GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers’ locker room was nearly empty Friday afternoon as Matt Flynn sat inside his locker, contemplating his you-had-to-live-it-to-believe-it existence. Finding the right word proved elusive, in part because Flynn had intentionally avoided such introspection ‘til then.
“It’s kind of surreal, just thinking about where I’ve been and the journey that this year has taken me,” the Packers backup quarterback finally said, having begun the 2013 calendar year as a disappointed backup with the Seattle Seahawks, been traded to and then cut by the still-dysfunctional Oakland Raiders, had a brief cup o’ coffee with the Buffalo Bills and finally, on Nov. 12, wound up back at his NFL starting line in Green Bay.
“It feels like forever ago that I was sitting in the Oakland locker room. It feels like forever ago that I was sitting in the Buffalo locker room. It’s kind of hard to believe that it’s the same season. It really is. And who would have thought I’d be sitting right here? Having started four games for the Packers?
“It’s been a wild ride. But I think there’s a reason for everything. I feel blessed I even got the opportunity to come here.”
For the past month, Flynn’s locker had been the media epicenter each week, ever since he rallied the Packers from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to forge a 26-26 tie with the Minnesota Vikings on Nov. 24. It would be the first of four fourth-quarter comebacks Flynn would engineer: A 22-21 victory over Atlanta on Dec. 8 (down 21-10 at the half and 21-16 in the fourth); a 37-36 victory at Dallas on Dec. 15 (down 26-3 at halftime and 29-17 to start the fourth); and last week’s 38-31 loss to Pittsburgh (down 31-21 to start the fourth).
This week, the frenzy had crossed the locker room, back to its rightful place, in front of Aaron Rodgers’ stall. On Thursday, after coach Mike McCarthy had broken the news that Rodgers would be starting Sunday’s winner-take-all NFC North championship game at Soldier Field against the Chicago Bears, videographers jockeyed for position with their clanking stepstools, boom mikes seemingly dropped from the sky and writers and radio guys strained their arms to get their digital recorders and iPhones close enough to record the former NFL MVP’s every word. Flynn, who’d caught the flu bug that was working its way through 1265 Lombardi Avenue during the Christmas week, never even came in during the media access period.
He was no longer the story.
But he’s the reason the Packers still are a story.
If Rodgers, sidelined since fracturing his left collarbone against the Bears on Nov. 4, does indeed make his return to the lineup Sunday a triumphant one, the Packers will be the NFC North champs and host a first-round playoff game at Lambeau Field Jan. 4 or 5. But at 7-7-1, and having lost their first three games without Rodgers with Seneca Wallace and Scott Tolzien starting in his stead, Sunday’s game would have been a play-out-the-string regular-season finale without Flynn.
We will never know if Wallace or Tolzien could have led the Packers to those same victories over Atlanta or Dallas. But at the very least, at the absolute minimum, the Packers don’t tie the Vikings without Flynn, who came in after Tolzien was benched. A loss to the Vikings then would have rendered this weekend meaningless now.
“He’s come in and done everything that we could ask from him,” said starting left guard Josh Sitton, Flynn’s best friend since the two came in as part of the 2008 draft class. “He’s led us to a couple wins. Obviously the comeback against Minnesota, to tie the game – that turned out to be a huge game. We’re not here without that game. He’s come in and done a hell of a job for us. I’m just really proud of him.”
Flynn hasn’t been perfect – he, along with the rest of the offense, did nothing right in their Thanksgiving Day meltdown at Detroit – and some of his mistakes set the stage for the comebacks that were required against the Falcons, Cowboys and Steelers. But as he reacquainted himself with the offensive scheme playbook he’d mastered as Rodgers’ backup from 2008 through 2011, it became obvious that he had impressive recall of McCarthy’s pre-iPad playbook and quickly picked up the new wrinkles that had been added while he was gone.
“Getting Matt back in here and him, I think you could really tell – once you started getting a full week of practice and preparation, the difference from being he from a week and getting tossed in here, and then dealing with the Detroit game with no (full-fledged) practices, really,” said wide receiver Jordy Nelson, another member of that 2008 draft class. “Once you start getting able to prepare, you can start to show it and being able to shine. He did a good job of getting some wins and allowing us to be in this situation.”
Added offensive coordinator Tom Clements, who was Flynn’s quarterbacks coach from 2008 through 2011: “Everyone has played well, but Matt, being thrown into that position and not being here for the whole time and re-familiarizing himself with the offense, he’s done very well. You look at the games he’s played and Minnesota, we were behind and he brought us back. Dallas, he brought us back. Atlanta, he brought us back.
“You have to give him a lot of credit for what he’s done.”
