Packers face quarterback quandary
The old adage has been repeated countless times, although not in relation to the Green Bay Packers for more than two decades. In various corners of cyberspace, it is attributed to legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, former NFL head coach and television personality John Madden, Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells and others. There are several translations, but the most commonly seen is this one:
If you have two starting quarterbacks, you don’t have one.
That’s where coach Mike McCarthy finds himself – or, perhaps, is pretending to find himself – entering Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day game at Detroit, as he said Monday that he will prepare both Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn to start against the Lions at Ford Field.
Perhaps McCarthy is simply engaging in some gamesmanship with the Lions, trying to keep Detroit coach Jim Schwartz guessing on who’ll be his starter. Or perhaps McCarthy won’t have to start either one, and the Packers’ true starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, who suffered a broken left collarbone three weeks ago on Nov. 4 against Chicago on Monday Night Football and hasn’t played since, will overcome the odds and return to action. Including their 27-20 loss to the Bears, in which veteran Seneca Wallace took over for the injured Rodgers, the Packers are 0-3-1 without their star.
Although the coach didn’t rule Rodgers out Monday, he did say that the chances of him playing against the Lions are “slim to none.”
“(I) had a meeting with Aaron. He would like to go (against the Lions),” McCarthy said Monday afternoon. “Frankly, based on the information where we are as far as the conversation with Aaron, the conversation with the medical staff, I would say he’s slim to none, to give you what I’m thinking. That’s where we are.”
If Rodgers is a no-go, McCarthy will have to choose between Flynn, who rallied the team from a 16-point deficit to a 26-26 tie with the Minnesota Vikings, or Tolzien, who started the past two games but was benched with 8 minutes 22 seconds left in the third quarter with the offense in search of a spark. Both will apparently get work with the starters during Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s practices.
Asked why he doesn’t just commit to one quarterback now, McCarthy misunderstood the question and replied, “Because I don’t have to.” When it was clarified that he wasn’t being asked why he wouldn’t publicly name the starter but why he wouldn’t settle on one for preparation purposes, McCarthy pointed to the way he’s had to use four quarterbacks – Rodgers, Tolzien, Flynn and injured veteran Seneca Wallace, who took over for Rodgers against the Bears before suffering a season-ending groin injury the following week against Philadelphia – over the past month.
“I want them both ready, is what I’m saying,” McCarthy said. “Game plans don’t always go the way you want. We got into a deal here where we’re doing things we’re not even practicing. So that’s what we’re taking a hard look at: If we can kind of bridge the gap of, I don’t want to say being more conservative, (but) making sure Matt’s ready.
“Matt played very well. He deserves to start. I like the way Scott has grown. So those are the things we’re talking about. We’re going to do the best we can to make sure they’re both ready.”
That’s a particularly difficult approach to take on a short week, as McCarthy acknowledged that he’s already had to chance plans after the team played an extra quarter of football during Sunday’s tie. Perhaps during the team periods at practice – sessions that are closed to reporters – McCarthy won’t split reps but instead will give the bulk of the snaps to the quarterback he’s chosen to start.
McCarthy originally intended to make Tuesday’s practice the more “normal” weekday practice, but because the game played out Sunday the way it did, Wednesday’s practice will be the more extensive one – even though it’s the day before the game.
“We’ve got to get two quarterbacks ready, frankly. This experience that we’ve gone through the last four weeks with a different quarterback in four straight games, we’re taking a hard look at our preparation,” McCarthy said. “Who has the ball at the beginning of the game, we’ll let you know down the line. I have no announcements on that yet today.
“Obviously with four days it’s difficult to get anybody ready, but we’ve got to make sure they’re both ready.”
After taking over for an injured Wallace against the Eagles on Nov. 11, Tolzien had completed 55 of 90 passes (61.1 percent) for 717 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions (66.8 rating) before being benched in favor of Flynn Sunday.
“It was very disappointing to me. I feel like I'm an accurate quarterback,” said Tolzien, who scored on a 6-yard run that gave the Packers a 7-0 lead but completed just 7 of 17 passes for 98 yards before being replaced. “I don't know what the final stat line was, but I know it wasn't 50 percent. That's bad. I'm not going to try to sugarcoat it. I'm going to learn from it and keep pressing to get better."
Flynn entered the game with the Packers trailing, 20-7, and directed two touchdown drives and a field-goal drive that sent the game into overtime at 23-23. Completing 21 of 36 passes for 218 yards and a touchdown (85.2 rating), he drove the Packers to the Minnesota 2-yard line on the first possession of overtime but Flynn’s third-and-goal pass to Jordy Nelson fell complete. The Packers settled for a 20-yard Mason Crosby field goal, which the Vikings matched on the ensuing series, leading to the first tie in the NFL this season.
Flynn, who was Rodgers’ backup from 2008 through 2011 before signing with the Seattle Seahawks as an unrestricted free agent in March 2012, said he will be ready regardless of how many practice snaps he gets on Tuesday and Wednesday. Before Sunday’s game, Flynn said he had taken eight reps – four each week – with the starters in practice.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ll be ready no matter if I take 0 percent, 50 percent, 100 percent of the reps,” Flynn said. “I’ll be ready to roll. I think I’ve developed the skill of improving myself without taking reps. We’ll see what happens.”
Asked if he feels he deserves to be the starter after the way he played against the Vikings, Flynn replied, “I don’t know. I would like to start. I definitely want to. But that’s not my decision to make. Whoever’s out there gives us the best chance, whoever the coach feels that is. Whatever happens, I’m here and I do what they tell me to do.”
Rodgers, meanwhile, has undergone further tests on his collarbone but McCarthy wouldn’t elaborate on what those tests have shown or if more tests are set for this week.
“Let’s be honest, he’s got to practice,” McCarthy said. “There’s some physical rehab hurdles to get through that he hasn’t reached yet. Like I said, it would be a huge stretch for him to play in this game.”
McCarthy said Rodgers would have to practice on Wednesday, before the team departs for Detroit, to have any chance of playing Thursday at Ford Field.
Rodgers did not speak to reporters while he was in the locker room during the media access session. His weekly radio show 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com airs Tuesday.
The Packers (5-5-1) are still in the NFC North race because the Lions (6-5) and Bears (6-5) each lost Sunday. Despite Rodgers’ injury and the team’s winless streak without him, the Packers could still win the division – a fact Rodgers surely recognizes.
Asked if he might have to protect Rodgers from himself, McCarthy replied, “Well, I think that’s always the case when you’re dealing with Aaron. But, like I said, he has to do some things with the rehab, the rehab group first. ... If he doesn’t practice on Wednesday, he won’t play in the game.”
In the meantime, the Packers will practice Tuesday and McCarthy apparently will work to get both Flynn and Tolzien ready. At this point, he hasn’t told either player his plan.
“(I) haven't heard anything yet. You just prepare like you're the starter,” Tolzien said. “One way or another, that's a going to be a good thing. You have to be prepared going into the game whether you're starting or not."
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.