GREEN BAY — For years, no one gave a second thought to the identity of the Green Bay Packers’ backup quarterback.
They didn’t have to. Brett Favre never missed a game and Aaron Rodgers rarely did, giving the Packers more than 20 years of ironman performances at the NFL’s most important position.
Then last season happened. And while the Packers survived Rodgers’ seven-game injury absence to sneak into the NFL playoffs, the backup quarterback position suddenly was elevated in importance.
Rodgers was spectacular running coach Mike McCarthy’s fast-paced, no-huddle offense this August, but the training camp battle between potential backups Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien was, for the most part, a wash. Both were consistently capable and both had moments where they looked very good. Mostly, though, both looked like they belong on an NFL roster.
If it wasn’t a dead heat, it was close, which has left the Packers with a big decision over the next few days.
Should they keep Tolzien, the University of Wisconsin product who is younger and has a stronger arm but has no track record of success in the regular season? Should they keep the always-resourceful Flynn, who proved last year he can step in and keep the team competitive? Or should they commit a valuable spot on the 53-man roster and keep two reserve quarterbacks, something they haven’t done since Flynn was a rookie in 2008?
The Packers got their answer to those questions in their 34-14 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the final exhibition game Thursday night at Lambeau Field: They need to keep all three quarterbacks.
Even McCarthy admitted the backup quarterbacks had made it a tough decision for him.
“I think Matt and Scott have both championed the case to be on our football team,” he said. “I felt very good about their progress from last year through the spring and all the way through training camp and watching it live. I think they both played very well tonight. Just the little things, too — there’s a number of little things that went on as far as checks and adjustments and things like that. I thought they both played very well.”
At the start of camp, McCarthy cautioned reporters not to overreact to last year, when the Packers made some poor personnel decisions that left them horribly vulnerable at the backup spot and forced them to sign Tolzien and veteran Seneca Wallace off the street just days before the regular-season opener. After Rodgers went down, Wallace proved inadequate and Tolzien, who only knew a portion of the playbook after joining the party late, was too inexperienced.
The Packers were very lucky that Flynn, who had been their backup from 2008 through 2011, was available because he knew their offense and could step in seamlessly. Flynn kept the team afloat until Rodgers returned.
The Packers’ backup situation is much better this season as both quarterbacks have something to offer, especially to a team that is gearing up for a Super Bowl run. Flynn, who has a one-year contract, would be a terrific security blanket for the Packers in 2014. Tolzien, who now has a strong command of the offense, is an intriguing long-term backup prospect. After Tolzien’s strong preseason, it’s unlikely the Packers could sneak him onto the practice squad for one more year.
Tolzien said he’s learned a great deal from Rodgers and Flynn and would like to keep the threesome together.
“Absolutely, no question,” he said. “It’s been an awesome experience with all three of us. I would love that.”
Flynn echoed those sentiments.
“I think both him and I played well and I think both him and I made an argument to be on this football team,” Flynn said.
One problem with keeping two backups is that the talent on the roster is deeper than usual and the Packers might have to release a promising young player at another position. The injury to starting center JC Tretter also complicates things, since the team will probably have to carry him on the roster until he can return at some point in the season.
“The thing we emphasized with every one of our players was, you’re not only competing against the men at your position, you’re competing against people at other positions,” McCarthy said. “And that’s ultimately what this will come down to.”
Still, the Packers have too much at stake this season not to give themselves some insurance at quarterback. If they had lousy options like last year, their decision would be easy. But they have two players they value at the one position that can make or break a team. Keeping two wouldn’t be an overreaction to last year; it would be a solid investment in the upcoming season.
As the Packers found out last year, capable quarterbacks who have a complete understanding of a high-volume offense like McCarthy’s are hard to come by. With a Super Bowl-caliber roster, why would they give one away?