It’s telling that, in a year when the NFL once again has a handful of quarterbacks with record-setting numbers on their resumes, the biggest battle for a starting job was perhaps the one between three also-rans in Minnesota.
Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel or Josh Freeman is not going to lead the Vikings to glory, but the three at least provide an equal spread of mediocrity to choose from. Other teams are instead stuck with all or nothing — and in the case of the Green Bay Packers, the sudden loss of all (Super Bowl MVP, three-time Pro Bowler, four 4,000-yard passing seasons, 34 touchdowns a year over the past five seasons, 3.72 touchdown-to-interception ratio) in Aaron Rodgers going down with a reported collarbone injury means the team is really ready to experience nothing under center.
Rodgers was hurt in Monday night’s loss to the Bears with what was at first called a shoulder injury to his non-throwing arm. Several reports indicate that the injury is most likely a broken collarbone, though, which would sideline Rodgers for at least a few weeks and likely leave him stiff and limited upon his return.
In his place for much of Monday’s game was Seneca Wallace, whose high point in the NFL so far is starting eight games for Seattle in 2008. His performance Monday was underwhelming, and his pedigree suggests that it’s not going to get much better. He seems fated for that corner of sports history where his interesting name gets him on a list of collector’s cards, his presence in games indicating his team has fallen on truly troubling times.
The Packers are in such times. The only other quarterback on their roster is Scott Tolzien, on the practice squad, although there were reports that the team would try to snag Matt Flynn off waivers, where he was recently jettisoned by the Bills. Flynn had one incredible game for the Packers in 2011, when he filled in for Rodgers and threw for 518 yards and six touchdowns.
But Flynn’s star turn that night was similar to the numbers Cassel himself put up in New England when Tom Brady went down at the beginning of the 2008 season. With pieces aplenty and the offense simple, the quarterbacks found initial success in proven systems. They were asked not to do too much and were able to produce before the league caught up or an entire team was placed on their shoulders. (Rodgers had 45 touchdowns and just six interceptions that year, plus the highest yardage total of his career — 4,643 — which suggests Flynn was a nice-fitting cog for one week in a well-oiled machine.) Both Cassel and Flynn struggled when given a team of their own, showing that it does take talent to run even a good system.
Simply put, the Packers are in a tough spot, but they’re not there by any error. They’re far from the only team riding an incredible arm with no other options — teams that say it’s the starting quarterback or bust. Brady is again in that position in New England, as is New Orleans with Drew Brees or Denver with Peyton Manning. Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Indianapolis also have few resources if they lose their centerpiece, and the list goes on — but those teams would prefer it that way. Given the choice between capable options and a team clearing the deck with often only one quarterback of questionable talent behind the starter, teams will take the thin staff and pin their season on the good starter every time.
The good news for Green Bay is that Rodgers’ injury could be limited to three or four weeks (or not — but let’s go with optimism). With the Packers in a tight NFC North that has the Lions, Bears and Packers all at 5-3 right now, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. But Green Bay does have the Eagles, Giants and Vikings coming up in the next three weeks, and the Packers also have time to retool now that they know they’ll be going into the next game without Rodgers, as opposed to Monday, when Wallace had to jump in on the fly.
The Packers may be able to grab Flynn, who, despite his issues with other teams and injury problems, has shown he can run the Green Bay offense. If not, they can adjust their approach to work with Wallace. They’re also not as hopeless in the run game as they’ve been before, with Eddie Lacy and his 150 yards on the ground on Monday a desperate but doable option for a team that will be shaking the can upside down for offense.
Rodgers’ loss is a big one, but if a team had to pick a type of injury and stretch of the schedule to lose an all-or-nothing option at quarterback, this is one of the better scenarios.
Teams cringe when the franchise quarterback goes down and there’s no one behind him even close to being able to carry the load. But there’s a reason these quarterbacks have to be in games for their teams to excel. Quarterbacks like Rodgers are really, really good, and with the chance they provide of having an offense that’s a cut above comes the risk that losing the key piece will mean that offense wilts. The Patriots saw that in the most frustrating of ways in 2008, but they still almost made the playoffs — and this Packers team, which just needs to weather three or four games, should be deep enough elsewhere to get through the storm.
That being said, the Vikings do have a lot of quarterbacks. Maybe Green Bay should give Cassel a call.