GREEN BAY – A few weeks ago, Aaron Rodgers found himself with a little mid-week free time, so he decided to take a closer look at the quarterback situations for the NFL’s other 31 teams. The Green Bay Packers quarterback and possible NFL MVP wasn’t seeing how he measured up against the rest of the league; rather, he was scouting potential free-agent landing spots for his friend and backup, Matt Flynn.
As he went team-by-team, then considered the college quarterbacks who could be available in the April NFL Draft, Rodgers began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, Flynn wouldn’t find a megabucks unrestricted free agent offer out there and might wind up returning to Green Bay in 2012.
While Rodgers was well aware of how much Flynn wants to have a chance to be an NFL starter himself, there was a selfish part of him that hoped they’d get another year or two of working together.
“Not going to happen, I don’t think,” Rodgers said during his weekly radio show on ESPN Milwaukee and ESPN Madison on Tuesday, two days after Flynn completed 31 of 44 passes for franchise records of 480 yards and six touchdowns in a 45-41 victory over Detroit in the regular-season finale. “Going into the game I think we maybe had a 50/50 shot; now I don’t know if we have any shot.
“It’s always good when you can have a couple good quarterbacks on the roster just in case something happens to the starter, but I think myself and the staff and the guys on the team would love to see Matt get an opportunity to play and be a starter.”
Based on what Flynn did against the Lions, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that he’ll get that opportunity. While a handful of teams will solve their quarterback quandaries with draft picks – beginning with presumptive No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck of Stanford – Cleveland, Seattle, Kansas City, Jacksonville, Miami, Washington, and perhaps Arizona or New York Jets all figure to have varying degrees of interest in finding a new quarterback.
“I’m not really thinking about that. There’s too much ahead for this team right now to speculate on anything past this season. That’s something I’m not going to fall into the trap of doing,” said Flynn, who in two career starts and various mop-up appearances has now completed 82 of 132 passes (62.1 percent) for 1,015 yards with nine touchdowns, five interceptions, 13 sacks and a 92.8 passer rating. “Preparing for the game I looked at as just one game, I didn't look at it as trying to prove anything to anybody. Or trying to prove myself to the rest of the NFL. I didn't look at it like that. There's a lot ahead for this team. That made it a lot easier to not look ahead and to just – it's kind of cliché – just take it one week at a time. That was my mindset.”
Flynn’s teammates didn’t need a record-setting game to be sold on his potential as a starter, having seen what he did against New England on Dec. 19, 2010 with Rodgers sidelined with a concussion. In that game, Flynn was 24 of 37 for 251 yards with three TDs and one INT (100.2 rating) in defeat.
“The kid can win games. I think a lot of people forget he won a national championship at LSU,” said wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who came in with Flynn in the 2008 draft class. “I think people are starting to see why.
“You can see it in practice, but practice is practice. We could see it when it came to preseason games. You go back and look at his rookie year when he won the backup spot, he made plays. He’s a playmaker, he wins games. We knew he was going to play well, but for our offense to perform that way, it’s fun. We’re so excited for him, I don’t think anyone will understand.”
“(He) got himself on film. This is a business, and when it comes to that, you have to get on the field and make the most of your opportunities.”
One of the interesting twists on Flynn’s impressive performance was that coach Mike McCarthy, in an effort to keep Rodgers involved despite deciding to deactivate him, allowed Rodgers to assume the play-calling duties in the first half.
“He had 24 points on the board (as a play-caller at halftime), so I think he’s off to a good start. He’s got a bright future in coaching,” McCarthy joked. Asked how he came up with the idea, McCarthy replied, “I was thinking about it Monday, watching the game tape (from the Packers’ Christmas night victory over Chicago). Monday night is usually when I move on to the next opponent, and I thought, ‘You know, I’m going to have Aaron call this game.’ And I talked to him early in the week about it, and he was excited about it. And it served its purpose. (I) just wanted him to prepare like he was playing and he did a good job calling the game.”
Going with the no-huddle exclusively and using primarily the Zebra (three wide receivers) and Tiger (two tight ends) personnel packages, Rodgers spent the final few days before the game putting together his call sheet and talking with Flynn about which plays he liked best. According to NFL rules, the in-helmet headset stays on until there are 15 seconds left on the play clock, so Rodgers was able to communicate with Flynn until then.