For his part, Flynn has never lacked for confidence, from his time riding the bench at LSU behind JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, before leading the Tigers to the 2008 BCS championship; to being a rookie seventh-round pick and beating out second-round pick Brian Brohm for the right to back up first-year starter Rodgers in 2008; to being forced into action in what at the time seemed like a must-win game at Super Bowl-favorite New England late in the 2010 season.
But Flynn admitted Friday that losing out to rookie Russell Wilson in Seattle, having things go terribly awry in Oakland and being cut multiple times in the same season (by the Raiders and Bills) left that confidence shaken.
“There’s always going to be doubt that creeps in,” said Flynn, who never started a game for the Seahawks and started only one in Oakland. “I think that the confidence part that I’ve always had was, even if doubt sets in, you get rid of it real fast. I’ve always been able to do that.
“There’s always doubt, especially when things go bad. But, I’m a positive thinker, too, so I always think that if I keep working hard, something’s going to pay off and things will work out the way they’re supposed to.”
Even Flynn, though, never imagined things working out like this. When the Raiders cut him on Oct. 7, he admits he harbored some hope that his old team would pick him up. But the Packers were satisfied with Wallace and Tolzien – even though neither one had been through Green Bay’s training camp and had been brought in just before the Sept. 8 regular-season opener at San Francisco – and had no reason to think the durable Rodgers, who’d missed only that one 2010 game due to injury since ascending to the starting job, might be in peril.
“And then obviously a month later, circumstances changed a little bit,” Flynn said of Rodgers’ collarbone injury and Wallace suffering a season-ending groin injury on the opening series of his start against Philadelphia on Nov. 10. The next day. the team worked out Flynn and agreed to terms with him that afternoon.
“He’s had a lot of ups and downs, especially in the past year. So I’m real happy to see him come in here and be able to be successful,” said Sitton, who was the best man in Flynn’s wedding this past June. “Obviously I wanted to see him go and be successful somewhere else, but in a selfish way, I was happy to see him back. We’ve had a lot of good times together, and it’s been fun to have him back.”
In four-plus games, Flynn has completed 102 of 166 passes (61.4 percent) for 1,146 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions (86.1 passer rating). His greatest moment came against the Cowboys, the team he’d grown up watching, as he matched the biggest comeback in franchise history by completing 26 of 39 passes for 299 yards with four TDs and one INT (113.1) to keep the Packers’ playoff hopes afloat.
“Matt, he’s had some highs and he’s had some lows the last couple years, and he’s stayed steady throughout everything,” quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said. “To be able to come in here after what he’s gone through and be able to step up and fight and give us a chance to win games and keep us in games, I think it says a lot about him.”
While he’s focused on preparing to be ready if, heaven forbid, Rodgers should go down again, Flynn admitted that he’s caught himself thinking about the future beyond this season. He signed a one-year prorated deal on Nov. 12, meaning he’ll be back on the free-agent market after the season ends. While the Packers like Tolzien’s long-term potential and want to develop him, McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson may want to carry three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster next year after the travails of this season.
When Kyle Orton starts Sunday for the Dallas Cowboys for an injured Tony Romo, he’ll be the 51st different quarterback to start a game in the NFL this season. The Packers are the only team to start four different quarterbacks (four other teams have started three) and Flynn and Josh Freeman (Tampa Bay, Minnesota) are the only quarterbacks to have started for two teams this season.
For Flynn, the decision could come down to staying to back up Rodgers in Green Bay, which he called his football “home,” or chasing another chance to start elsewhere and prove that what happened in Seattle and Oakland didn’t define him.
“That’s a good question. It’s something I’ve tried to not think about. I’ve had a big job on my hands the past couple weeks,” Flynn said. “I’m happy to be here right now. There’s always going to be – I don’t know how I’m going to feel in a couple months – but I know there’s definitely going to be a part of me that would love to stay here. It’s comfortable, and I love it here. There’s definitely going to be some soul searching that I’ll have to do after the season.”
Until then, though, Flynn will go back to being Rodgers’ backup, consigliere, and friend – and keep enjoying the ride.
“I’m having a blast,” he said. “There were some periods of time that really tested my love for the game. And it’s been a blast being here. We’ve always treaded that line of, not goofing around, but enjoying work. But it always seems to be that we can enjoy work but then get down to business. I think Aaron’s the leader of that. He likes to goof around with the best of them.
“I’m proud of the body of work and the things that we were able to accomplish, and personally that I was able to accomplish. I was proud of the things that I did, and the team did. It’s been a fun couple weeks, a fun ride. I’m soaking up every moment.”
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.