Dougherty: Packers can't win by playing it safe with Brett Hundley
The Green Bay Packers are in for a tough slog, as you knew they would be.
That’s life in the NFL without Aaron Rodgers.
Not that Brett Hundley was a disaster in his first NFL start. His stats were brutal (39.9 rating, 87 passing yards) but at least he took care of the ball, made some plays with his legs, and if nothing else his team was in the game until late.
Still, that was never going to be good enough against Drew Brees. Coach Mike McCarthy had his new quarterback on training wheels, and while Hundley didn't do anything to lose the game, he didn't do anything to win it, either.
So even on a day when Brees (84.4 rating) threw two bad interceptions in the first half that should have been the difference, he still beat the Packers, 26-17.
"I didn't play well enough, and we didn't score enough points to win the game," Hundley said. "And that's all that matters."
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What also matters is whether this game was a true reflection of Hundley's limitations as a passer, or if McCarthy's play calling restricted his new quarterback.
Really, the fourth quarter told all.
With the game in the balance, Saints coach Sean Payton put his team in Brees’ hands. The future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback came through by keeping drives alive and putting points (10 in the final 11 minutes) on the board.
McCarthy, on the other hand, didn't do the same with Hundley. And when the Packers needed points, in the middle of the fourth quarter, all they got was a three-and-out.
So now McCarthy’s team goes into its bye week at a discouraging 4-3. The coach has a full game of Hundley to study, and an extra week to figure out how to make this work. And whether the Packers do anything over the next couple months will depend on whether Hundley can do more.
“We have to kind of find our way there,” McCarthy said after the game. “I needed to do a much better job with him in the drop-back passing game.”
What McCarthy needs to figure out is a way to give Hundley a chance to make plays without having his quarterback lose the game along the way. Because it’s going to be tough to win playing this safely with this team.
The silver lining Sunday was running back Aaron Jones (17 carries, 131 yards), who's proving to be a player. The Packers are going to have to ride him hard. If they’re worried about his durability at 208 pounds, they might also have to give a shot to another rookie, seventh-round pick Devante Mays. Mays was inactive Sunday.
It's now clear Ty Montgomery's place in the offense is strictly as a change-up back who’s a matchup problem in the passing game. Jones now is the guy and brings an explosive element that this team had been missing.
But defenses will know that, too. So Hundley needs to produce, and he has some physical abilities to work with. He has the strength to pull himself out of trouble in the pocket and enough speed to pick up chunks of yards after he breaks contain. His 44 yards rushing on three carries included a 14-yard touchdown run, and a 22-yard read option.
So McCarthy will have to make even more use of Hundley’s legs to keep drives alive. If Hundley inflicts enough damage that way, defenses will have to take a man out of coverage to spy on him. That will help him throwing the ball.
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As for his passing, Hundley clearly was under orders not to take chances. When he bought extra time he generally ended up throwing the ball away unless he had a wide-open receiver. He showed he can avoid losing the game.
But Hundley’s long completion was only 14 yards. That accurately reflects just how limited he was as a passer on this day. If he’d been dinking and dunking the Saints to death, that’s one thing. But he only had 25 attempts, completed only 12, and he took only two shots downfield: An underthrow of an open Jordy Nelson in the second quarter that was incomplete, and an overthrow of Martellus Bennett that was intercepted in the final minutes.
Maybe the most telling stat was that Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb combined for only five receptions. That’s a losing formula no matter the opponent. It’s on McCarthy and Hundley to get them the ball.
“I’m sure me and Mike (McCarthy) will sit down and go over the game, like we always do, and we’ll talk,” Hundley said. “We’ll figure out what we can do more of and what we don’t want to do going forward, so that’s something that we’ll figure out down the road.”
BOX SCORE: Saints 26, Packers 17
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This week’s bye gives McCarthy and Hundley extra time do to that before the Detroit Lions come to Lambeau Field for a Monday night game on Nov. 6.
Most players head out of town for the bye week, but Hundley said he’ll remain in Green Bay. He should.
The Packers still can make the playoffs — they’re a game behind 5-2 Minnesota as the season nears the halfway mark. But running an offense this close to the vest won’t get it done.
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McCarthy had his reasons for taking it conservatively in Hundley’s first start. When you open things up for a young quarterback, you’re also inviting game-losing mistakes. But the coach has to remove the training wheels and live with the results.
"It sucks as an offense to lose a great quarterback like (Rodgers),” Hundley said. “But as a backup I’ve been learning from (Rodgers) for three years, and all I have to say is, don’t write us off.“