Scott Tolzien shows no fear in taking over for Green Bay

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Tyler Dunne, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Sunday, November 17, 2013

GREEN BAY—The man replacing Aaron Rodgers chooses his words deliberately. He doesn’t show emotion. He’s serious, direct. You wonder if he bleeds.

Scott Tolzien is, indeed, all business.

Yet this question gives him pause. First, his arms are crossed. Then, he scratches his chin.

“What makes me tick?” Tolzien repeats, pausing again. “I would say just being your own person, being comfortable with that.

“You just want to make the most of your opportunities.”

No opportunity gets bigger than what awaits the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback in East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday. Without Rodgers, nursing a broken collarbone, the Packers are in certified survival mode. Win and they’re in the hunt. Lose and they might need to win out. And their quarterback, their general on the front line, is a 6-foot-2, 213-pound league-wide mystery.

Undrafted. Overlooked. Cut by two teams. A player who has spent the 2013 season on the practice squad is, in essence, being asked to save the Packers’ season. Everyone outside of Wisconsin—heck, Brown County, Ashwaubenon, the stadium—is scratching his head.

Is the former Badgers quarterback ready?

To understand this, you must first view the scenario through Tolzien’s eyes. His brother has completed two tours in Afghanistan. He keeps perspective. From there, he’s driven by a 24/7 work ethic. It’s cliché. He gets that. But Tolzien repeats constantly that his preparation feeds confidence, will eliminate pressure.

Back in his hometown, Rolling Meadows, Ill., Dad is not worried.

“I don’t think he goes into the game nervous or feeling pressure,” said Mike Tolzien, Scott’s father. “This is obviously a big stage, on the road, in a game that they have to win. It seems like a lot of pressure. But I would expect my son to prepare and prepare and prepare more.”

The perspective

Two days before taking off to New Jersey, he’s focused. Not frantic. The sun will rise Monday morning. More than anyone inside this locker room, Scott Tolzien gets the big picture.

In New York, he’ll deal with blitzing linebackers. Overseas, his brother deals with war. Tolzien’s brother, Mike, is an Air Force pilot. He has already been to Afghanistan twice. He has seen things, lived things far, far worse than anything Tolzien will face Sunday. The enemy has shot as his plane.

So, yes, Scott absolutely views the game through this lens.

“I think it helps you mentally when you can revert to something like that,” Tolzien said. “It lessens the magnitude of an NFL football game. It’s a big deal. But it’s not as big a deal as something my brother could be going through.”

His brother is stationed in England and will be there for a couple of years. Reached by phone this week, Mike Jr. downplays his valor. The foot soldiers run into more trouble, he says. Yes, his plane has been shot at. But he downplays that, too.

He flies low to the ground. It happens.

“Nothing too crazy,” he says. “We’re kind of an easy target at times.”

Scott and Mike keep in touch regularly. If not by phone, by text message. Scott had to win at everything, he explains. Pick-up basketball. Card games. Much like Rodgers, Tolzien “always” found a way to win. Mike remembers his younger brother cheating at cards.

He says Scott is a “super laid-back dude.” But that persona masks hours of preparation.

“You can throw him in any situation,” the older brother said, “and he’s always going to be ready for it. Nothing catches him off-guard.”

Neither brother wants to replay the gory, often tragic imagery from Afghanistan. The way people live overseas, Mike Jr. says, “it’s like turning back the clock a couple hundred years.” And as part of the Air Force’s medical evacuation team, transporting the bodies of deceased 18-, 19-, 20-year old kids is never easy for Scott’s brother.

“They’re just kids,” he said. “I look back at what I was doing at that age. It wasn’t anything like they’re doing. … For me, it always hits home.”

He has lost classmates, friends. At some point, he’ll return to Afghanistan.

From Green Bay, Scott Tolzien knows no turmoil he’ll see Sunday compares to what his older brother encounters. He’s not in a plane, 150-200 feet above the ground, taking shots from terrorist forces.

Said Scott, “Your antennas go up a little bit when you hear something like that.

“It’s family. It hits hard when you hear something like that. You realize you can’t take anything for granted.”

Working overtime

Former NFL quarterback Rob Johnson worked Mark Sanchez’s pro day. He worked Scott Tolzien’s pro day.

And Tolzien—as a pure passer—was the better quarterback in that setting, he said.

So when Tolzien went undrafted in 2011, Johnson was appalled. From Sanchez to Blaine Gabbert to Matt Schaub back to Carson Palmer, the former NFL starter Johnson has trained several quarterbacks with his father in Orange County, Calif., and Tolzien belonged.

“When he wasn’t drafted, I was in shock,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘I don’t get this business. I don’t get it.’”

