The template for where the Green Bay Packers go from here isn't 2013. It's 2008.
With Aaron Rodgers needing surgery on his broken collarbone and possibly out for the season, coach Mike McCarthy has to re-tool his offense to fit the skills of a backup. Under similar circumstances in 2013 that was Matt Flynn. This time it's Brett Hundley.
It’s natural to think McCarthy will have to become more run-oriented, like he did in '13 when Rodgers missed seven games. But that team had a young, fit Eddie Lacy at halfback. The 2017 Packers don’t have anybody with that kind of size, power and ability. They also have a depleted offensive line.
Instead, 2008 offers the best lesson in how McCarthy might best tailor his offense to Hundley, who's a more talented player than Flynn. That was Rodgers’ first season as Brett Favre’s successor, and McCarthy tried to help him by simplifying his reads and emphasizing getting the ball out fast while remaining a pass-first team.
In that season, Rodgers often had to read only half the field. It wasn’t until ’09 and ’10 that he routinely made backside throws and held the ball longer waiting for things to develop.
McCarthy didn’t put the game on Rodgers’ shoulders that season, though he still ran a pass-heavy offense. Rodgers’ 536 attempts that season were sixth-most in the NFL. But the emphasis was on getting the ball out fast and providing him with simplified reads. The ’08 approach does limit playmaking chances, but it also limits risk.
The Packers went only 6-10 that season but lost seven games by four points or fewer. Playing that way gave them a chance.
That approach also can give Hundley his best chance for success, even if he’s not as talented as Rodgers. Because defenses now smell the blood in the water. They know McCarthy wants to take the pressure off Hundley by running the ball, and you can almost guarantee they’re going to bring linebackers closer to the line of scrimmage and an extra safety to the box to stop the run.
Unlike in ’13, they don’t have to worry about tackling a freight train like Lacy. Aaron Jones has the vision and quickness to make some good cut-back runs, but he’s 208 pounds. The Packers can’t just hammer him at defenses like they did with Lacy in ’13. He won’t hold up physically.
In other words, defensive coordinators are going to force Hundley to beat them.
In ’13, Flynn went 2-2-1 in the six games he finished. Hundley has a stronger arm and better feet than Flynn. Flynn was the more accurate thrower and had a great feel for the offense. We’ll find out about Hundley’s feel in the coming weeks.
In the Packers’ 23-10 loss to the Vikings, Hundley showed some traits to work with even with his terrible passer rating (39.6) and three interceptions. He made a couple plays outside the pocket. He had a nice back-shoulder throw to Jordy Nelson for 26 yards. He made a good play when he started scrambling up the middle and then found Davante Adams with his peripheral vision for a 14-yard touchdown pass.
He stayed poised even after his first pass of the game was intercepted. He stood tall in the pocket despite taking several hard shots. He showed toughness.
The biggest concern is that when he misses throws, he tends to miss high. That’s a problem, because it leads to interceptions. He needs to learn from Rodgers that the best place to miss is to miss low.
The one quality all good quarterbacks share is the ability to play fast. That doesn’t mean they have to run fast. They just have to have fast reactions. They have to read defenses quickly, and when they see an open receiver they have to get the ball out fast.
That will be the ultimate test for Hundley, whether he can play fast enough to thrive. But as he’s trying to get there, McCarthy can help him by going with a quick and simplified passing game. Lots of throws in the flat to Jones and Ty Montgomery. Jordy Nelson and Martellus Bennett over the middle. Emphasize getting the ball out fast, especially playing behind an offensive line that could start this week the same way it finished last week, with three starters on the sidelines.
The good news for Hundley is he won’t be facing as good a defense this week as he did last Sunday. The Vikings have excellent personnel and a really good defensive head coach in Mike Zimmer. Anthony Barr and Harrison Smith are good blitzers and have the speed to get home running stunts and even starting seven yards off the line of scrimmage. That was a really tough team for Hundley to come in cold against.
Can Hundley go .500 in Rodgers’ place? There’s no reason to rule that out at this point. The Packers have been grooming him for this. But some things you can’t know until a guy gets on the field.
The Packers’ pass rush is their biggest problem on defense. They’re not getting home with four guys, and the problem with living by the blitz is that it’s also easy to die that way.
They had no sacks Sunday against a pedestrian quarterback, Case Keenum. They also had only four quarterback hits (two by Clay Matthews, one each from Mike Daniels and Marwin Evans).
That makes it awfully tough on coverage. Daniels, Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry got OK pressure as inside rushers, but on the outside the combination of Matthews, Nick Perry and Kyler Fackrell didn’t do anything to force Keenum into mistakes.
Ahmad Brooks didn’t play because of a back injury, so his return might help the outside rush. And maybe Vince Biegel’s return — he’s eligible to come off PUP this week, and the Packers expect him to start practicing immediately — might add something later in the year.
But you wonder if the Packers should start activating Montravius Adams as well. They drafted him in the third round in large part because of his inside rush ability, but he’s been a healthy scratch the last two weeks.
With Rodgers out, the Packers need to be as sharp in all other areas, and that includes rookie punter Justin Vogel. With Rodgers playing, the Packers usually would at minimum get a first down or two, which can help flip field position. Now it’s up to Vogel to flip field position so he’s not giving opponents easy points. He can’t have many punts like his 26-yard shank early in the second quarter Sunday. That gave Minnesota the ball at the Packers’ 42. It didn’t cost points, because Clark forced a fumble that the Packers recovered. But the Packers don’t have Rodgers now to erase those kinds of mistakes.
Blake Martinez remains one of the bright spots on the Packers’ defense. He jumps off the video with his ability to come to balance and get guys on the ground. He led the Packers in tackles again Sunday (11, including two for a loss), and maybe his best play was dropping shifty Jerrick McKinnon in the open field for no gain on a third-and-six after the running back had caught a swing pass. Those are the plays that get the defense off the field and help win games.
QBs: In his first real relief role, Brett Hundley (39.6 rating) threw three interceptions against one of the NFL’s more talented defenses. He also flashed some ability to make plays outside the pocket. Under tough circumstances, it could have been a lot worse. Grade: C
OL: Three starters (David Bakhtiari, Bryan Bulaga and Lane Taylor) were on the sidelines by game’s end, so injuries were a big factor. But still, Hundley was under siege all game. Grade: F
RBs: Seeing Aaron Jones on the same field as Ty Montgomery only strengthened the case that he should get more carries. Grade: C
WRs: This group runs good routes and catches the ball, but no one made any plays after the catch to help the new quarterback. Grade: C+
TEs: Martellus Bennett had a horrendous drop on the throw when Aaron Rodgers was injured. Grade: C-minus
DL: Kenny Clark and Mike Daniels had good games against the run and pass. Grade: B
LBs: Blake Martinez had another strong game at inside linebacker, but the outside pass rush was MIA. Grade: B-
CBs: Without injured Kevin King (concussion) and Davon House (quadriceps), cornerbacks Damarious Randall, Quinten Rollins and Josh Hawkins didn’t make many plays on the ball and missed too many tackles. Grade: D-
S: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix played a solid game, but at this point the Packers need more. Grade: C
ST: Long snapper Taybor Pepper had a better game than last week, but punter Josh Vogel had a shank and kickoff returner Jeff Janis misjudged a ball that cost field position. Grade: C