In a quarterback-driven league, the Packers were as strong, if not stronger, than any other team at quarterback in 2011.
Not only did they have potential league MVP Aaron Rodgers breaking records left and right, but they also had a competent, reliable backup in Matt Flynn who showed he’s capable of beating a playoff team.
It may be difficult to replicate that 1-2 punch at the position for some time, but that will be Head Coach Mike McCarthy’s challenge in the coming years so that the team’s fortunes won’t hinge entirely on Rodgers’ health.
With that, here’s a look at what the Packers have at quarterback right now, and what the immediate future holds.
Aaron Rodgers—A season that is expected to culminate with the NFL’s MVP award this weekend was one for the ages.
Rodgers set a league record with a 122.5 passer rating in the regular season, which included a league-record streak of 12 straight games with a 100-plus rating. He set single-season franchise records for passing yards (4,643), TD passes (45), completion percentage (68.3), and most three-TD games (10) and 300-yard games (eight). He also tied the franchise record for lowest interception percentage at 1.20 (six INTs in 502 attempts).
All that is, in part, what made his season-low 78.5 passer rating in the playoff loss to the Giants so baffling. It was very hard to see that coming. Give the Giants credit, but a half-dozen dropped passes prevented Rodgers from finding any rhythm and contributed to his missing a couple of throws he normally made with his eyes closed.
Think of it this way. All else being equal, if his 26-for-46 playoff performance becomes 32-for-46 with a half-dozen drops being caught, Rodgers’ completion percentage in that game goes from 56.5 (second worst of the season) to 69.6, or far more in line with his regular-season average.
But that’s obviously water under the bridge. One of the most important things Rodgers did this past season was quell any fears about being concussion-prone after his two concussions in 2010, the second of which sidelined him for a game.
In the 2011 regular season, Rodgers ran the ball 60 times, just four fewer than the year before, and he was sacked 36 times, five more than in 2010. In other words, he was in as much “danger” this past year but never got hurt. That’s a comforting thought heading into 2012.
Matt Flynn—The former seventh-round draft pick showed his first NFL start, in New England in 2010, was no fluke. He got his second start in the 2011 regular-season finale against Detroit and not only won the game this time, he set single-game franchise records for passing yards (480) and TD passes (six) in a performance that likely earned him a lucrative free-agent contract from a quarterback-needy team this offseason.
Flynn took advantage of the opportunity to learn the position under McCarthy and alongside Rodgers and has earned a chance to start somewhere. Unfortunately for the Packers, Flynn is no longer under contract, so the value the Packers will recoup for losing him could be just a compensatory pick in the 2013 draft, no higher than a third-rounder.
There’s been media speculation for putting the franchise tag on Flynn and then trading him for a higher pick or picks, but the Packers run the risk of being on the hook for an eight-figure salary for a backup quarterback if a trade (and subsequent long-term contract for Flynn with his new team) was to fall through.
Graham Harrell—For the second straight year, Harrell spent the bulk of the season on the practice squad and then was signed to the active roster toward the end of the season. Assuming Flynn leaves, Harrell will be given a chance to be Rodgers’ top backup in 2012. For the first time he’ll get help in McCarthy’s quarterback school, though the offseason program under the new CBA will be shorter than in the past, starting a month later than in prior years.
Harrell’s play took a significant step up from his first NFL preseason, in 2010, to this past year. His completion percentage rose from 51.6 to 57.9 and his passer rating climbed from 67.4 to 75.7.
More importantly, he showed something in the clutch, bouncing back from a late fourth-quarter interception against the Colts in Indianapolis. Down 21-13 with less than four minutes left, Harrell completed seven of nine passes on an 11-play, 73-yard touchdown drive that, with a two-point conversion, tied the game with 35 seconds to go. Then, after the Packers recovered an onside kick, he completed two more passes to set up a game-winning field goal at the gun.
That’s the type of performance Harrell will look to build on as he vies for the No. 2 job.
Nick Hill—Signed late last month from the Arena Football League, the left-handed Hill is the new Harrell, for now. His first opportunity to work with the coaching staff will come when the offseason program begins in mid-April, and he’ll have to show the skills that produced 97 touchdown passes last season indoors can translate to the NFL.
Summary—In all likelihood, the Packers will add at least one more quarterback to the 80-man offseason roster. What type of acquisition that is will help formulate the depth chart behind Rodgers.
If the fourth QB is a veteran free agent or middle-round draft choice, that player will provide legitimate competition for Harrell to be Rodgers’ backup. If it’s a rookie free agent, the Packers are likely going with Harrell as the No. 2 and letting Hill and the rookie battle for the No. 3 spot, which could be on the active roster or practice squad.