GREEN BAY — No one knew quite what to expect from quarterback Brett Hundley in his first start for the Green Bay Packers.
Guess what? We still don’t.
We can, however, start to form an opinion about what coach Mike McCarthy thinks of Aaron Rodgers’ injury-induced replacement. Indeed, McCarthy himself showed what he thought of Hundley with a run-heavy offensive game plan he must have pilfered from one of Vince Lombardi’s old files.
That became readily apparent after the New Orleans Saints took a 19-17 lead over the Packers early in the fourth quarter Sunday at Lambeau Field. If ever McCarthy was going to stray from his ultra-conservative approach, this was the time.
After running the ball extremely well earlier in the game, the Packers offense had gone nowhere against a perennially suspect Saints defense in the second half. The Packers still had a chance, but they were 90 yards from the end zone and had ceded the momentum to the Saints, so they needed to make something happen and make it happen quickly.
Rather than tossing his playsheet aside and letting Hundley air it out, however, McCarthy called sweeps by rookie sensation Aaron Jones on both first and second downs, leaving the Packers with a third-and-9. Only then did McCarthy allow Hundley to throw the ball and he completed a 5-yarder to tight end Martellus Bennett.
That forced the Packers to punt and eight plays later the Saints had a touchdown and a 26-17 victory in a game where the Packers held a 14-7 halftime lead. Hundley’s passing — or lack thereof — contributed mightily to the loss, but we still can’t be sure if that was due to a shortage of talent or a lack of experience because the game plan simply didn’t afford him the chance to win the game with his arm.
Indeed, for as much faith as McCarthy had professed to have in Hundley all week, he didn’t show much faith in him during the game. Hundley said the emphasis in the game plan was taking short drops and, if nothing was there, “just making plays with my legs.”
The result was an offensive approach built around running the ball — by both Jones and Hundley — and attempting short, low-risk throws. When the accounting was done, Hundley completed 12 of his 25 passes for 87 yards, with a long completion of 14 yards.
“Our passing game, we can sit here and pick it apart all we want,” McCarthy said. “Let’s just blame it on the head coach today.”
There is plenty of blame to go around, of course, but McCarthy is a good place to start, especially since Hundley has now been charged with holding the fort until a possible return by Rodgers late in the season. To be sure, McCarthy was walking a fine line in the game. He didn’t want to put a young, inexperienced quarterback in a position to lose the game, but he also wanted Hundley to be aggressive enough to win a very important game heading into the bye week.
“It was a challenge that I didn’t meet today,” McCarthy said. “He didn’t get comfortable in the pocket, and that’s my responsibility. So I did a poor job coaching.”
If you’ll recall, after Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone last week at Minnesota and McCarthy stated resolutely that Hundley was his man, I wrote that McCarthy needed to do two things going forward with the little-used third-year quarterback at the controls: He had to commit to the running game with Jones instead of Ty Montgomery and he had to take the reins off Hundley after basically asking him to hand off against the Vikings.
McCarthy did one of the two as Jones started and ran for 131 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries. But when the Saints concentrated their efforts on stopping Jones in the second half, it was Hundley’s game to win and McCarthy couldn’t pull the trigger on giving him more freedom.
Hundley did attempt one play-action deep ball to wide receiver Jordy Nelson in the second quarter, but Nelson was double-covered and the pass fell incomplete. After that, McCarthy stayed with nickel-and-dime throws until the bitter end, when Hundley’s desperation throw in the deep middle was intercepted.
Not that Hundley did a whole lot to convince his coach/play-caller to expand the playbook. He wasn’t effective throwing from the pocket or on the move. He never let Green Bay’s feared group of wide receivers get in on the action. Nelson, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Geronimo Allison were targeted 15 times and caught only six passes for 54 yards.
Other than running for 44 yards and a touchdown on three carries, the best thing Hundley did was throw the ball away when there was nothing there. He did it often, too.
“The in-the-pocket stuff, he wasn’t comfortable,” McCarthy said. “And frankly I was uncomfortable when I was probably calling some things. We’ve got to kind of find our way there. I need to do a much better job with him in the drop-back passing game. He tried to do a little too much. We tried to guard against it, but he’s competitive, he made some big, big plays with his feet and we’ll grow from that.”
Can Hundley grow enough in the coming weeks to save the Packers’ season? The only way we’ll find out is if McCarthy really does remove the reins.