DETROIT – Aaron Rodgers, as usual, thought he was hilarious.
“I don’t remember anything from that game,” the Green Bay Packers quarterback said.
What Rodgers can’t remember, Matt Flynn will never forget.
“I always look back to that game,” Flynn said.
As Flynn prepared to start in place of Rodgers in Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day showdown with the Detroit Lions at Ford Field, it seemed all anyone wanted to talk about was the 480-yard, six-touchdown performance Flynn had against the Lions the last time he saw them – in the 2011 regular-season finale at Lambeau Field. Rodgers certainly remembers that one – with the No. 1 seed in the NFC wrapped up, Rodgers didn’t play but served as de facto offensive coordinator during the first half – and Flynn does, too.
“That was a crazy game,” Flynn recalled. “That was definitely a day that I’ll never forget. Just seemed like everything was clicking.”
That was played on a holiday, too – New Year’s Day 2012 – and it was the game that helped earn Flynn the three-year, $26 million ($10 million guaranteed) free-agent deal from the Seattle Seahawks the following spring.
“He lit us up,” Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh recalled. “We obviously didn’t play well that game.”
“That was a rough game for us,” added Lions linebacker DeAndre Levy. “We got him paid.”
But that wasn’t the game Flynn was thinking about this week. Rather, it was the 2010 Packers-Lions game at Ford Field – the one Rodgers left with a second-quarter concussion, hence the amnesia – that Flynn will draw upon. He did so while rallying the Packers from a 23-7 fourth-quarter deficit on Sunday, when he completed 21 of 36 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown while forging a 26-26 tie with the Minnesota Vikings, and he’ll take those lessons with him into Ford Field, too.
“I learned a heck of a lot in that game,” recalled Flynn, who’ll become the Packers’ fourth starting quarterback this season – following Rodgers, Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien. (It’s thought to be the first time in team history four different quarterbacks have started in the same season.)
“I think I got in there and I was a little too excited or nervous or whatever I was, but for some reason my mechanics just went out the window. We made some plays, moved the ball a little bit, but a lot of mistakes were made, obviously. I went back and watched that game a ton of times before the next week when I played in New England and just watched how I rushed my footwork, how I was rushing my reads.
"I had to take a step back and say, ‘Just take a breath when you’re out there, play like you’re in practice, make your reads.’ And I saw a big progression from getting thrown in there in that Detroit game to the next week in New England.
“So I’m thankful for that Detroit game, because it taught me a lot about what not to do.”
Rodgers exited that game in the second quarter, and it was a scoreless tie at halftime. On the opening drive of the second half, Flynn faced a third-and-3 from the Detroit 24-yard line and had Greg Jennings open in the end zone. Flynn floated the throw to Jennings, who tried to catch it but officials ruled the pass incomplete and coach Mike McCarthy opted not to challenge. The Packers settled for a field goal and a 3-0 lead.
On the ensuing drive, Flynn threw a pinpoint 32-yard completion to Jennings to set up first-and-goal from the Lions’ 9-yard line. After missing Jennings on a slant, Flynn inexplicably threw across the middle to Donald Driver but right to Levy, who was standing on the goal line when Flynn’s pass hit him in the chest.
And with the Lions leading, 7-3, with 3 minutes 58 seconds left in the game, Flynn took over on his own 9-yard line and got the Packers on the move. He hit James Jones for an 18-yard gain on third-and-11, then hit on a 14-yard screen to Dimitri Nance, followed by completions of 9 yards to Jennings, 11 yards to Andrew Quarless and 8 yards to Quarless.
But the drive stalled after that, when the ball slipped out of Flynn’s hand on a third-and-1 pass intended for Driver across the middle. Facing fourth-and-1 from the Lions’ 31, McCarthy called a play which dictated that if Jennings had press coverage outside, Flynn was supposed to go deep to him down the sideline. That’s exactly what happened, but Flynn narrowly overthrew Jennings in the end zone, turning the ball over on downs with 57 seconds to go.
In retrospect, McCarthy admitted this week, he may not have put Flynn in the best position to succeed. (Although McCarthy did not say he should’ve simply called a play that would have picked up the first down and kept the final drive going.)
“When I look back at that game, I think I pushed the envelope a little too much,” McCarthy said. “That red zone interception I wish I had that call back. It was the right call, but it was a preparation and timing (play). And repping that play (in practice), he got an odd blitz and (Levy) peeled out on a blitz pressure and picked it off.
“I thought he played well. We had a chance to go down there on fourth down with the matchup with Greg Jennings that we did not hit with a possibility to win or extend the game. It’s something you take from that game.”
What Flynn took from the game was growth. The following week against Super Bowl-favorite New England on the road, Flynn made his first NFL start and completed 24 of 37 passes for 251 yards with three touchdowns and one interception (100.2 rating) in a losing effort. He was even better against the Lions a year later, hitting on 31 of 44 passes for 480 yards with the six TDs and one INT (136.4 rating).
“When we went (to New England), we were aggressive with him and I think that really helped him. Then he got his opportunity the next year against Detroit,” McCarthy continued. “That’s the kind of growth you look for in a quarterback.
“That’s one of the things I’ve always admired about Matt Flynn in his time here. You go back to the time he was drafted (in 2008): Every time you gave him an opportunity he did something, whether it was a preseason game when he was competing against Brian Brohm (or when) he got in against Detroit and played better the following week. That’s what we’re looking for.”
And that’s what Flynn intends to deliver. While his career hasn’t followed the arc he expected after his last meeting with the Lions – he failed to win the Seahawks’ starting job in 2012 training camp, was traded to the Oakland Raiders last offseason and was cut by them on Oct. 7, then spent three weeks with Buffalo before being cut and signed by the Packers Nov. 12 – he knows the opportunity before him.
“You just have to take a deep breath and just play football. Play like you’ve had a million reps in practice. It’s 11-on-11 out there,” Flynn said. “I’ve always felt like in the NFL, this has been my first home. It is definitely very comfortable – same coaches, a lot of the same players, and for the most part, the same playbooks. I feel very comfortable with it. I think that’ll definitely help me.
“Going to the different places I went to, the hardest part I’ve found of learning a new offense was forgetting the last offense you were in. There was a lot of information here that I had to force myself to forget, so it was all about relearning and (it) coming back to me and being more fluent in the playbook.
“I know everything now. Now it’s a matter of calling it, not thinking about it, just knowing it and knowing how to react and just play football.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.