league that has partnered with the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to author studies on COVID-19 mitigation strategies. It's a league that as recently as last week proudly touted its 94.1% vaccination rate among all players. It's a league that refused to bend its rules for the Denver Broncos last season when their quarterbacks were close contacts and forced a wide receiver to play the most important position in all of sports.

The Packers knew and helped promote the deception. The league should have known, should have alerted the team and, upon repeated violations, should have punished Rodgers.

Now the league must decide to what extent it punishes the Packers and Rodgers. A half-million dollar fine like the Saints and Raiders last year? A loss of a Day 3 draft pick? More?

The league cannot square its adherence to stringent policies with ambivalence toward a star player breaking protocol. Punishment will soon come to Green Bay.

Geno Smith speaks

Since the start of the 2018 season and continuing through September of this year, Geno Smith threw nine passes in NFL regular-season games. The former future of the New York Jets had been relegated to backup duty beginning in 2015, and that continued through his time in Seattle behind Russell Wilson.

Smith, though, finally got his second chance in Week 5 against the Rams when Wilson left with a finger injury that still has him on injured reserve. Smith's gone 1-2 as the starter, earning his first win last week against the Jaguars, while throwing five touchdowns and one interception this season to go with his 103.0 passer rating.

I spoke with Smith Thursday on SiriusXM NFL Radio's "The Opening Drive" with co-host Ed McCaffrey, and he revealed just how difficult it's been to be on the bench for years.

"Honestly it's been tough, man, super tough. Knowing I can play, knowing that I'm ready to play, knowing that I can do a lot of great things," Smith said. "I've watched a lot of great quarterbacks have great seasons and I said to myself, 'Man that's not too far off from where I can be given the opportunity.' The reality is some days are harder than the others. For me game days are extremely tough.

"I prepare all week and I help the starter, but I also have to prepare myself. And then you go out there, you work out in the weight room, you're hitting PRs in the weight room, you're in the classroom studying and getting those study hours in after practice and after meetings and then you don't get the chance to showcase it on Sundays. That's tough."

Stay ready so you don't have to get ready: it's a mantra anyone playing in the NFL knows. It's tougher for a guy like Wilson's backup considering he had never missed a game in his entire NFL career until last month.

Smith has signed a series of one-year contracts since his rookie deal with the Jets ran out. If Wilson returns after the bye and this was his last chance to put some good film out there, I asked Smith how he believed his audition went. He said turn on the tape, listen to what his teammates say, and teams around the league should be able to decipher for themselves.

"I am and I've always said this: I am a starter in this league. And not just any starter, I believe I can win a lot of games," Smith said. "We had really three games (Rams, Steelers and Saints) that came down to the wire, and I feel if I had gotten more reps and been with the guys a little bit more, I honestly think we pull those games off. I'm not making excuses but those are three really good teams we played and a field goal or two short or a game-winning drive short. If you can do that in this league you can play for a long time."

Other notes

  • Deshaun Watson will remain a Houston Texan for the rest of the season and we'll do all this over again in March. In case you missed it, here's my column from Tuesday on the gamble Houston has taken in not dealing Watson before the deadline.
  • A Washington Football Team source confirmed the team poked around on Bills backup quarterback Mitchell Trubisky before the deadline, but a source with the Bills told me Buffalo never came close to dealing Trubisky.
  • The Philadelphia Eagles sending a sixth-round pick to Denver for second-year cornerback Kary Vincent Jr. seemed a bit odd to me, especially since the Broncos used a seventh rounder on him in last year's draft. But character concerns in college, plus a COVID opt-out during the 2020 season, sent Vincent down a lot of draft boards. Philly believes in his value and loves his speed.

Week 9 picks

Last week, with the flurry of news, I did a stand-alone picks column. That, apparently, was a mistake. I took my 74-33 record into Week 8 and came out 81-41. A terrible 7-8 week for your guy there. We've got to be better than that. I took the Colts on "Thursday Night Football." To the picks!

Patriots at Panthers

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)

I loved the way the Panthers smartly deployed Stephon Gilmore last week on Kyle Pitts, and I think they'll find his best matchup this week on third downs against the Pats in the revenge game. Mac Jones is playing well, though, and I trust the team with the better quarterback and coach in almost all situations.

The pick: Patriots

Browns at Bengals

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: CBS | Stream: Paramount+ (click here)

There's injury. There's distraction. There's "hasn't yet beaten a team with a winning record." All that is going against the Browns on Sunday in the AFC North clash. Yet still, I can't believe Cleveland is going to be under .500 at the midway point in the year. I'm picking this one with my heart and not my head, and I admit that.

The pick: Browns

Texans at Dolphins

Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: Fox | Stream: fuboTV (click here)

Tyrod Taylor will start for the Texans against a Dolphins team that should have been sellers at the trade deadline. Miami is the most disappointing team in football and it's not particularly close.

The pick: Texans

Other games