When he wasn’t getting tests done on his broken collarbone, Aaron Rodgers had been spending all kinds of time with Seneca Wallace. Knowing the Green Bay Packers veteran backup quarterback needed all the help he could get this week in preparation for the Philadelphia Eagles, Rodgers – struggling with the prospect of missing only the second game of his career due to injury since taking over as a starter in 2008 – wanted to be as helpful as he could to both Wallace and third-stringer Scott Tolzien,
“Aaron's going about it just as if he were playing in the game,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said after Rodgers watched practice Wednesday, as Wallace took the first-team snaps normally reserved for him. “He's going right through it right next to Seneca. He's involved. I've never been through this in my time here, but he is extremely involved in the preparation of getting Seneca and Scott ready.”
In fact, the only time Rodgers wasn’t able to be by Wallace’s side was Wednesday evening, when the media crush normally reserved for the former NFL MVP shifted its collective focus to his locker-room next-door neighbor, Wallace.
With nearly 50 reporters surrounding Wallace, Rodgers and his broken collarbone wandered into the locker room at precisely the wrong time. Just as is the case for his mid-week Q&A sessions, the swarm of lights, cameras and questions left him out of luck. The newly promoted Tolzien ended up talking to reporters at his old locker, in the auxiliary locker room the players call The Green Mile.
“I can’t even get to my locker!” Rodgers hollered in mock exasperation – before posing for a picture in front of the mob.
Yes, this is what it’s going to be like for the next few weeks, with Rodgers relegated to a supporting role. While reported timelines have varied – having him sidelined from as little as three weeks, to as long as four to six – Rodgers believes he is a quick healer and wants to be back on the field sooner than any of those projections.
In the meantime, the 33-year-old Wallace is tasked with keeping the 5-3 Packers afloat until their star quarterback returns. He’ll start Sunday’s game against Philadelphia (4-5) at Lambeau Field, and as a 10-year NFL veteran who’s spent most of his career as a backup, he fully understands his role.
“Obviously I'm not going to be Aaron Rodgers. He's been doing great things here for years,” said Wallace, whom the Packers signed Sept. 2 after the quarterbacks they’d had in camp – Graham Harrell, Vince Young and B.J. Coleman – all failed to make the grade. “My job is to try go in and maintain things at a good level and win some ballgames until he gets back good and healthy. That's my job.”
And it’s an important job, one that will require him to be better than he was in Monday night’s 27-20 loss to the Chicago Bears, when he competed 11 of 19 passes for 114 yards with one interception, no touchdowns, four sacks and a passer rating of 53.4.
Rodgers pointed out that Wallace had taken just four snaps with the No.1 offense in practice all week leading up to the Bears game, and while the Monday night game makes for a shorter week – Wednesday’s practice was a glorified jogthrough – Wallace will still get more work with the starters and thus should be better prepared. Coach Mike McCarthy said that while the basics of the offense won’t change, he’ll tailor play calls and concepts to fit what Wallace does best and toward the plays he’s most comfortable with.
“The challenge of changing quarterbacks – in my humble opinion the most important position in the football game – (is that) it’s important to stay in tune with his skill set, but also utilize the other players. Conceptionally, we're not going to re-invent the wheel here,” McCarthy said. “But we're confident in our time together, and Seneca's participation to this point, that we'll continue to run the majority of our offense.”
The last time – and the only other time in his six-year starting career – that Rodgers missed a game with an injury was in 2010, when he was knocked out of a Dec. 12 loss at Detroit and missed the team’s Dec. 19 game at New England. Third-year backup Matt Flynn took over for him, and while Flynn was horrible in a 7-3 loss to the Lions (15 for 26, 177 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, 62.5 rating) and then nearly led the Packers to victory against the Patriots (24 of 37, 251 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, 100.2 rating) when he had a week to prepare.
“It was important to go into that game and cut Matt loose, and play the way we felt we needed to play to win the game, and it's no different (now),” McCarthy said. Asked if he failed to cut Wallace loose against the Bears, when Wallace’s best plays were handoffs to Eddie Lacy (150 rushing yards), McCarthy said he was hamstrung by a game-plan set for Rodgers and other wild-card elements, like James Jones being on a snap count in his first game back from a knee injury and right guard T.J. Lang having been knocked out of the game with a concussion.
“There was a menu of things that I was going to stay in. Now, that was menu perfect for Seneca Wallace? You know, maybe not. But it was to beat the Bears,” McCarthy said. “In hindsight, I feel plays were there in that game to be made. But definitely – I think I'm stating the obvious – everybody will be much better off (this week). Not only just Seneca being comfortable going through the reps, but everybody else being comfortable with Seneca. He hasn't played a game for us yet.”
And therein lies the other challenge. Whereas Flynn, a seventh-round pick in 2008, was in his third year as Rodgers’ backup and had had three offseasons, three training camps and three regular-seasons worth of offensive submersion, Wallace arrived Sept. 2 and confessed Wednesday that he still doesn’t have the playbook mastered.
“You're almost like in survival mode, coming in and not being able to get reps and not being really comfortable with guys and how they run routes in the offense and things like that,” Wallace said of Monday night’s performance. “You just have to go in and compete to the best of your ability and hopefully good things happen.
“You know you’re still learning (the offense). Each and every day is different. You’re never going to get comfortable obviously. Even Aaron, he’s learning each and every day when we come out here. Even though he’s been here a long time, there’s always something new.”
On top of that, Wallace spent the 2012 season out of football. He started the final three games of the 2011 season for the Cleveland Browns, completing 55 of 107 passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions (65.4 rating), with his best year coming in 2008, when he went 3-5 in eight starts for the Seattle Seahawks and threw for 1,532 yards with 11 touchdowns and only three interceptions (87.0 rating).
That’s not how he looked Monday night, however. But he’d spent seven years in Seattle at that point, as compared to just over seven weeks in Green Bay.
“In that situation, you have to think about it: 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 – and those reps were different things that didn’t really correlate to what was going to happen on Sunday,” Wallace 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.”
If Rodgers hypothetically misses the next four games – Sunday, Nov. 17 at the New York Giants, Nov. 24 at home against Minnesota and Nov. 28 at Detroit on Thanksgiving – the Packers would be in good shape if they managed to go 2-2. Those four opponents are a combined 12-21 entering this weekend’s games, with only the Lions (5-3) above .500. McCarthy is fond of saying that it takes 10 victories to get into the playoffs, and if that’s the case this year, if the Packers take the collar and go 0 for 4 if Rodgers missed only four games, even winning out would only get them to 9-7.
“It’s going to be a good challenge. Obviously when you lose someone of that caliber (it hurts), no matter where it is, but a quarterback is a little more important,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “We’re all confident in Seneca. He’s confident in himself. He’s ready to make the most of this opportunity and go out and win some games.”
The more, the better.
“We hate to see someone get injured, especially ‘12.’ My job is to try to maintain this ride and make sure we’re on the same page and continue to get better,” Wallace said. “When I was in Seattle, being thrown out there was not a big deal as far as the process of knowing the offense because I already knew what to do. This is a unique situation and I'm excited about the challenge. Just keep the train going.”
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.