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Unrestricted ree agents
The good news: While Rodgers missed essentially eight games with the fractured collarbone he suffered on the opening offensive series of the team's Nov. 4 loss to the Chicago Bears – and the team went an anemic 0-4-1 over the next five games, including that loss – he did no further damage to the injury upon his return and should be able to have a completely normal offseason training regimen. Rodgers, who turned 30 in December, firmly believes that he needs optimal offseasons to continue to play at his customary level as he gets older.
"Motivation has to come from within, and the best players in this league, the guys that last the longest are self-motivated players," Rodgers explained. "You have to put in the time in the offseason, you have to put in the time after work during the season. The offseason's very important.
"I felt really last offseason that I had to work just a little bit harder to get into the kind of shape I wanted to be in. It's going to be building off the gains I made last year, eating right. When you eat right, you not only have more energy and you feel better, but that's the biggest way to get into the kind of shape you want when you pair that with a good workout program. I'm going to be doing that. [I will] also focusing on a couple of other areas, flexibility being one of them, so I might run into you at the Yoga spot."
Rodgers was elusive when asked whether his collarbone was 100 percent healed in his return for the regular-season finale – when he threw a game-winning, last-minute, fourth-down touchdown pass to Randall Cobb that sent the Packers to the NFC North title and a playoff berth – but he admitted that there was significant risk in coming back earlier than he did.
"I think what most people didn't understand about this injury is, it's not just displacement [that was an issue]," Rodgers said. "If you reinjure it it's a displaced collarbone and you have surgery and a plate inserted, three months later, there's a lot of complications that could have come with it. The rehab is more like five months, which puts you missing organized team activities potentially or at least (individual position workouts). Then you have the complications with a plate being in your collarbone. There's still opportunity for non-union, where the bone doesn't necessarily come all the way together."
Now, Rodgers won't have to worry about any of that.
"The collarbone's feeling good. I obviously just had two games instead of 17 in a row to wear on me, but this is going to be an important offseason for me to come back," he said. "I'm going to set some really high expectations for my physical conditioning. I'm going to be 30 as we start the season, but I'm expecting to be in phenomenal shape come August, and I expect big things out of our team. We need to improve on both sides of the ball. There's a lot of tough decisions coming up with some free agents, but I control the shape that I'm in and my mental status. And I'm going to be ready to play and I'm going to be in good shape."
The bad news: It's hard to imagine a team being more ill-prepared for the loss of their star quarterback than the Packers turned out to be. First, they overestimated the talent of primary backup Graham Harrell, who'd been the No. 3 quarterback in 2010 and 2011 before ascending to the No. 2 job in 2012. They also invested an entire year and all of training camp in B.J. Coleman, a 2012 seventh-round pick who spent all of his rookie year on the practice squad. By late summer, the Packers realized that neither player was good enough. They quickly came to the same realization about Vince Young, whom general manager Ted Thompson brought in midway through camp even though he'd been available in March and might've had at least a fighting chance of showing something had he had more time to learn the Packers' complex offense.
"If there was fault, it's mine," Thompson admitted after final cuts, absolving all three of their own faults.
The problem, of course, was that cutting all three quarterbacks meant taking what they could get before the season began, and that led to the signing of Wallace to the 53-man roster and Tolzien to the practice squad. While they appear to have a player with genuine potential in Tolzien, one has to wonder if the team learned its lesson from the events of 2013. For 20 years, they'd gotten almost uninterrupted elite quarterback play from two guys who'd missed a combined ONE game due to injury from 1992 through 2012 – Rodgers, with a 2010 concussion. Did they take their good fortune for granted? Only Thompson can say for sure. The guess here is that they won't make the same mistake again.
The big question: It was hard not to be impressed with what Flynn did after he took over midway through the Nov. 24 game against Minnesota – leading the team to a 26-26 tie against the Vikings and one-point victories over Atlanta (Dec. 8) and Dallas (Dec. 15), all in come-from-behind fashion. (He also engineered a fourth-quarter comeback in a Dec. 22 loss to Pittsburgh at home.) But now what? Flynn said in December that he would be open to returning as Rodgers' backup, but as an unrestricted free agent (again), he also would jump at an opportunity to start and prove that his career won't be defined by his failures in Seattle and Oakland.
"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," Flynn said before the regular-season finale against Chicago. "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."
Offseason outlook: As if Rodgers' injury wasn't enough, the very next week, Wallace suffered a torn abductor muscle on the opening series against Philadelphia. That thrust Tolzien into the fray, and while he did OK all things considered, in the time before Flynn ignited the team against Minnesota, Packers coach Mike McCarthy looked as if he'd aged 10 years. The struggle of starting four different quarterbacks in a single season clearly wore on the eighth-year head coach, and while he never came out and said it, it seems reasonable to assume that McCarthy never wants to go through a season like 2013 again.
Thus, it would make sense for the Packers to bring back Flynn, who's now proven in two separate stints that he can handle the job if Rodgers goes down, and continue to develop Tolzien, who has the smarts as well as the strong arm to someday be that reliable backup. Whether that day could be Opening Day 2014, well, that's what training camp is for. But there's no doubt that the former University of Wisconsin starter would benefit from McCarthy's annual quarterback school which is still extremely valuable even with the constraints of the current collective bargaining agreement. Tolzien showed some impressive flashes when he was playing – including repeated on-the-money deep balls against the New York Giants on Nov. 17 that were overshadowed by his interceptions and the ensuing loss – and did so with zero offseason work in the Packers' offense and not a single snap of a Green Bay play in training camp.
At the same time, Flynn shouldn't be expensive to retain, and while he could be viewed as the new Doug Pederson to Rodgers' Brett Favre – a backup quarterback who's most vital role on the team is being the starting QB's best pal – he also proved he can win games when called upon. Sure, he – along with the rest of the team – was putrid in Detroit on Thanksgiving, but the rallies he had against the Vikings, Falcons, Cowboys and Steelers proved he can do the job. One can only wonder what he might have done had the Packers moved on him on Oct. 7 when he was cut by Oakland. It was only dumb luck that the Buffalo Bills cut him just in time for the Packers to nab him after Rodgers went down. A quarterback room of Rodgers, Flynn and Tolzien would be ideal for Rodgers.
"We like Scott," offensive coordinator Tom Clements replied when asked if he could see the team developing Tolzien long-term. "He is a hard worker, he's always here, he's intelligent, he works at it. So he certainly has that capability."
Meanwhile, that quarterback room will have Alex Van Pelt – instead of Ben McAdoo – at the front of it after McAdoo left to become the New York Giants' offensive coordinator and Van Pelt shifted from running backs coach to quarterbacks coach. Having played the position in the NFL as a backup for nine seasons in Buffalo, and having coached it with both the Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the transition should be seamless.
"[Van Pelt] and I have been good buddies from his first day here. [Former Bills quarterback] Ryan Fitzpatrick and I are friends in the league, and Ryan got to play for Alex. From the start I've heard good things about him," Rodgers said. "Alex gets the game, he played the position. … I know it's going to be a really smooth transition, and we'd have a lot of fun together."
Next: Running backs.
– Jason Wilde