For the better part of the last two seasons, the Green Bay Packers have had the luxury of a stable duo atop their quarterback depth chart.
Reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers quickly established himself as one of the game’s best starting quarterbacks, and former seventh-round pick Matt Flynn did enough in a backup role to Rodgers that the Seattle Seahawks spent almost $25 million on acquiring his services this offseason.
Yet for the 2012 season—at least—it appears as if the Packers will not have that same kind of opulence at the quarterback position. The players vying to backup Rodgers next season are laced with question marks, which leaves the position as a legitimate worry for the Packers leading into 2012.
Time will tell whether or not the team’s lack of an established backup will come back to bite the Packers. History will tell us, however, that the Packers are playing with fire with their backup quarterback situation next season.
A couple of recent examples regarding backup quarterbacks stand out.
The first came on a sunny 2008 afternoon in Tampa Bay, Florida, where Rodgers—a first-year starter at the time—was knocked out of a Week 4 contest with the Buccaneers with a shoulder injury. The pain cost Rodgers a series in the fourth quarter, which forced rookie Matt Flynn into the game with the Packers up, 21-20.
Green Bay quickly went three-and-out, gave the Bucs the ball back and watched Brian Griese lead Tampa Bay into position for a field goal. Matt Bryant’s kick split the uprights, and Rodgers then re-entered the game with the Packers down two and a little more than two minutes left.
Rodgers, who the medical staff wanted to bench indefinitely, threw an interception on the Packers’ second play of the drive. Flynn then came in after the Bucs converted the turnover into a touchdown on their next series and proceeded to throw four straight incompletions to essentially end the game.
Flynn certainly wasn’t at fault for the Packers’ loss, but his lack of comfort level leading an NFL offense as a rookie was woefully apparent. Flynn would eventually become ready for that role behind Rodgers, but he was far off early in 2008 as a raw rookie quarterback.
Green Bay’s divisional neighbors to the south provided the Packers’ a worst case scenario for 2012 last season.
The Chicago Bears were well on their way to a second straight playoff appearance in 2011, racing out to a 7-3 mark after beating San Diego in Week 11. But the win proved to be costly for the Bears, as quarterback Jay Cutler would be lost for the remainder of the season with an injured thumb.
The Bears season went into a complete tailspin following Cutler’s injury.
Backup Caleb Hanie compiled a passer rating of 41.8 in the Bears’ four subsequent games, all of which ended in Chicago losses. Coach Lovie Smith then turned to journeyman quarterback Josh McCown, who beat the Minnesota Vikings in the season finale but failed to turn a 199-yard rushing performance against the Packers into anything more than 21 points in a Week 16 loss.
A 1-5 finish to the Bears season turned what should have been another contending football team into one picking in the top 20 of the draft.
When assessing the Packers backup situation, ask yourself this question: Is there enough behind Rodgers for next season to think either of the above scenarios couldn’t be repeated?
As it currently stands, Graham Harrell, B.J. Coleman and Nick Hill are competing for the two backup spots behind Rodgers.
Harrell has two years in the Packers system but seems far from a lock to be the Packers No. 2 quarterback next season. Would he be prepared to play a full game in the Packers’ offense if Rodgers went down with an injury in Week 4? In Flynn’s third year, the Packers nearly upset the one-loss Patriots in a nationally televised game in New England. Is Harrell currently capable—even with another offseason under Mike McCarthy and Tom Clements—to do the same?
Of course, Coleman could pull a Flynn and win the backup job as a seventh-round rookie. But is he any more or less prepared to play significant snaps if Rodgers is knocked out of a game than Flynn was in ’08? Coleman showed a big arm at the Packers’ rookie minicamp this past weekend, but he’s even more raw right now than Flynn was coming out of LSU. The ceiling is higher for Coleman, but there’s plenty more work that needs to be done for the former Tennessee-Chattanooga quarterback to reach Flynn’s readiness as a backup quarterback.
There’s also Hill, a former Arena Football League quarterback the Packers signed after the 2011 season. Experience is a positive for Hill, but his arm is sub-par and he could struggle running the Packers offense as it currently operates. There’s also a fairly substantial transition between the AFL and NFL games.
There’s no easy fix for this potential problem.
I wouldn’t endorse the Packers bringing in a veteran quarterback, if only because their success in grooming young quarterbacks has been proven. The team’s best move long-term would certainly be keeping Coleman and then picking between Harrell and Hill as the roster’s third quarterback.
But the team’s best move doesn’t come without obvious risks. Any kind of injury to Aaron Rodgers in 2012 is a hundred times the loss that it was in 2011, when the Packers could turn to Flynn and feel pretty comfortable about their chances.
Turning to Coleman, Harrell or Hill if the worst case scenario occurs next season doesn’t inspire the same kind of confidence. Keeping Rodgers healthy in 2012 is a much bigger priority given the current status of the Packers’ backup quarterback situation.
Long-term, the Packers do not have a huge problem on their hands at quarterback. But for the 2012 season alone, the question marks surrounding Rodgers’ backups are enough to give pause about the position.