After a season in which Ted Thompson freely admitted he mishandled the backup quarterback position, the Green Bay Packers general manager can ensure the same mistake isn't made twice by bringing back unrestricted free agent Matt Flynn this spring.
It would be a simple, stress-free and relatively cheap way of keeping history from repeating itself.
"It was bad fortune, and possibly bad planning on my part," Thompson said of his backup quarterbacks in 2013, via Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "That's the way it goes."
Thompson probably learned something of a lesson from the misfortunes his team suffered in 2013.
He spent the entire month of August attempting to nail down Aaron Rodgers' backup, shuffling through both home-grown and recycled options before starting over completely just days before the season opener. It's a process the Packers won't want to replicate this coming summer.
During training camp, Thompson took individual chances with Graham Harrell, B.J. Coleman and Vince Young. All three were eventually released. He then signed 33-year-old Seneca Wallace and assigned former Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien to the practice squad on Sept. 2, only six days before the Packers kicked off the season in San Francisco.
It was a panicky hack-job rarely seen from the Packers' well-respected general manager.
Falling on the sword first was Harrell, a former undrafted free agent and Green Bay's shaky backup in 2012. His limited arm strength and athletic ability set a low ceiling of development for the record-setting quarterback from Texas Tech, and when he once again struggled during the exhibition season, Thompson cut ties on August 24. Harrell spent the rest of the preseason with the New York Jets, but he was out of the NFL for the entire regular season and remains a free agent.
Coleman, a confident, strong-armed quarterback hand-picked by Thompson in the seventh round of 2012 draft, ended his stay as arguably the bigger disappointment. There's little question that the Packers planned on significant development from Coleman during his sophomore season. In fact, you could argue that Green Bay banked on Coleman overtaking the mostly limited Harrell for the No. 2 job.
Remember back to Family Night—the team's annual intra-squad scrimmage at Lambeau Field—when Coleman struggled mightily but Harrell mostly shined. While Coleman threw two inexcusable interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown, Harrell tossed a touchdown pass and led his offense to scores on all three drives.
It was a moment that could have lifted Harrell back into the front-runner's spot behind Rodgers and comforted the Packers brass. But within 48 hours of the scrimmage, the Packers had Vince Young flying into Green Bay to work out and eventually sign a contract.
More so than anything, it was the struggles of Coleman that first necessitated the signing of Young, a 30-year-old washout with a broken career and zero regular-season playing time since 2011. The Packers finally showed their growing panic when Coleman displayed no signs of being a capable backup option.
And so began the vetting process, of which Harrell would start and fail in the third preseason week against the Seattle Seahawks. Coleman would post an overall passer rating of 54.7 in the preseason, and Young would look like an undrafted rookie in the exhibition finale against the Kansas City Chiefs. Three swings, and three undeniable misses for the Packers at backup quarterback.
Yet the failures of both development and evaluation could have been nothing more than a footnote to the Packers' 2013 season. Had Rodgers stayed healthy for 16 games—not an unrealistic projection in Green Bay—Wallace wouldn't have seen the field and Flynn could still be looking for a job.
But as we know, that's not how the season played out.
Shea McClellin's sack of Rodgers on the first series of a Week 9 reunion between the Packers and Chicago Bears fractured the quarterback's left collarbone and set in motion a tumultuous run of play from the backups.
Wallace completed just 11 passes for 119 yards and an interception in an eventual loss to the Bears. A week later, he lasted just one series and five passes during a 14-point loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. His 24 total attempts didn't provide a great sample size, but Wallace appeared to have a dead arm with surprisingly limited mobility.
He's unlikely to be retained for 2014 after needing season-ending surgery to repair an injured groin.
Enter Tolzien, a quarterback without a regular-season pass in the NFL who was summoned to lead a team with playoff aspirations.
The eventual results were encouraging for Tolzien but predictable for the Packers. While the 26-year-old showed an attacking skill set that Green Bay will likely want to develop moving forward, Tolzien threw five picks over three games, lost his one full start against the New York Giants and was later pulled after a lackluster first half against the Minnesota Vikings.
|Packers Backup QBs in 2013|
Even during the season, Thompson shouldered the blame.
"If something went wrong at the backup quarterback position, it's my fault," Thompson said, via Tom Pelissero of USA Today. "It's not somebody else's fault. It's not even one of those quarterbacks' fault. I just didn't get it worked out right."
Flynn eventually righted the ship just enough for Rodgers to save the season in Week 17.
He brought the Packers back from 16 down to tie the Vikings, and his come-from-behind wins over both the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys helped hand Rodgers a 7-7-1 record ahead of the season finale. Overall, Flynn went 2-2 over his four starts and finished with an 86.1 passer rating.
Wallace and Tolzien combined to go 0-2-1, with a passer rating of just over 65.0.
Flynn was certainly far from perfect. The Detroit Lions manhandled Flynn's offense on Thanksgiving, and his mistakes against the Pittsburgh Steelers helped set up a home loss. Even early giveaways against Atlanta and Dallas forced Flynn into comeback mode. He finished with five picks, six lost fumbles and 24 sacks taken.
But in terms of backup play, the Packers couldn't have asked for much more.
Flynn had a passer rating of 125.9 in the first quarter and 122.2 in the fourth. With a solid grasp of the offense from his first four years in Green Bay, he completed 62.0 percent of his passes and averaged 7.0 yards per attempt.
Maybe more so than anything, the Packers and Flynn showed a mutually beneficial comfort level. But it will take some action to continue that relationship into 2014.
Flynn signed a prorated one-year deal back in November, which leaves him as an unrestricted free agent this spring. He may want another opportunity to start, but that market isn't likely to materialize. And if Flynn is to be a backup in the NFL, there's no better place for him than in Green Bay.
That said, the Packers won't have much interest in spending much more than the league minimum to bring back Flynn. It's also possible he could receive a better offer to be a team's No. 2 in free agency.
The Packers may end up letting Flynn walk and pushing their chips to the middle with Tolzien and a potential 2014 draft pick. It's a strategy that has merit—Tolzien is worth developing, and spending another draft pick on the position makes sense—but it also comes with the same inherent danger that Thompson dealt with in 2013.
Banking on progression from Tolzien or the rise of a rookie could put the Packers right back into the situation faced last August. Why take the same risk?
Re-signing Flynn might cost more than Thompson would like, but it would guarantee security and stability behind Rodgers. That's an asset that almost came too late in 2013. Thompson can make it a non-issue for 2014.