Dougherty: Defense, running game must be there for Brett Hundley

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Hundley (7) fist bumps during practice inside the Don Hutson Center Wednesday, November 15, 2017 in Ashwaubenon, Wis.

Here’s a stat from the latest edition of life in the NFL without your quarterback:

This season, nine teams have had a backup quarterback start at least one game because of injury. Their collective record in those games is 15-21 (.417 winning percentage).

That actually impressed an offensive coordinator in the league.

“Seems like a pretty good record compared to what I’d think it would be,” he said. “(I’d have thought) barely one of out of three.”

The point isn’t to make an easy excuse for the Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts and everyone else who has had its starter go down this year. Franchises have to maintain high standards and prepare for contingencies. That’s what scouting staffs, coaching and developing players are for.

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But it shows the odds teams face when they don’t have their guy. Losing is the rule. Going .500 or better is the exception.

The Colts, for instance, expected Andrew Luck’s shoulder to have healed by the time the season started. It never did. With Scott Tolzien (33.8 passer rating) and then Jacoby Brissett (86.7) at quarterback, they’re 3-7.

Houston was 3-3 and on the rise with Deshaun Watson at the helm. Since the first-round pick’s torn ACL, the Texans are 0-2 led by Tom Savage (62.2). That’s 0-3 if you include Savage’s start in the regular-season opener, after which coach Bill O’Brien came to his senses and elevated Watson.

Oakland lost its only game with EJ Manuel (72.3) replacing injured Derek Carr. That loss, by the way, was 30-17 at home against Baltimore, the Packers’ opponent this week.

Arizona is 1-1 with Drew Stanton (68.1) in place of Carson Palmer, and Stanton’s win was over 1-9 San Francisco.

Miami is 4-5 with Jay Cutler (86.7) and Matt Moore (65.2) starting in place of Ryan Tannehill, who sustained a torn ACL in training camp. They’re as experienced a backup duo as you’ll find with a combined 176 starts in the NFL.

Tennessee is 6-2 with Marcus Mariota but 0-1 with Matt Cassel (55.9). And who did Cassel lose to? Cutler.

And Brett Hundley (69.1) is 1-2 in place of injured Aaron Rodgers for the Packers.

The only two backups forced onto the field because of injury who are better than .500 this season are Minnesota’s Case Keenum (92.6), who is 5-2 in place of Sam Bradford, and Tampa Bay’s Ryan Fitzpatrick (82.6), who is 1-0 for Jameis Winston.

By the way, did you notice those passer ratings? Only one, Keenum, over 90.

The Packers’ NFC North rival Vikings are the lone team to have thrived without its starter. Keenum has managed games well enough (five interceptions in seven games) and allowed the Vikings’ defense to be the difference. Minnesota ranks fifth in points allowed (18.3 points per game) and eighth (80.8) in defensive passer rating. It has some of the best defensive personnel, top to bottom, in the league.

“The things that minimize the quarterback position are a top-10 defense and a top-10 rushing attack,” the coordinator said. “They can keep the heat off that position. If you don’t have one of those two things, you almost have no chance.”

So why is the Vikings’ defense so much better than the Packers’ (No. 18 in scoring, No. 22 in passer rating)? Better drafting and a head coach with a defensive mentality.

As to the draft, Ted Thompson, the Packers’ general manager, has hit big on only one defensive pick since 2012: Mike Daniels.

Vikings GM Rick Spielman, on the other hand, has hit big on three over that time: Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, and Eric Kendricks. Spielman also has a holdover in Everson Griffen who’s as good as anyone the Vikings have on that side of the ball. And three other players – draft picks Anthony Barr and Danielle Hunter, and free agent Linval Joseph – are only a notch below them.

Then there’s Zimmer, who has been running NFL defenses since 2000. Teams generally reflect their head coach, and he’s one of the best defensive minds in the game.

“Minnesota is the perfect team to handle a backup (at quarterback),” the coordinator said. “Not that they have a top-10 rushing attack, but they do have a top-10 defense, and there’s a mentality that allows for less at the quarterback spot than other teams.

“… Minnesota has picked up because the head coach is fantastic and he’s created a (defensive) mentality for the whole place.”

That leaves the Packers trying to buck the odds with neither a top-10 defense nor a top- 10 running game.

“I don’t think they have a chance in hell,” the coordinator said.

Hard to blame him for that conclusion. And if Ty Montgomery were still the Packers’ No. 1 running back, there’d be no reason to argue.

But then the Packers’ rookie running backs came along. With the way Aaron Jones ran before his sprained knee and Jamaal Williams’ hard running against Chicago last week, you have to at least keep open the possibility that coach Mike McCarthy can transform his offense into run-first as winter weather hits.

Against the Bears, Williams showed some traits of a cold-weather back – he ran with power and broke tackles (seven by offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett’s count). If that’s the real him, the Packers still have hope. We also might find out this week whether seventh-rounder Devante Mays (230 pounds) can be a cold-weather hammer. Mays doesn’t have a snap on offense this season.

I’m still skeptical. Jones is out three to six weeks, and that might just be too much to overcome. He was the Packers’ most explosive offensive player after Rodgers went down.

But maybe the rest of the Packers’ running-back draft will help them beat the backup-quarterback odds.

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