“I’m not interested in coaching above the high school level, but it was fun to be a part of some of the play-calling,” Rodgers said Tuesday. “Matt and I had talked about a number of things he liked or he wanted to see called or he was comfortable if they were called. I made some suggestions to him, made some actual calls into him. It takes a decent play call and then good execution.
“He’s got a good grasp of the offense, so it wasn’t like there’s anything mind-bending that I did or said to him. I just wanted to make sure he felt comfortable with some of the stuff that was coming in. He was able to get us in the right formations and sets and motions. I can’t say I was a natural in my abilities there in the first half, but it was a fun little experience.”
Fun for both players, as it turned out. Perhaps the only drawback to Flynn’s success was the idea it spawned that the two were dubbed by some to be “system quarterbacks,” a term Rodgers took issue with Tuesday.
“That in my opinion has a very, very negative connotation and to me evokes images of game managers who really can’t make all the plays and are in a system where they can just do enough to win and not turn the ball over,” Rodgers said. “It also brings to mind ideas of the Mike Shanahan running back theory, where he kind of believed he could plug anybody behind that zone blocking scheme and that line and they’re going to be effective.
“This offense is not one where you can just plug a guy in and hope he makes some plays. You saw the throws (Flynn) made. He made throws down the sidelines, he made throws up the field, he made accurate throws up the middle. This offense takes a keen understanding of what you’re trying to do. But you’ve got to be an accurate thrower of the football. You don’t throw five touchdowns (as Rodgers did against the Bears) one week then six the next with two different quarterbacks and say it’s the system. That was two pretty dang good quarterback performances to do that and an excellent one on Sunday.
Asked if he felt Flynn’s performance somehow affected MVP voters, who had to have their ballots in by noon Tuesday, Rodgers replied: “I don’t really see how that comes into play when you’re talking about a most valuable player vote. I think the way that we’ve gone about it and the games that we’ve won, I don’t think you can say in any way that we’ve tried to get late points or late yards or late touchdowns. Look at the film. I’m not sure if that’s the case for every team in the league.”
The real question is, on what terms will Flynn depart? The Packers have three starters set to become unrestricted free agents in March – Pro Bowl center Scott Wells, tight end Jermichael Finley and running back Ryan Grant – and the conventional wisdom has been that the team would use the franchise tag on Finley, whom the team failed to sign to an extension during the regular season.
The tight end franchise tag tender is an affordable $5.4 million for 2012, while the quarterback tag is $14.5 million. If the Packers strike a deal with Finley before free agency starts, it would free up the franchise tag to be used on Flynn, so the Packers can get something for him.
It wouldn’t be unprecedented – New England did the same with Matt Cassel before trading him to Kansas City, and the Packers franchise-tagged defensive tackle Corey Williams in 2008 before trading him to Cleveland for a second-round pick. But language the collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association strongly discourages using the tag for the express purpose of trading a player.
Otherwise, the best the Packers can hope for would be a compensatory selection at the end of the third round, the maximum compensation available for losing a free agent. Flynn’s contract with his new team and his performance in 2012 would dictate how high the pick would be.
Whatever happens, Rodgers is certain of this: Flynn will be a starter somewhere else next year.
“Like I told Matt, it (his performance) was a little bittersweet,” Rodgers said. “Sweet in the fact that I felt like a big brother watching him and I felt the same way when he played against New England. He and I are very close and it’s fun to watch him go out there and do the things that we both know that he can do. It’s been a great working relationship. I’ve gotten to see him grow as a player, as a leader, as a quarterback and he has a lot of respect from the guys on this team. I don’t think you expect 480 yards and six touchdowns out of Matt in that situation in those conditions, but he played excellent so I’m really proud of him.
“The bitter part of it, the sad part of it was being close to him and being able to work with him for four years, you can’t help but acknowledge that a performance like that has to get the attention of the league and as we’ve talked wondering how many teams are going to be out there as potential suitors, I think a couple more just might have more opened up and realized not only is this guy going to be available, but he’s better than the guy we’ve got who we think we like.
“So I get slightly offended and I’m sure Matt does as well to call either of us system quarterbacks because I think more than anything what Matt’s performance showed is he’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league right now. It’s not about the system. You saw the throws on the field, it wasn’t like he as dinking and dunking. He threw a screen pass that went 80 (yards) but other than that he was making some big-time throws. You’ve got to say right now that Matt is in the upper echelon of quarterbacks in the league and I’m really happy he’s going to get an opportunity.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.