Tolzien looks to seize Packers' No. 2 QB job
Scott Tolzien will be the first to tell you the work is far from over.
Sure, the 27-year-old quarterback is taking all the reps with the Green Bay Packers' No. 2 offense. Tolzien's throwing motion has been revamped, and coaches believe the velocity of his passes is up.
In the past two open practices, Tolzien even has guided the unit on efficient 2-minute drives that produced last-second touchdown passes.
On Wednesday, he nearly threaded a touchdown pass to rookie tight end Kennard Backman in traffic on third-and-10. Tolzien finished the job on the next play with a 24-yard strike to another rookie, Mitchell Henry, who made a leaping grab in the end zone as time expired.
Tolzien projects all the traits of a veteran quarterback who has parlayed nearly two years of grooming into an opportunity to be the primary backup to two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers.
Just don't tell Tolzien any of that.
"I was quick to say, that's one throw," Tolzien said after practice. "So there's a lot of negatives out there, too, that you're working on. So the focus is to watch the film and get better from it."
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Tolzien has grown immensely since first signing onto the team's practice squad at the start of the 2013 season. He's no longer the wide-eyed quarterback who was thrown into the fire midway through that season when Rodgers (collarbone) and Seneca Wallace (groin) were sidelined.
Tolzien pulled late-night cram sessions to learn a playbook that was basically "a foreign language." He set a Packers record for passing yards by a quarterback in his first start (339) against the New York Giants, but also threw three interceptions in a 27-13 loss.
He threw five interceptions in three games before the Packers finally turned to veteran Matt Flynn. Tolzien made a strong case for the backup job in last year's preseason with a 112.0 passer rating, but the Packers still tabbed Flynn as Rodgers' backup based on his experience in the offense.
The Packers took a more deliberate pace with Tolzien last season and saw enough in his development to finally part ways with Flynn this offseason. They also offered to more than double Tolzien's pay from $645,000 to $1.35 million in 2015 with $160,000 tied into Tolzien being active as the No. 2 quarterback on game days.
The contract was a seal of approval for Tolzien even if he didn't need the validation. Still, that commitment spoke volumes about the progress the organization felt the former University of Wisconsin quarterback had made in a little more than a year in McCarthy's system.
Tolzien said Wednesday's effort was just "one throw," but his coaches and teammates have started to notice those throws piling up.
"The last two plays of the 2-minute were big-time throws," McCarthy said. "He's taking that step with his opportunities in the OTA practice environment. So he'll continue to work like he always has. At the end, it's the preseason games. That's where you really want to see every player take a jump, especially at the quarterback position. And I have all the confidence that he'll do that."
What has impressed quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt the most is how Tolzien has managed to change his throwing mechanics in one year. The coaches turned on the tape in the spring and couldn't believe the transformation Tolzien made with his footwork and release.
A quicker release has allowed his velocity to increase. Improved footwork has helped establish his rhythm and timing. The Packers brought in competition last month in selecting UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley in the fifth round of the draft, but Tolzien's experience has shown early in OTA practices.
Rodgers affectionately refers to Tolzien as a "gym rat," recalling his first year in Green Bay when he'd pull backup center Garth Gerhart aside to work on snaps and play calls late into the night. Tolzien still is notorious for corralling practice-squad receivers onto the field with him before regular-season games to work on routes.
That's the kind of extra effort that's turned a former two-star college recruit into a determined veteran entering his fifth NFL season.
"Scott's approach is what really separates him from other guys I've been around," Rodgers said. "I think he saw the big picture and the opportunity, and he's put himself in a great situation to make a career for himself. It's just about taking that next step and continuing what he did last year. He played well enough to be on the 53, and improved enough to where they wanted to make him the backup."
Tolzien can relate to what Hundley is experiencing. Two years ago, he "struggled" to pick up all the nuances of the scheme on short notice. Tolzien made it his goal this offseason to better understand all the technical aspects of the offense and come back with a veteran's mentality.
He cautions that the true test for Hundley will come in training camp. That's when hungry reserves will be vying for spots and the game should start to slow for Hundley, who the Packers felt was a steal when they traded up in the fifth round to take him.
Tolzien says he doesn't mind helping his rookie competition. If anything, whatever knowledge he conveys to Hundley or former UW-Whitewater standout Matt Blanchard is information that's being reinforced in his own mind.
If there's one thing that's certain, it's that the quarterback talent behind Rodgers has improved significantly since Tolzien first came onboard. It was less than two years ago that Graham Harrell was struggling to move the offense and B.J. Coleman was throwing balls away on fourth down in team periods.
There's always something to improve upon in Tolzien's world, but so far he's looking the part of the capable backup. This summer, he'll aim to prove he's the man for the job.
"You're looking forward to the preseason because there's a lot of practices leading up to that point," Tolzien said. "And the same way, there's been a lot of meeting time and a lot of position work before we even got onto the field for OTA practices. It absolutely is fun to get out there and play in a situation like that just because that's what's fun for us as players.
"All this meeting time and walk-throughs, it's great to get out there and compete against the defense."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod