Aaron Rodgers vs. Peyton Manning: It’s a marquee matchup of premier passers, and it’s sure to be a highlight when Green Bay visits Denver in a battle of unbeatens on Sunday night. Or will it?
Scott Tolzien knows not to take anything for granted in the NFL. The Packers’ No. 2 quarterback found out in 2013 how quickly injuries can turn the depth chart upside down at the game’s most vital position. It’s why Tolzien and Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler will need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice Sunday if something happens to either of the big-name starters.
“That’s the beauty of that position,” Packers quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said of the backup QB role. “You don’t know when it’s going to come. It could come on the first play, it could come on the last play.”
In 2013 for the Packers, it came in the first quarter of their Nov. 4 game against the Bears at Lambeau Field, when Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone. Backup Seneca Wallace was ineffective and Green Bay lost 27-20. The following week against the Eagles, Wallace sustained a groin injury on the game’s opening drive and Tolzien — who had been promoted from the practice squad just a few days earlier — suddenly found himself thrust into his first NFL game and put in charge of running the Packers’ offense.
Tolzien, who starred at Wisconsin and signed with the Packers before the 2013 season after two years as an understudy with the 49ers, did as well as could be expected. He completed 24 of 39 passes for 280 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions in a 27-13 loss to the Eagles. Tolzien started the next game against the Giants, hitting on 24 of 34 passes for 339 yards but throwing three interceptions in another 27-13 loss. He started the following week against Minnesota but was relieved by Matt Flynn in the second half of an eventual 26-26 tie, and hasn’t appeared in a regular-season game since.
“He was thrown into the fire and I thought he did a darn good job for a young guy,” Van Pelt said. “New to the system, thrown to the wolves right away, he came in and did a very nice job. His development since then has been very impressive.”
Tolzien was inactive for the Packers’ first 15 games in 2014 and dressed but did not play in the season finale. When Flynn exited via free agency during the offseason, Tolzien inherited the No. 2 role and made a solid preseason showing.
“Some of his mechanics have changed; we worked on his footwork and his release and I think his velocity has increased over the years, as well as his accuracy,” Van Pelt said. “It takes a while to get this system down, the footwork, the quarterback play, but he’s a guy who definitely has put the work in and you can see the results.”
Van Pelt, a standout college quarterback at Pittsburgh who spent nine seasons with the Buffalo Bills but played in only 31 games, can relate to what Tolzien is experiencing in his backup role. If the Packers were to lose Rodgers to an injury, Van Pelt is confident Tolzien could step in and do a competent job.
“You have to prepare every week like you’re the starter and he does, and that’s critical for the backup,” Van Pelt said. “Not only do you have to be there in the support role for the starting quarterback, at the same time you’re not getting many reps during the week but you’re expected to go in there and perform like the starter if he does happen to break a shoelace and come out of the game. There are few people who can really do that and Scott is a guy who can handle that.”
Tolzien, a 28-year-old native of Rolling Meadows, Ill., spoke with Press-Gazette Media about his role with the Packers:
Were you a Bears fan back during your high school days in suburban Chicago?
I was actually a Packers fan. My family was Bears fans and I was kind of the lone wolf.
Did you ever imagine you’d end up in Green Bay?
You can never predict the future. They were always my favorite team growing up, but I lucked out. Circumstances worked in my favor and I ended up here.
You spent a couple of years on the 49ers’ roster, playing for Jim Harbaugh and behind Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick. Was that a good way to break into the NFL?
Yeah, I had two good years there. We won a lot of games and I learned a lot, it was a great experience. Even just living on the West Coast, it was a great life experience. I wouldn’t trade my path for anything.
That path led you to Green Bay, playing behind Aaron Rodgers in the system here. Do you feel fortunate with how things turned out?
For sure. I every day try to not take that for granted. It really is a privilege to be in this organization, it’s a first-class organization, from the coaching staff, to the front office, to the guys in the locker room. Just good people all around.
What’s it like being Aaron Rodgers’ understudy?
To be able to learn from Aaron every day, that’s a powerful experience. I’ve been fortunate to be in those shoes.
What’s it like in your quarterback room, working with Aaron and Brett Hundley?
It has been a learning experience. When I first got here it was Aaron and Seneca (Wallace) and then it was Matt Flynn and now it’s Brett. Bottom line, I’ve learned it’s always been a great room. Guys have gotten along well together and gone to great lengths to help one another out. So that’s what I’m trying to do in my third year here, help Aaron and help Brett, and in return they help me. It’s a great partnership and kind of unique in that regard.
You were kind of thrown into the fire after Aaron’s injury in 2013. What was that experience like?
Everything happened so fast. I was on the practice squad for the first eight weeks of the season and then, the same week I got bumped up onto the roster, I ended up playing three quarters of the game (after Wallace was injured). In hindsight you realize that was a great experience, too. There’s no substitute for game experience. You can make mistakes in practice but when you make them in a game, you truly learn from it. And it’s also a confidence booster. I was thrown into the fire, did some good things, did some bad things, but ultimately, you build confidence through playing in a game and I still use that in my back pocket.
How are you a different quarterback now than you were then?
This is my third year in the system, so you’re more mature, you know the system better, you know the guys around you better. And I’ve been able to watch a lot of football, both in practice and in games. That being said, you’re constantly trying to get better. You have to work at it every day; you can’t just assume you’re going to get better just by being here.
Have your mechanics changed, are you throwing the ball better now?
You’re always tweaking things here and there; your blueprint really doesn’t change too much. I think my footwork has gotten into more of a rhythm with the routes, the timing of that, which I do think is a fundamental of the position. Every year you’re trying to improve on a couple of things and I think I’ve progressed nicely, but you’re always trying to get better every day.
You were quoted earlier this year likening Aaron to Michael Jordan. How are they similar?
Their competitiveness, the way they lead their team, the way they want the ball in their hands when the game’s on the line. Just the confidence that they exude, I think it radiates through the locker room. It’s contagious.
Aaron Rodgers vs. Peyton Manning: How do you compare the two?
Both future Hall of Famers. Great leaders, great competitors … it’s going to be fun watching them compete against each other.
Do you think Manning still is capable of leading a team to the Super Bowl?
Everyone realizes it’s still Peyton Manning. You’ve got to prepare as if he’s one of the best, because he’s earned that right.
What’s it like being a backup quarterback? You want to play, but you know that if you are playing, then something bad probably has happened for the team. How do you reconcile that?
The bottom line is, I have to focus on what I can control, and that’s preparing as if I’m the starter: knowing the game plan in and out and getting the most out of the mental reps throughout the practice week.
Do you think you’re ready to be a No. 1 quarterback in the NFL?
Yeah, that’s ultimately what you’re preparing for. That’s obviously my goal. You need to do that. If you prepare like the starter, you’re pushing guys around you, and it’s a healthy thing. That’s the competitor in you. You’ve played this game since you were little and you want to keep playing.