Backup QBs face uncertain offseason
The move was unconventional for the Green Bay Packers by most standards.
It had been five years since the last time Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson kept three quarterbacks on the initial 53-man roster. Traditionally, the organization's modus operandi has been to save an active spot and develop a third-stringer on the practice squad.
Last summer, Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien did enough in training camp to convince the Packers' brass to reassess that approach. Tolzien had practice-squad eligibility, but they didn't want to risk losing the University of Wisconsin standout to the waiver wire.
Count Aaron Rodgers as one player who appreciated the gesture. As he embarked upon his second MVP season, it was his daily interactions with Flynn, Tolzien and position coach Alex Van Pelt that made for an even more memorable campaign.
"It was a great room," Rodgers said on his ESPN Wisconsin radio show Thursday. "There's nothing that makes a starting quarterback's life easier than when the quarterback room is situated the way it was this year with those guys with Alex coaching me and getting to work with Scott and Matt all the time."
Rodgers felt a different kind of chemistry among the quarterbacks this year. It started with having Flynn and Tolzien for an entire season instead of a few months. When Rodgers broke his collarbone in 2013, it wasn't until November that Tolzien was promoted from the practice squad and Flynn was re-signed.
The immediate future of either backup is difficult to forecast. Flynn, who'll turn 30 in June, maintained the No. 2 job all season, but was scattershot in limited duty. He finished with a 34.9 passer rating in seven relief appearances.
Tolzien had the better preseason of the two and possesses slightly more arm strength, but was a healthy scratch for the first 15 games of the season. He was finally activated as the third quarterback after Rodgers tweaked his hamstring in Tampa Bay in Week 16.
Tolzien admitted when the players were cleaning out their lockers last month that he doesn't "know how that stuff is going to play out." It comes down to having confidence in your work and hoping it speaks to your long-term potential.
"I'd like to think that I was getting better each and every week," said Tolzien, who made $645,000 for staying on the active roster all season. "I feel good about that. I love it here. Great organization, great locker room. But I also know that as far as getting better, that's an every-year thing. Now, that goes straight into this offseason and trying to get stronger and do anything I can to get better."
Rodgers would like to have both understudies back for 2015, but that choice ultimately lies with McCarthy and Thompson. Neither Flynn nor Tolzien is going to command top dollar. Still, the Packers could be inclined to commit to one and draft-and-develop a young prospect.
They teased that approach last offseason in signing former Boston College quarterback Chase Rettig as an undrafted free agent. He stayed on the roster through the end of August, but barely any snaps trickled down from the three veterans.
Tolzien turns 28 in September, so a final evaluation on his prospects may be near. The team has grown to love his tireless work ethic, an attribute that earned him respect during previous stops in San Diego and San Francisco.
Flynn's familiarity with Green Bay's offense gave him an edge last season. He was drafted into McCarthy's system in 2008 and spelled one of the NFL's finest for his first four NFL seasons before receiving a $10 million signing bonus to sign with Seattle in 2011.
Outside of Rodgers' first-round selection in 2005, Flynn is the only serviceable NFL quarterback the Packers have discovered during Thompson's tenure as general manager. Brian Brohm was a colossal bust in 2008. B.J. Coleman's arm couldn't be harnessed. Graham Harrell couldn't be salvaged.
To be fair, they've taken only three dips into the NFL draft pool in Thompson's 10 years. Could this be the year the Packers invest a third-day pick into the position? They'll get a closer look at the contenders at the NFL scouting combine in less than two weeks in Indianapolis.
The one constant for Rodgers seems to be Van Pelt. McCarthy has yet to finalize his 2015 coaching staff, but his former quarterback pupil at the University of Pittsburgh appears likely to return for a fourth season.
The team blocked one request from the St. Louis Rams last month to speak with Van Pelt and reportedly turned down additional overtures from Chicago and Jacksonville, according to CBS Sports.
"He's an awesome coach and a great person, too," Tolzien said. "I've been extremely lucky to have him as a coach this year. I know everyone in this locker room thinks very highly of him because he's a good coach, smart guy. But also he's a very good person, too."
Rodgers values stability as evidenced when he repeatedly expressed his desire for the organization to find a long-term answer at center. The Packers obliged with Ohio State's Corey Linsley, a fifth-round pick who started all 18 games in 2014.
Rodgers likes the developments he's seen in the quarterback room. Offensive coordinator Tom Clements remains a fixture after his promotion from quarterbacks coach in 2011. Rodgers also sees potential in first-year assistants Luke Getsy and David Raih, whom McCarthy brought on board last offseason.
The quarterbacks and coaches have developed a bond forged in competition. That relationship is highlighted by a simple game they played in practice centered on striking a pylon downfield. A direct hit was worth two points and one if it bounces before contact.
Rodgers and Getsy, a former Akron quarterback, took home the season title and the bragging rights that came with that over the teams of Flynn and Tolzien, and Clements and Van Pelt. The MVP takes a lot of pride in that honor.
The months ahead will go a long way in determining if Flynn and Tolzien get their rematch.
"Both different personalities, but great teammates," Rodgers said. "Those guys are a lot of fun. It would be great to have them back."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.