I am not usually one for the “dramas” of NFL preseason football; however, I was particularly invested in one such unfolding throughout the Green Bay Packers training camp.
I am calling it, “the Great (back-up) QB debate.”
Ted Thompson and Co. haven’t made a habit of occupying a third roster spot for a back-up quarterback — and there was much speculation that after the backup quarterback debacle of 2013, they might be so inclined to keep a third … just for a safety net. However, as training camp unfolded and the preseason games marched on, there was heightened talk about the Packers bypassing that safety net to make room for another worthy candidate at another position of need.
This talk made me anxious for two reasons:
- The Packers just signed QB Matt Flynn to a cost-effective one-year deal, which shored up the backup QB position through 2015. Scott Tolzien, on the other hand, was a late addition to the Packers squad last season and (while generally effective when called upon) has less experience and knowledge of the offense than Flynn.
- I feared the Packers would be forced to cut Tolzien (who, it is no secret, I feel is a much better option at backup moving forward) because of lack of space on the depth chart. My fears were compounded by the fact that Tolzien was ruled to be practice squad eligible again and could easily be scooped up by another team looking to compete with a young, poised and competent guy under center.
I want to preface before going any further: I like Matt Flynn. He kept the Packers afloat in the NFC North race last year when Rodgers broke his collarbone. He rallied them from big deficits against Minnesota and Dallas and seemed to take charge in a way that Tolzien seemed ill-suited to do.
This is all fact to the untrained eye; and while I give props to Flynn for coming back after two failed campaigns elsewhere and picking up the magic where he had left off here in Packers Nation, I do have to say that I whole heartedly believe that he is not the long-term answer at backup QB for the Green Bay Packers.
Yes, Tolzien was thrown into the fire last season and seemed a little out of his element at times. Yes, he made some mistakes and paid for them. Yes, he seemed unsettled in the playbook and meek in the pocket when the pressure was on.
All of those things seemed remedied by Flynn. However, in a head-to-head matchup of tangibles and intangibles now, it would be hard to argue that Flynn earned the job over Tolzien.
- Playbook Knowledge — you’d have to give this one to Flynn on account of his 4 years of experience in Mike McCarthy’s offense. He knows the playbook, is comfortable running the hurry-up offense and can lead the team down the field to score when it is necessary. However, with a full offseason to work in McCarthy’s QB school, Tolzien has shown great improvement in his comfort level with the playbook. He was entrusted to run the no-huddle during the preseason and excelled at managing the offensive unit, even with the 2nd and 3rd team offensive line and wideouts.
- Arm Strength — Tolzien takes the cake over Flynn in this area. With the strong arm that he showed last season, McCarthy was impressed by not only his power but his accuracy. He completed all 5 of his down-the-field throws in a game taking over for Rodgers in 2013 and impressed his position coaches greatly. He’s got a cannon for an arm and is learned how to rein it in a little bit and eliminate the poor decisions and mistakes that plagued him last year. Flynn has a moderate amount of power, but not nearly the equal of Tolzien. His throws are mostly high percentage passes within the 10-yard mark and he doesn’t really push the ball down field as much as we’d like, though he takes less risks because of that, as well.
- Command of the Offense — last season, I would have given this to Flynn as well. However, Tolzien’s improvement has obviously been in more ways than just playbook knowledge and the elimination of poor decisions or rookie mistakes. Flynn looked flustered in most of his preseason snaps. While he did have a few really nice, fluid drives resulting in touchdowns or points on the board, he made some bad calls that led to turnovers or points left on the field, too. At one point, he tried to check the ball down before going through all of his reads (because he felt pressure coming) and threw an interception to a defensive lineman. If there is something that should never be done, it’s throwing an interception to a 275-pound man that is standing six feet from you. It screams lack of downfield vision, anxiousness in the pocket and the inability to extend a play. On the other hand, Tolzien finished the preseason with a 112.0 passer rating, tossing two touchdowns in the final against Kansas City and completing high percentage and bolder passes throughout. He didn’t falter when backed up deep in his own territory, ran the ball effectively and extended plays when needed. He threw bullets to scout team guys like Alex Gillett and Myles White. He was poised, calm and collected and looked like a real possibility to run the 2nd team offense.
I felt the pressure when the team needed to get down to its 53-man roster because I feared that their commitment to Matt Flynn would overshadow the skills and vast improvements that Scott Tolzien has shown this offseason.
However, more guys that intended were put on season-ending IR which freed up a roster spot for the Packers to hold onto Tolzien for another season. I, for one, am glad because I forsee his skills enhancing with another year under Aaron Rodgers, making Flynn’s contract expiration less of a pressing matter heading into the 2015 season.
Tolzien’s age and talent makes him a prime candidate for Rodgers’ permanent backup and with each offseason he spends under McCarthy and Rodgers, he will only grow more accustomed to the ins and outs of the green and gold.
If (knock on wood) Rodgers were to ever spend significant amount of playing time out of the lineup, I’d feel much more comfortable under a surging Scott Tolzien than I do under a just-manage-the-situation Matt Flynn.