As exciting – and unexpected – as the 160 snaps of regular-season football Scott Tolzien wound up playing last season were, it’s quite possible that the work he gets this spring in the Green Bay Packers’ quarterback school, individual position workouts, organized team activity practices and the mandatory minicamp will have a greater impact on his development as an NFL quarterback.
“There’s nothing like playing time. Don’t get me wrong. You can’t replace that,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said late last week as he walked the Robert W. Baird blue carpet at the annual Wisconsin Sports Awards at the Kern Center in downtown Milwaukee. “But I think [for] Scott, to have the ability to go back to A and learn [the offense] A through Z as opposed to learning game plans … that’s difficult on any quarterback, especially in Scott’s particular case, where he had zero carryover with the two systems he was in before.”
After initially signing with the San Diego Chargers after going undrafted out of the University of Wisconsin in 2011, Tolzien spent two seasons as the San Francisco 49ers’ third-string quarterback and eight weeks on the Packers’ practice squad after signing the week of the team’s regular-season opener against the 49ers. Some wondered if he was added merely because he could share intel on an opponent the Packers defense had struggled mightily against.
Instead, the Packers got a developmental quarterback whose potential they love. Now, it’s time to actually develop him.
The offseason program kicked off last week, with the quarterbacks having their first individual meetings with new QBs coach Alex Van Pelt on Thursday. They’ll have another week of only strength-and-conditioning drill work and meetings this week before they’re allowed to start IPWs next week, in accordance with NFL offseason rules.
“I know we’ve got a lot of video work to do here in the next 10 days,” McCarthy said. “This is the time of year when quarterbacks really make their hay, improving their technique because in the demands of OTAs and the demands in training camp, so much of it is about scheme and being partnered up with other positions. This is truly the time when they can individualize as far as exactly their particular techniques that are fitted every single one of them.”
And for Tolzien, McCarthy said, this time will be “real valuable,” because he’s never had it in the Packers’ system. Although he worked on learning the Packers’ playbook while on the practice squad, he spent most of his time working on a week-to-week basis for the upcoming opponent, learning the game plan for that week and doing his reports off film work for starter Aaron Rodgers.
It wasn’t a matter of Tolzien not working hard -- in 2011, after being released by the Chargers on the final round of roster cuts and signing with the 49ers the week of the season-opener, he decided there was no point in immediately finding permanent housing since he was spending so much time at the 49ers’ facility in Santa Clara, Calif. So Tolzien simply slept in the players’ lounge for his first two weeks with the team.
But for all his hard work, he hadn’t thrown a regular-season pass until last season. His big break came when Rodgers suffered a fractured collarbone on Nov. 4 against Chicago and his replacement, veteran Seneca Wallace, suffered a season-ending groin injury one series into the Packers’ Nov. 10 game against Philadelphia. Thrust into the lineup six days after being promoted to the 53-man roster, Tolzien held his own – although the Packers ended up losing to the Eagles, 27-13 – and in three games completed 55 of 90 passes (61.1 percent) for 717 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions for a passer rating of 66.8. He was benched midway through the Nov. 24 game against Minnesota and watched Matt Flynn rally the Packers from a 16-point deficit in a 26-26 tie.
Tolzien never played another snap.
“I’ll take any experience I can get. To get my feet wet like I did last year was awesome for me, and it forced you to grow up in a hurry,” Tolzien said at the Wisconsin Sports Awards. “So I think you bottle that experience and learn from it. But you have to keep growing and proving yourself.”
That’s what this offseason will be about, as he works to master the Packers’ scheme. While it’s possible the Packers could pick a quarterback on Day 3 of the May 8-10 NFL Draft, it’s more likely they’ll enter the season with Rodgers, Flynn and Tolzien. Both the coaches and the quarterbacks liked that dynamic
“We have a great room and we kind of feed off each other,” Tolzien said. “I’m there to learn but also any way I can help out – that’s kind of my role, to help both those guys out. And they do the same for me. I like our room. It’s a fun group to work with.”
Said McCarthy: “We’ve got a very healthy room. We’ve got an excellent room. We’ve obviously got the best player in football [in Rodgers]. We’ve got Matt Flynn, he’s a proven guy, there’s a comfort level definitely there. I know Matt wants to get better, he has room to improve in front of him. And we’ve got a young guy in Scott Tolzien that has a bunch of growth. So it’s a very healthy room, the personalities are excellent. It’s exactly what you’re looking for.”
After last year’s struggles, the Packers would appear inclined to keep three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster coming out of camp for the first time since 2008, when rookies Flynn and Brian Brohm backed up Rodgers as a first-year starter. The next year, Brohm was kept on the practice squad as the third quarterback until he joined the Buffalo Bills’ 53-man roster late in the year.
But if Tolzien thoroughly outplays Flynn this summer, the Packers could go with Tolzien as the No. 2, since Flynn only received $75,000 in guaranteed money as part of the one-year, $1.07 million deal he signed last week to return. His base salary of $730,000 is the minimum for a player with six years of accrued NFL experience.
For there to be even a chance of that, though, it’s up to Tolzien to prove himself in the offseason, starting now.
“It’ll be huge – as long as I make the most of it,” Tolzien said of the offseason program. “I think I have a great opportunity in front of me, but it’s really on my shoulders to capitalize on the opportunity that I have. It’ll be great to kind of slow down and learn things from the beginning and learn from my teammates too and just grow as fast as I can.”
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.