The third preseason game is normally the domain of starters — a final tune-up near August’s end when, for at least two quarters, you get a real glimpse into what the next four months will hold for your franchise.
It’s rarely a game for rookies to start, especially rookie quarterbacks, and especially in Green Bay — home to reigning NFL Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers. But with injuries on the Packers’ offensive line and at backup quarterback, the stage was set for fifth-round quarterback Brett Hundley to do just that.
Last week’s season-ending knee injury to receiver Jordy Nelson still weighed heavily on the collective conscious of the team. And with left tackle David Bakhtiari (knee), left guard Josh Sitton (ankle) and right guard T.J. Lang (concussion) on the sideline, trotting Rodgers onto the field behind a patchwork line to face the Eagles’ starting defense was not a risk worth taking.
Normally, that would’ve meant that backup Scott Tolzien would be taking his place, but he was out with a concussion.
Enter Hundley, the rookie from UCLA whom the Packers couldn’t pass up in last April’s draft, when he somehow slid down to the 147th overall pick — despite some projections that had him as the third-best quarterback in his class behind top picks Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariotta.
A talented spread-offense quarterback for the Bruins, he’s made steady progress through OTAs and training camp, occasionally flashing the skill-set that could one day make him someone’s starting quarterback. But the Packers’ starting quarterback?
Well, for one preseason game, at least, dream became reality.
Hundley overcame a shaky start that included a pick-six on just his second pass of the game to finish 22-of-31 for 315 yards, two touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 111.6 in three quarters of play. And though Green Bay lost 39-26, Hundley’s play gave the crowd of 74,440 and those at watching at home something to cheer about after Green Bay went down 25-0 in the first quarter.
“It was an awesome experience for me,” a smiling Hundley said afterward. “It was a little different, I’m not going to lie. When you come in with (running back) Eddie Lacy and (receiver Randall) Cobb outside and you’ve got the 1s in front of you, it’s a blessing. I had to transition to it really fast. But the offense helped me out a lot, the offensive line, (fullback John) Kuhn, Cobb, they all helped me out a lot this week and surely when I was out there.”
Cobb wasn’t able to help out for long. He left with a shoulder injury on the Packers’ third offensive play — one that appeared to be a catch but stood as incomplete after Green Bay challenged the play. Though not serious, neither Cobb nor his coaches provided specifics immediately after the game.
The following series ended with Hundley’s interception by safety Walter Thurmond, who made an easy grab once Packers tight end Richard Rodgers fell to the ground. Thurmond high-stepped into the end zone from 28 yards out to put Philadelphia up 18-0.
Hundley admitted he had pregame jitters. How could he not? While the interception didn’t help, he knew enough not to dwell on it.
“You have to have a short memory,” Hundley said. “It’s a trait of a lot of quarterbacks in this league. Nothing’s perfect. Not on the field, not off. You really need to learn how to say, ‘They got me on that one, now let’s come back and play some more football.’”
That he did.
Hundley connected with fellow rookie Ty Montgomery on a short crossing route that led to a 52-yard gain on the next drive. At the start of the second quarter, he found Jeff Janis deep down the left sideline for 29 yards. A roughing-the-passer penalty on that play, along with two other defensive penalties, set up James Starks’ 1-yard plunge that put Green Bay on the board.
While Green Bay’s offense was far from keeping pace with Philly’s high-octane, hurry-up attack, Hundley was clearly finding his comfort zone. Near the end of the first half, he led Green Bay on an eight-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with a 36-yard touchdown pass to running back Raijon Neal on third-and-10. Hundley rolled right and found Neal in the flat. With guard Garth Gerhart leading the way on the screen play, Neal followed him up the right sideline and got a knockdown block from Gerhart at the 15-yard line that let him race in untouched.
“(Hundley) definitely got settled in and more comfortable,” said receiver Myles White, who led the team with nine catches for 89 yards. “You could tell his confidence was growing play by play, and he’s going to be a good player in this league.
“Quarterback is kind of the mirror for the offense, so they always have to remain calm and composed and he did a good job of that.”
Late in the third quarter, Hundley engineered a nine-play, 83-yard drive that ended with another roll to his right, only this time he fired to rookie tight end Kennard Backman, who dove at the pylon for the score.
“I thought he had excellent command of the huddle and the line of scrimmage,” head coach Mike McCarthy said. “He made some adjustments, trusted his feet, his timing playing in the pocket and out of the pocket, which is what you’re looking for. Sometimes young guys take a bit longer to get that. He seemed pretty natural a number of times extending plays. Ball accuracy, decisions, there will be some he will learn from. I thought Brett did a lot of nice things.”
While Hundley appears to have the No. 3 quarterback job locked up, Matt Blanchard went under center to start the fourth quarter and immediately engineered a nine-play, 95-yard drive, which he capped with a perfectly thrown 27-yard touchdown pass to Janis.
“It was just a quick check on our part,” Blanchard, the former UW-Whitewater quarterback, said. “Based on the defense, I thought we could take advantage of it and we did. I saw Jeff in the slot and I was like, ‘Let’s go for it.’ He did a great job getting released and I put the ball in a good spot and he made a play.
“It means the world, these opportunities, especially in the third preseason game they don’t come too often, so I was so happy that they did.”
Blanchard finished 8 of 11 for 87 yards with a touchdown, an interception and an 88.1 rating. It was a showing that could make him a candidate for the Packers’ practice squad.
“I thought Matt kept it going,” McCarthy said. I thought Matt Blanchard played very well. He made the one poor decision on the interception. I’m very proud of our young quarterbacks.”
If all goes well, neither Hundley nor Blanchard will play a meaningful snap this season for Green Bay. But for one Saturday night in August, those preseason snaps meant everything to two young quarterbacks.
W. Keith Roerdink has covered the Packers since 1992. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.