The Green Bay Packers might have something in Brett Hundley.
After sealing his spot on the 53-man roster last week against Philadelphia, the rookie quarterback finished the preseason on a high note with his four-touchdown performance driving the Packers’ 38-10 win over the New Orleans Saints in front of 73,863 at Lambeau Field on Thursday night.
The former UCLA quarterback entered the game early in the second quarter with the Packers trailing 10-0 and proceeded to lead the offense on three consecutive scoring drives. Their 38 unanswered points came on the shoulders of Hundley completing 16-of-23 passes for 236 yards and four touchdowns.
The Packers traded up into the fifth round to draft Hundley last May, seeing a raw but talented project to develop behind MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Scott Tolzien. He looked green during the summer, but has improved significantly during the final two weeks of training camp.
After a shaky start, the 6-foot-3, 226-pound quarterback finished the preseason completing 45-of-65 passes for 730 yards, seven touchdowns and one interception. His 129.7 passer rating and seven touchdown passes trump the other six quarterbacks who were taken in this year’s draft. In fact, that rookie class has combined for a 71.0 passer rating with only five touchdowns against seven interceptions in the preseason.
The first two overall picks, Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston (23-of-47 for 311 yards with two interceptions) and Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota (21-of-30 for 326 yards with one touchdown and one interception), will be starting in Week 1 following far less impressive exhibition debuts.
“Brett Hundley is a heck of a football player,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “I just really like his approach, the way he's gone about it. He's picked it up quickly and done some things, you know (he needs) those reps as a young player so really the last two weeks have been huge for Brett just for the fact that he's been able to get out there and play, see some different things.
“He's performed very well. I think he's off to an excellent start.”
The Packers rested most of their starters with Rodgers, running back Eddie Lacy, receivers Randall Cobb (shoulder), Ty Montgomery (hamstring) and Davante Adams and the starting offensive line all taking in the game from the sideline.
Even Tolzien played only three series in his first appearance since sustaining a concussion against Pittsburgh two weeks ago. After going three-and-out on the first two possessions, Tolzien exited after throwing an interception to Saints cornerback Kyle Wilson, short-circuiting a 10-play, 68-yard drive.
The release of fourth-string quarterback Matt Blanchard on Tuesday meant the rest of the game belonged to Hundley. There was a small hole to work out of after Green Bay’s defense got off to a slow start in allowing the Saints to score on their first two series.
Hundley drove the offense 27 yards on his first series to set up Mason Crosby’s 54-yard field goal and put the Packers on the board.
On the next series, Hundley got the offense into the end zone. After picking up a first down with a 13-yard scramble, Hundley hit Jeff Janis on a slant route for a 14-yard touchdown to cap a seven-play, 56-yard series and tie the game at 10 just before halftime.
He came right back in the third quarter and threaded a pass to undrafted rookie Larry Pinkard on a slant route that the receiver took for a 77-yard touchdown.
Early in the fourth quarter, Hundley connected with Myles White for two fourth-and-goal touchdown passes to boost the Packers’ lead to 31-10. The offense scored on six of Hundley’s nine meaningful series.
“That’s really Brett just being the quarterback he is and seeing the defense for what it was and making a good call,” said White, who had four catches for 46 yards with his two scores. “I think he’s made great leaps and bounds. You can tell he’s going to be a great player and he’s under arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks, if not the greatest.”
The performance came less than a week after Hundley completed 71 percent of his passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles. It’s a strong end to a summer that began with Hundley splitting third-team offensive reps with Blanchard.
Coming from UCLA’s spread offense, Hundley faced a steep transition into the Packers’ no-huddle offense. Erratic during minicamp, Hundley took a significant leap forward with his footwork and timing once training camp started.
“I think just seeing from where I was in OTAs, I mean everybody, I can attest it, I was swimming out there,” Hundley said. “But, now, I feel a lot more comfortable with the offense, I’m able to make more reads, make my checks. The coaching staff has helped a lot with the play calls. It’s just an awesome experience to be able to see the growth and have it come to fruition.
Hundley demonstrated poise during the preseason and a good feel of the pocket working with the second- and third-team offensive lines. He cut down on the turnovers and maximized his big-play opportunities. Athletic enough to scramble, he rarely panicked and went through his progressions before running.
It didn’t look like a certainty the Packers would keep three quarterbacks on their 53-man roster early in camp, but they have no other choice now. In a league where veterans such as Michael Vick and Rex Grossman are getting dusted off for the umpteenth time, the Packers seem to have found a gem to polish.
“The kid is smart,” said running back Rajion Neal, who had 40 total yards. “Just naturally how much he loves playing the game and just how effortless he can get into it and get soaked up. He did a great job. As you see he brings a different element with the running. I think he played well, man. Comfortable. I think the guys respect him in the huddle. I know I do.”
The Packers had some lean years at quarterback behind Rodgers. Over the last four seasons, the primary backup job has been shared among Graham Harrell, B.J. Coleman, Vince Young and Seneca Wallace. Two years ago, Rodgers’ broken collarbone forced them to bring back Matt Flynn off the street and start him two weeks later.
Their current situation appears to be the strongest since McCarthy took over in 2006 with Tolzien as the No. 2 and Hundley as the developmental third. With a full offseason in the team’s quarterback program, they appear capable of handling the team’s complex offense.
The Packers have some difficult decisions coming up. They will need to trim their roster to 53 by 3 p.m. CT on Saturday. One position they won’t have to consider much is quarterback, where it appears they’ve found something special in Hundley.
Now, the 22-year-old will sit back and watch the NFL’s reigning MVP do what he does best.
“I’ve had a CD of Aaron Rodgers since I was young, and I would just watch him, just watch every throw,” Hundley said. “And then I’m on the side next to him, I’m his partner in practice and stuff. And after games, now you have Mark Sanchez, Drew Brees come up to you and say something to you, say ‘Great job’ and ‘Good luck in your career.’ It’s awesome. It’s an awesome experience.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.