Flynn likely behind center Sunday

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Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Judging by their comments Wednesday, members of the Green Bay Packers offense seem to have a pretty good idea who is going to start at quarterback Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Once again both Matt Flynn and Aaron Rodgers took snaps with the No. 1 offense, but Flynn held the position of starter because, according to coach Mike McCarthy, Rodgers has not yet been cleared to return from a broken left collarbone.

So, for the second straight week, the guy who plays Sunday will not have had the full complement of practice snaps a starter would normally take and the rest of the offense is practicing with two quarterbacks with two very different skill sets.

And all of it is taking place as the Packers embark on the first leg of a two-game stretch that will determine their playoff fate.

“You've got to prepare the same no matter who's there,” receiver Jordy Nelson said in response to a question about splitting quarterback reps. “You've got to play the same. As a receiver you've got to get open the same, you've got to catch the ball, do whatever you got to do. If it's Matt throwing the ball, Scott (Tolzien), Aaron, then we'll catch that ball.”

Nelson was one of the players who said he has a pretty good feeling who's going to start Sunday. Fellow receiver James Jones was another.

“It's not like we're out there watching TV and waiting for somebody to tell us something,” Jones said. “We know what's going on.”

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that they're most likely talking about Flynn, who has led the Packers to two straight victories and will remain the starter until Rodgers is cleared to play. But if McCarthy, general manager Ted Thompson and the medical staff are truly waiting until Friday to make a decision on Rodgers, it means the padded practice Thursday again will feature two quarterbacks running the No. 1 offense.

This will be the fourth week that Rodgers has been out at practice and the second in which he has taken snaps with the No. 1 offense. The plan last week was for him to work full speed, see how his shoulder reacted and then come to a decision Friday whether he should be cleared.

After team physician Pat McKenzie wouldn't clear Rodgers, Flynn took all the snaps Friday in preparation for the Dallas Cowboys.

The Packers then proceeded to stink up AT&T Stadium in the first half, totaling 98 yards before a meaningless 34-yard screen to Eddie Lacy on the last play. Flynn was 10 of 17 for 117 yards as the Packers managed just seven first downs.

The second half was a different story as Flynn led the offense on five consecutive touchdown drives.

It would be logical to wonder if this job share is causing the Packers to start slowly since Flynn only joined the team Nov. 12 and heading into the Cowboys game had practiced with the No. 1 offense just seven times. McCarthy has to get Rodgers ready to play, but it comes at the expense of Flynn giving up practice snaps.

Asked if he was happy with the way he handled the practice structure last week, McCarthy said it accomplished its objective.

“I felt Matt Flynn was ready to play and really I think that's the way you judge that,” McCarthy said. “If I was going to be critical of anything last week of our football team, our preparation phase wasn't very good. We were up on Wednesday, Thursday's practice was poor to say the least, Friday's was much better.

“We had a good day today, so that's really what we're focused on. But I felt Matt Flynn had a full opportunity to be ready for the game.”

It's hard to say how the snaps with the No. 1 offense are being split up since reporters are not allowed to watch the team portion of practice and players have been tight-lipped about it. The only way reporters found out last week that Rodgers was taking snaps with the offense was that tight end Andrew Quarless mentioned it in a group interview.

The process for getting an injured quarterback reintegrated into the offense isn't an easy one since he needs to run with the No. 1s in case he is cleared to play. Given McCarthy's frustrated look last Friday, it appeared he thought Rodgers was going to get the go-ahead earlier that morning.

Rodgers again looked sharp during individual drills, but the fact he hasn't been cleared yet means that Flynn has to be prepared as the starter. Flynn said he would prefer to have all the snaps going into any start.

“I guess the selfish part of you does,” Flynn said. “It's one of those things you develop a way to mentally prepare yourself as best you can. I just try to make the best of the reps I get. I felt fine going into the game plan last week.”

The differences that matter between Rodgers and Flynn are arm strength, cadence and experience with the receivers. Nelson and Jones were on the team when Flynn was here in 2011, but the bulk of their practice snaps were with Rodgers, so they are still working on timing with him.

It's probably no coincidence that Quarless has emerged as one of Flynn's favorite targets. They have some scout team history together.

“I think it really just started my rookie year,” said Quarless, who has a team-high 12 catches the last two weeks. “I tell everybody, my rookie year, coming in, being the second guy, going with the second quarterback, you get those reps.

“That (a chemistry with Flynn) is something that kind of started rookie year.”

McCarthy said the slow starts the last two games are being addressed, but he said there is no cure-all.

His receivers think there's nothing special that needs to be worked on. They said the way players elevated their games in the second half was by just focusing on what they had to do and not worrying about who was throwing them the ball.

“We're week-to-week; whoever steps into that huddle, (it's) week-to-week,” Jones said. “As a receiver, if I step back there (at quarterback), Jordy better catch the ball. Whoever gets back there, we pride ourselves on making some plays.

“It doesn't matter who it is. We're going to help our quarterback out. If it's Matt, if it's Aaron, if it's Scott, we're going to be there to ride with him.”

Flynn had no explanation why things have gone so badly in the first half of the three games he has started. At Dallas, McCarthy got away from the original game plan and started running more no-huddle and the entire offensive unit didn't handle it well.

Whether Flynn's lack of experience running the no-huddle with the rest of the unit had anything to do with it is up for debate, but when McCarthy went back to the original game plan, the Packers went on a roll. The bottom line is that it took him a half to find a groove with the offense.

“I think it was probably more just that we got in sync, we got in more of a rhythm,” Flynn said. “Obviously, the execution was different. But we got in a rhythm. I felt like I was seeing the field better. I just kind of cut it loose a little bit more.”

Maybe McCarthy's task this week is working hard to make sure Flynn is comfortable right out of the gate and emphasizing plays he has practiced. Or maybe a decision needs to be made Thursday on which quarterback will start.

Guys like Nelson don't think any of that is necessary. They think it's a matter of the players around Flynn playing the game the same way they would if Rodgers were in the game even though they know the ball is coming out differently and there aren't as many winks and nods at the line of scrimmage signifying common thought.

“Offensively, we're going to go through our game plan, look at our routes, go out and practice,” Nelson said. “We're not running routes for the quarterback, we're running routes to beat the guy across from us. We have to worry about that and how they're going to play us.

“Then when we come out of the break, we expect the ball to be there no matter who's throwing the ball.”

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