GREEN BAY – Mike McCarthy disagreed with the premise.
“It’s never a good year,” the Green Bay Packers head coach said, “to lose your starting quarterback.”
And there’s no denying that. But after 20 years of not only sustained greatness – from Brett Favre from 1992 through 2007 and from Aaron Rodgers from 2008 to now – but sustained health, it’s hard to imagine the Packers could have had their first major quarterback injury hit at a worse time.
From Favre’s emergence in 1992 through Rodgers’ first five seasons as the starter, the Packers’ starting quarterback missed one game – one! – due to injury: Rodgers’ 2010 concussion, which kept him out of a December loss at New England.
The question now is whether the experience of last year has changed the Packers’ thinking about the position, where Scott Tolzien is under contract but primary backup Matt Flynn is an unrestricted free agent who remains on the market.
“Do I like Matt Flynn in the quarterback room? Absolutely,” McCarthy said during a lunch with reporters during the NFL Meetings last month. “Not only Matt as a player, but there’s value he has: He’s been there, he’s got experience, his relationship with Aaron. He carries a lot of value. That’s added value. But also you have to continue to improve. How do you improve? Competition.”
Whether that’s Flynn returning and competing with Tolzien for the backup job, or the Packers letting Flynn walk and adding another young quarterback through the May 8-10 NFL Draft or undrafted free agency, remains to be seen.
But by having Tolzien – a player the Packers like a lot – already on the roster puts them well ahead of last year’s debacle, regardless of what happens with Flynn.
Rodgers, who fractured his left collarbone on the opening series against the Chicago Bears on Nov. 4, wound up missing the remainder of that game and the seven games that followed. The Packers, who opened the season 5-2, went 0-4-1 in the next five games before Flynn led them to a crucial tie with Minnesota on Nov. 24 and back-to-back one-point victories over Atlanta on Dec. 8 and at Dallas on Dec. 15 to salvage their playoff hopes. Overall, the Packers went 2-5-1 while Rodgers was out. Flynn went 2-2-1 in four starts, plus the relief appearance against Minnesota.
When Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale at Chicago, of course, he connected with wide receiver Randall Cobb – himself returning after a 10-game layoff with a fractured leg – in the final minute of the game to beat the Bears and extend the Packers’ NFC-best streak of playoff berths to five.
Statistically, the Packers’ offense was still very productive, even with Rodgers missing essentially half the season. They finished third in the 32-team NFL in yards (400.3 per game), including sixth in passing yards (4,268, or 266.8 per game). Scoring was down, but they still finished tied for eighth (26.1 points per game) and tied for 13th in touchdown passes (25).
“We were No. 3 in offense,” McCarthy was quick to point out.
On the flip side, it certainly appeared that the Packers couldn’t have been less prepared for losing their starting quarterback given the way the backup spots behind Rodgers were handled. After starting only three quarterbacks (Favre, Rodgers, Flynn) over the previous 20 years, the Packers started four last year alone.
The Packers entered the 2013 offseason with the same two quarterbacks behind Rodgers who finished the 2012 season there – Graham Harrell, who’d ascended to the No. 2 job after Flynn departed as a free agent following the 2011 season, and 2012 seventh-round pick B.J. Coleman, who’d spent his rookie season on the practice squad.
Then, a week into training camp, displeased with Harrell and Coleman, the Packers brought in Vince Young, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft, to compete for the job. By opening day, none of the three was on the roster.
Instead, the Packers signed San Francisco 49ers castoffs Seneca Wallace to serve as Rodgers’ primary backup and ex-University of Wisconsin starter Scott Tolzien to the practice squad as the No. 3. After playing poorly in Rodgers’ place against the Bears, Wallace admitted in the days leading up to his start against Philadelphia on Nov. 10 that he wasn’t even close to knowing the entire playbook.
“I’ve been here eight weeks, I wasn’t here for the OTAs and minicamp and training camp, and you don’t get reps in practice,” he said. “That’s what it is. You just want to go in there and compete your butt off and try to make plays for your team.”
Against the Eagles, Wallace then suffered a torn groin muscle that required season-ending surgery and thrust Tolzien, who’d never thrown a regular-season NFL pass, into the starting role.
“I was OK with the timing [of Rodgers’ injury and Wallace’s preparation],” McCarthy said. “I mean, Aaron got hurt in Week 9. It was the Chicago game. So we had eight weeks to get a veteran quarterback ready to play.
“Really, the issue is when Seneca got hurt. We’re talking about a man who has played a lot of football, fit the profile of coming in to that type of situation. I mean, what other backup did we have in my time here that had as much experience as Seneca Wallace? You can turn that story any way you want.
“He had the full week of preparation and he got injured on the first series. It was really unfortunate. The guy who really had the biggest challenge was Scott. He came from a totally different language change from his first two opportunities. Still, you’re talking about a young man who was on his third football team, so he has experience. There’s value to that.”
Two days after Wallace’s injury, the Packers signed Flynn, who’d been with Seattle, Oakland and Buffalo – and had actually been available after being cut by the Raiders on Oct. 7. When McCarthy benched Tolzien against the Vikings, Flynn engineered a 16-point fourth-quarter comeback in a 24-24 tie. After a blowout loss on Thanksgiving in Detroit, Flynn came through with three more fourth-quarter rallies in the next three weeks, two of which led to those victories over the Falcons and Cowboys.
Whether last year’s experience changed the Packers’ perspective on the importance of the backup quarterback position will be proven by what they do in the coming weeks.
“We really look at the whole picture,” McCarthy said. “We’ve been spoiled in Green Bay. When you’re sitting there with Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre for how many years, you’re not really worried about a third quarterback. So, that’s a bad mindset to get into. I don’t think we have.
“[In camp], you have to get your starter ready and then you have competition for the No. 2 [job], which you hope you have every year because just like every other position, you’re trying to improve it.”
So far this offseason, among the backup quarterbacks who’ve changed teams are Mark Sanchez (Philadelphia), Michael Vick (New York Jets), Ryan Fitzpatrick (Houston), Josh McCown (Tampa Bay), Colt McCoy (Washington), Jason Campbell (Cincinnati), Kellen Clemens (San Diego), Charlie Whitehurst (Tennessee) and Shaun Hill (St. Louis). Flynn, Wallace, Jimmy Clausen, Josh Freeman, Rex Grossman and Brady Quinn remain unsigned.
After last year, the Packers could certainly carry three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster – something they generally don’t do coming out of training camp – if they want to carry both a proven backup and a developmental prospect. If they don’t bring Flynn back and decide to go with Tolzien, they’ll be counting on him to be both a developmental player and a guy who can win a game if called upon.
“I think it’s fair to say that it depends on who your starter is,” Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt, one of the league’s top quarterback coaches, said. “If you have a young starter that you’re trying to develop, then you’d like to have a veteran presence. I think there’s a lot to be learned to that. My experience is the dynamic between the starter and the backup is important, because there’s a lot of interaction between those guys, and you’re talking about interaction between a guy that’s doing it and a guy that sees it and can do it as well.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘mentor,’ but you’d like to have a guy in that position, if you have a young starter, a guy that can help him along. If you have a veteran player that’s been in the league a number of years like a Brady or a Roethlisberger or a Rodgers, then I think you can have a younger guy at that position that can learn from the older guy.
“There is no perfect situation out there. If you have an injury or something happens, at some point, you’re going to have to play with one of those guys – whether it’s a veteran guy that’s your backup or a young guy that’s your backup. And hopefully, whatever happens, it works out for you.”
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.