In Wisconsin’s simplistic offense, Tolzien’s ability was often buried. He completed 68% of his passes. He threw for 5,164 yards and 32 touchdowns in two seasons as the starter. He led the Badgers to the 2010 Rose Bowl. But the system does not showcase the quarterback.

Out west, Johnson was given a window into Tolzien’s workaholic tendencies. Day to day he worked with the quarterback who would later sleep at the San Francisco 49ers’ facilities for two weeks to pick up the offense, who spent long hours on the field with quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo simulating plays before games.

“Scott is one of the hardest-working quarterback I’ve been around,” Johnson said. “No (expletive). It’s not like he does it for the media or when the cameras are around. The dude is a worker.”

Fundamentals were broken down to a science. A typical day included an hour of film work, followed by two hours of routes and drills, bookended by more film.

The location of Tolzien’s right arm was a tick low. His deep ball didn’t have enough lift. So one drill, Johnson stacked trashcans on top of each other 40-45 yards deep at the post. This months-long process helped. Johnson typically works with quarterbacks four days per week—“five days,” in Tolzien’s case.

Any doubts over Tolzien’s arm strength, Johnson said, were laughable. He made all throws necessary.

Beyond fieldwork, Johnson was living proof that this game can chew you up and spit you out. His words had weight. The quarterback’s promising career was hijacked by one messy quarterback controversy in Buffalo with Doug Flutie spiked by a flurry of injuries. Today, Johnson says his collarbone looks “like a coat hanger.” The bone is nearly popping out of the skin.

At one point, Johnson admits, he “lost the joy of playing.”

People will doubt you, he told Tolzien. Don’t listen. Tolzien maximized that off-season.

“It’s not paranoia, but he’s just a worrier,” Johnson said. “So he’s constantly thinking, ‘OK, I have to do this, I have to do this, I have to do that to get better.’”

Thus, he’s sure Tolzien watched the interception in the end zone last Sunday “100 times.”

It still baffles Johnson that so many teams missed. He worked with Colt McCoy, the quarterback who replaced Tolzien in San Francisco. Johnson understands that the 49ers moved to the “pistol (expetive) … the zone-read crap.” But Johnson coached McCoy. He coached Tolzien. And Tolzien was better.

Said Johnson, “Oh God, it’s not even close.”

Back in the ‘penthouse’

Last August in Kansas City, Tolzien could literally see rock bottom. Taste it. This was his last stand with the San Francisco 49ers … and he blew it.

Facing Kansas City’s starters didn’t help. But speaking with his dad for a good half-hour after this preseason game, Tolzien pointed the finger back at himself. If he harbored any hopes of surviving in the NFL, this wouldn’t cut it.

The 49ers eventually released Tolzien. The Packers signed him to the practice squad. And the pendulum continued to swing. As his dad says, the trip from the “penthouse” to the “outhouse” can be sudden. From two-star recruit to Big Ten champions to NFL obscurity, Tolzien gets this.

“So what you take from that is that you really learn to focus on today and make the most of that,” Scott Tolzien said. “You also learn to control what you can control. That’s where my focus is.”

That’s why those close to Tolzien say he’s ready for Sunday. Overall, he rarely wavers, rarely shows weakness. Former Badgers receiver David Gilreath remembers Tolzien speaking up once their senior season. Otherwise, he “wasn’t a rah-rah guy,” he “went about his business.”

“He might hit his head after a bad pass,” Gilreath said, “but he’s always keeping his composure whether he’s up 20 or down 20.”

Added Wisconsin guard Bill Nagy, “What you hear from Scott is what you get. He’s not just saying what everybody wants you to hear.”

Tolzien hasn’t slept overnight at his new “penthouse” in Green Bay yet. But as McAdoo said, you might need to check the security cameras for when he leaves. Work ethic. Approach. Demeanor. None of this has ever been a problem for Tolzien. He slayed the dragon, No. 1 Ohio State, as a senior.

Now, the Packers will see if Tolzien, quite frankly, is talented enough. Maybe there’s a reason so many teams passed on him. A flaw, a glitch. Against Philadelphia, Tolzien proved he’s competent.

Sunday is a different animal.

No pressure

When Tolzien stepped into the huddle last weekend, he asserted himself.

“He let everybody know, ‘Hey, we’re going to be fine. Calm down,’” receiver James Jones said. “And boom, he took the play. He took control of the huddle.”

How long will he be in command of that huddle? That’s the big question. The franchise’s top investment could be out one, two, three more weeks. Until then, it’s Tolzien’s team. Executing plays he never even ran in practice, Tolzien earned locker-room cred. Myles White said Tolzien called each play with confidence. He wasn’t “stuttering,” wasn’t “bug-eyed.”

Said White, “He went in there like it was nothing.”

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