Silverstein: Brett Hundley, rest of offense will have to share burden of replacing Aaron Rodgers
MINNEAPOLIS – Even if there’s a slim chance Aaron Rodgers could play football again this season, the Green Bay Packers belong to Brett Hundley now, and their playoff fate will depend on whether the weight on the quarterback's shoulders can be distributed more evenly around the 53-man roster.
You can assume that the right collarbone fracture Rodgers suffered midway through the first quarter of a 23-10 loss Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium requires three months recovery time and the next time he picks up a football free agency will have begun.
It’s both a worst-case scenario and a likely outcome.
The Packers will know whether Vikings linebacker Anthony Barr’s hit will require Rodgers to have surgery or knock him out for the rest of the season – or both – when he undergoes more tests this week.
The fact the club even mentioned Rodgers being sidelined for the year when it publicly addressed his injury means there’s a strong possibility his season is over.
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Simple math says it’s a minimum six-to-eight-week recovery – Rodgers missed seven weeks when he broke his left collarbone in 2013. Because it's his throwing shoulder this time, there are many variables that will affect his return, not the least of which is regaining arm strength.
So, the focus turns to Hundley, the 2015 fifth-round pick.
But it’s not just a matter of plugging him into the lineup and expecting him to run the same offense Rodgers did.
Coach Mike McCarthy spent nearly a decade building his offense around Rodgers, trying to add more and more responsibility to the quarterback position so that he could take advantage of every drop of the future Hall of Famer’s brilliance.
Every year, Rodgers used the off-season and training camp to find out how he could best use the players around him and take his game to a higher point than the previous year.
“It’s a process with Aaron in there at the beginning of the year,” receiver Davante Adams said. “You’ve got to learn that team, learn the system and what works best for you. What works for Brett might not be the same as A-Rod, so we all have to learn and transition.”
Hundley had 27 regular-season and postseason snaps under his belt when he replaced Rodgers for a third-and-9 play at the Packers 39 with 6 minutes 57 seconds left Sunday.
All week, McCarthy had prepared Rodgers for the Vikings’ formidable defense, studying the matchups Rodgers might exploit, highlighting plays they both like and testing the plan on the practice field. Hundley did not take a single snap the entire week with the No. 1 offense.
“That’s kind of how it works in the NFL,” Hundley said.
Now McCarthy will be doing the same thing for Hundley, only in a modified fashion because Hundley isn’t Rodgers and can’t assume the same burden of responsibility. Not only will the offense look different with Hundley, but the players around him will be a bigger part of the focus.
The burden will be on the receivers, running backs and offensive line to raise their level of play and the defense to make more big plays. The moribund special teams are going to have to start performing as well.
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“We’ve got such a good team,” tight end Lance Kendricks said. “There’s no reason we can’t still be a successful team. We’re still a talented team. It’s hard to say we’re out of it.
“I think we need to focus on the Saints and then get to the bye week. It couldn’t come at a better time. It will be a good opportunity for Brett and us to take a step back and focus on what he does best.”
The Packers are so decimated by injury – they started the day with three starters in the secondary inactive and then lost five players, including three starting offensive linemen – that the only way they had a chance to win Sunday against the Vikings was if Rodgers were healthy.
Hundley was a sitting duck much of the day and when he did have time he was his own worst enemy, firing errant passes all over the field. It was surprising he didn’t scramble more given his running ability, but he seemed dead set on trying to run the offense as called.
“I tried to make the most out of the plays and run the offense,” Hundley said. “We were calling good plays, we just didn’t’ execute. Like Aaron, I wanted to make my reads and throw the ball and if it wasn’t there run out and make something happen.”
But Hundley ran only once for 3 yards. Sitting behind a fluctuating offensive line, he completed 18 of 33 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown with three interceptions for a ghastly 39.6 rating.
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Part of the discussion this week with Hundley will be how to buy time in the pocket, how to adjust protection and how to develop timing with his receivers.
As the No. 2 quarterback, he rarely worked with Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams, Randall Cobb and Martellus Bennett in training camp. He almost never worked with them during regular-season practices because he was always running the scout team.
“We need to get comfortable with Brett,” Nelson said. “Brett’s got to get comfortable with us now, which I think he will. (His reps in practice) will change this week and going forward we’ll get comfortable with him, coaches will get comfortable with him.
“Obviously, he’s going to play the game differently than Aaron, so we have to figure out what he wants, and we’ll go from there.”
McCarthy’s job will be devising game plans that best fit Hundley but give players like Nelson, Adams, Cobb and rookie running back Aaron Jones an opportunity to be bigger parts of the offense. If it means adding read-option or reducing the amount of spread, then McCarthy must do it.
If a short passing game complemented by a heavy dose of Jones is the answer, McCarthy will have to go to it. If Hundley responds better to having two tight ends in the game, then he’ll have to lean that way.
“Every quarterback is different in how they prepare for the game and what they like on play calls,” Hundley said. “So, Aaron likes certain things, and I like certain things. I’ll be better, especially with a week to prepare.”
If Hundley isn’t up to the challenge, then McCarthy will have to dole out more responsibility to the running game or consider No. 3 quarterback Joe Callahan, whom McCarthy said would be signed off the practice squad this week.
McCarthy’s biggest mistake would be assuming Hundley can do everything Rodgers did at the line of scrimmage. It takes years for a quarterback to anticipate where the blitz is coming from and get rid of the ball before a blind-side blitzer hits you in the back.
Hundley fell victim to several of the latter and it killed some drives.
“I have confidence in Brett Hundley,” McCarthy said. “More importantly, it’s how it all fits together. We are going to have strengths as an offense and we are going to focus on those, look at the matchups of our opponent and go get it.”