Scott Tolzien smiled at the memory Wednesday. He wasn’t embarrassed by it, but he wasn’t exactly proud of it, either. As is often the case with the easy-going, virtually unflappable Green Bay Packers quarterback, it simply was what it was.
“That’s a fact,” Tolzien replied when asked if the seemingly unbelievable story was indeed true.
There’s no denying that the former University of Wisconsin quarterback is putting in long hours in preparation for his first NFL start, against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium. Elevated from the practice squad a week ago, he’ll now start in place of former NFL MVP and three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who remains sidelined with a broken collarbone. After a solid performance in relief of an injured Seneca Wallace in last week’s loss to Philadelphia, Tolzien is staying after practice to go over plays with Rodgers and his receivers, he’s attending additional meetings with quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo and spending extra time watching film on his team-issued iPad playbook prepping for the Giants defense.
And on Tuesday night, Tolzien stayed so late at the facility meeting 1-on-1 with head coach Mike McCarthy about the game plan that McCarthy finally had to send him home around 9:30.
“He tells me he sleeps well. I'll take his word for that,” McCarthy said after Wednesday’s practice. “He's getting his proper rest. He eats well because he's here all the time. So I'm not worried about him. The man loves it, and you've got to appreciate his work ethic. It's refreshing, and it's good for everybody. He's going about it the right way.”
And at least Tolzien is actually going home each night.
In 2011, after being released by the San Diego Chargers on the final round of roster cuts and signing with the San Francisco 49ers the week of the season-opener, the undrafted rookie free agent 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., Tolzien simply slept in the players’ lounge for his first two weeks on the roster.
“I signed there Week 1 so I was scrapping to learn the playbook. I was working late hours there and they had a nice couch there, some nice TVs, so I figured, ‘Why not?’” Tolzien recounted Wednesday. “I wasn’t getting much sleep at that point. It made it more convenient.
“I got a few looks here and there, but it wasn’t too much of a big deal. The priority was just to learn the offense at the time. That was the most convenient thing for me.”
It wasn’t completely convenient, though. Tolzien had to choose his couch wisely, since there were a few workaholic assistant coaches who were also crashing at the facility from time to time, and he kept his clothes in a duffel bag that he stashed behind his couch.
“You were just wearing all of your (team-)issued gear most of the time anyways,” Tolzien said. “There didn’t have to be much laundry, which worked out well.”
And while he’ll have to play better against the Giants than he did against Philadelphia – although he completed 24 of 39 passes for 280 yards against the Eagles, he threw a pair of interceptions, including one in the end zone – the Packers feel Tolzien has worked out well for them. When the Cleveland Browns offered Tolzien a spot on their 53-man roster last month, Tolzien turned it down after the Packers bumped his practice-squad salary up to the second-year veteran minimum, increasing his weekly salary more than fivefold.
It’s turned out to be money well spent.
“To go in there and make the plays that he made – obviously he’d want maybe a couple of those throws back – but he did some great things out there,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “For a guy who was on the practice squad, had a chance to leave (and) decided to stick it out, to be elevated to the 53-man roster) and then get thrown out there says a lot about his preparation.
“I’m very proud of Scott. I think – I know – he has a bright future. I’ve just been impressed with his demeanor and his approach since he got here. And I think he’s going to have a good week.”
Although Rodgers isn’t a big fan of comparing players, he sees some similarities between Tolzien and recently-signed Matt Flynn, his backup from 2008 through 2011. He also sees a little of himself in the kid he’s nicknamed “Scoots” (a nickname Rodgers admits “is not very creative”).
Rodgers said Tolzien, whom he’d never met before the Packers signed him to the practice squad after final cuts, impressed him the very first week, when he put together an impressive report on his former team’s defense in preparation for the Packers’ regular-season opener against the 49ers. Rodgers, who did the reports himself as a backup to Brett Favre in the mid-2000s, was taken aback by the detail.
“He’s a perfectionist, which I can relate to,” Rodgers said. “Back in 2006, we started doing weekly reports, where I would watch hours and hours of film and write up a report on the entire secondary (of the upcoming opponent). Back then it was just Brett and I; there wasn’t another quarterback in the room. So I would do the cornerbacks and the safeties and give him and the room a report of what I saw, what I think would work.
“Ultimately, it wasn’t like I was giving Brett anything that he was going to use in the game. I think it was more to get me into a routine of preparation – watching the film I should be watching, looking for the things I should be looking for – and it really taught me a lot about preparation. Regardless of if anything I said stuck with Brett, it was fun for me to go through the week as if I was going to be the starter. And I say that because I’ve watched Seneca and Scott go through this and it’s been impressive to watch both of them in their approach.
“But Scott reminds me of a young Matt. I said that before Matt was here – and I don’t like to make a ton of comparisons – but it is a compliment. When Matt came in, you saw a lot of growth in the way he was throwing it and in his approach. And I think Scott, he’s been throwing it better since the first day he got here, and his approach has been very solid, he’s very detail-oriented.
“It’s been impressive to see him make plays on the scout team, and I’ve always said it, whether it’s the young guys (on the 53-man roster) or guys who are trying to get activated off the practice squad, the way to get people’s attention is to make plays in practice. The way you’re going to have confidence in the game is making those plays in practice, whether it’s the first team or the scout team. And Scott’s been making a lot of plays on the scout team, whether it’s throwing the ball in tight windows, throwing the ball deep, moving in the pocket, a lot of stuff you saw on Sunday.”
That Tolzien is working as hard as he is comes as no surprise to those who know him from his time at UW, where he led the Badgers to the 2011 Rose Bowl, or to those who’ve gotten to know him since he joined the team on Sept. 2.
“I think he’ll definitely be great for the Packers. He’s not going to sleep until he knows the playbook inside and out,” said Badgers tight end Jacob Pedersen, who played with Tolzien at UW in 2010. “He’s just a got a work-ethic personality almost. He’s going to do everything possible to give the Packers an opportunity to win the game. That’s what he did for us and I think he’ll continue that.”
Added Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson: “We’re real confident in Scott. Just the way he came in and controlled the huddle, he was very confident in how he spoke. If he was lying to us or just trying to put off a good vibe, he was very confident. He knows his stuff. We see the work he puts in. When you see a guy like him grinding the way he does every day, you know he’s going to be prepared.”
That said, the Packers coaches are being cautious that they don’t overload Tolzien. He’ll have a pared down playbook on Sunday, and McCarthy’s 1-on-1 meeting with him was designed in part to determine which plays Tolzien likes best. McCarthy does the same thing with Rodgers each week, but with Rodgers, the menu is considerably more extensive – despite Tolzien’s infamous work ethic.