Concussed and without a team, Matt Blanchard's journeyman career was at a crossroads this winter.
The former University of Wisconsin-Whitewater quarterback was out of football. Indefinitely.
Injuries had followed Blanchard throughout his first three NFL seasons. In Chicago, he was one of three quarterbacks with the team entering 2013 training camp, but a broken left hand derailed his chance to make the roster. The concussion Blanchard sustained in Carolina's third preseason game last August was different. Scarier. Symptoms lingered, leaving him disoriented for weeks.
Blanchard knew concussions are nothing to mess with. When the Panthers cut him in December, all he had to show for three NFL seasons were two trips to the practice squad and a stint on injured reserve.
Blanchard said he was unsure whether he'd ever re-enter the league, or if another attempt to rekindle his career was even worth it.
"You have those conversations with your family, and my wife," Blanchard said. "We talked, and if things obviously didn't get better, then maybe we'd decide to retire, or you don't play anymore. But things got better, and the more I got into training, the better I felt.
"That drive, that hunger, that love for the game — it doesn't go away. You want to get back out there and play."
Five months after his release, Blanchard was back. By the time the Packers worked him out in April, he had renewed confidence. With coach Mike McCarthy watching, Blanchard looked like the quarterback who led UW-Whitewater to a 45-0 record, including three NCAA Division III national championships.
McCarthy has a track record of identifying talented quarterbacks. With the Packers ready to move on without former backup quarterback Matt Flynn, Blanchard was signed shortly after his workout.
"I'll just tell you what I told him when I met him in April," McCarthy said. "I said, 'Why the hell don't you have a job?' Just after watching his workout and watching film of his time at Carolina, I just think there's a lot to work with as far as his physical talent. The young man's a winner, and he's in a good place. He's getting better each and every week."
For two weeks, it looked like Blanchard might have his best chance at sticking with an NFL team. The Packers kept three quarterbacks on their roster last year. With Aaron Rodgers, Scott Tolzien and Blanchard, the Packers seemed poised to enter their offseason program with only three quarterbacks.
The draft changed that. When general manager Ted Thompson traded up in the fifth round to nab UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, Blanchard's path to a roster spot became murky. Behind Rodgers, Tolzien is a known commodity in Green Bay, and Thompson has a track record of being patient with draft investments.
Now, Blanchard finds himself on a crowded quarterbacks depth chart. He said that won't deter him. His past three years have been a constant exercise in overcoming obstacles.
"I believe if I play at the top of my game," Blanchard said, "that's going to be good enough. If I play really good football — the idea I have in my mind — then I think things will work out one way or the other. I can only control so much, basically. That's my play, and what we do as an offense in the preseason, that's going to be a big impact on things. And training camp, of course.
"I think it sounds simple enough, but playing really good football and putting my best foot forward, I think things will work out."
Building off the momentum from his workout, Blanchard continued playing well during the Packers' organized team activities. His experience — and a veteran's serving of reps — helped him outperform Hundley through minicamp. Now with his third team, Blanchard knows how to quickly learn a new offense.
Of course, the Packers didn't draft Hundley for what he could provide this fall, but for his potential development over three, four years. With Rodgers, the Packers have the luxury of being patient with a project.
Blanchard, perhaps more than anyone, knows what the wrong side of the roster bubble looks like. So he finds himself in an awkward position. Does he help the rookie along? Does he turn a cold shoulder?
Blanchard said he remembers the help from veterans when he first started — from Jay Cutler and Josh McCown in Chicago, from Cam Newton and Derek Anderson in Carolina. It's important to do the same with Hundley, he said.
"You've got to act on the things you believe," Blanchard said, "and I believe that helping the other guys out is going to be more important than me turning the cold shoulder or being standoffish. For me, it doesn't give me much of an edge. For me, if I'm helping somebody else out, if I'm helping Brett out, then that makes me better as a teacher, helping him out.
"It's kind of a paying-it-forward-type thing. He's a good kid. He's curious. Just trying to help him as much as I can. It's a great competition."
Blanchard knows he doesn't have the game completely figured out himself. While he's had mentors in the past, none match Rodgers.
As the 26-year-old tries to show there's plenty of room left for him to grow, Blanchard said he's watching the two-time MVP intently. His mannerisms during practice. His approach off the field. Blanchard wants to soak up all the knowledge he can, he said.
His hope is an excellent offseason will lead to a place he's never been: a 53-man roster. So far, Blanchard believes, he's off to the right start.
"The game is starting to slow down a little bit toward the end (of minicamp)," Blanchard said, "and that's the progress you want to see. You don't want to be kind of at the same place at the start of every week. You want to see progress, and I've seen that. I've seen that growth.
"So that's what makes me happy right now, going into training camp in five weeks. To see that progress, and all the little things in my game."
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