Scott Tolzien looked dazed and confused. Shortly after walking through the side door of the Lambeau Field media auditorium, he paused, scanned the room of reporters for a moment, and then slowly made his way to the podium, burping along the way.
That Tolzien was even in this position represents what the season has become for the Green Bay Packers. Injuries have ravaged the team, but until last Monday night, the quarterback position was fine and the Packers were cruising at 5-2 on top of the NFC North.
Then Aaron Rodgers went down with a fractured clavicle on the first series against the Chicago Bears. And on Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, his replacement – backup Seneca Wallace – suffered similar misfortune. After prepping as the starter the previous five days, he, too, was done after the first series. A groin injury sent him to the sideline for good after starting 5-for-5.
“I’ve never lost the quarterback after the first series two weeks in a row. It’s an unusual situation...” said head coach Mike McCarthy.
Now, after falling 27-13 to the Eagles, the Packers stand at 5-4 in serious jeopardy of falling out of the NFC playoff race with their MVP quarterback still weeks away from returning.
But the blame is hardly on the inexperienced Tolzien, who was the next man up against the Eagles when Wallace went down.
“I thought Scott Tolzien played as well as could be expected,” summed up McCarthy.
If Tolzien stared blankly in his post-game presser, he looked the opposite of that on the field. Thrust into action for the first time in an NFL regular season game, he put forth a respectable effort given the circumstances. Finishing 24-of-39 for 280 yards, he kept the Packers fighting until a controversial replay review of a Jordy Nelson catch attempt in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
But for Tolzien, throwing the ball was the least of his worries. His challenges on this day ran much deeper.
“You’re talking about a young man who hasn’t played not only in the game with us but hasn’t had a lot of snaps at practice. His work has been really confined to the opponent’s squads,” said McCarthy. “This week he was able to get snaps with the first offense. I take that back, we do give the number three some reps with the number one offense sometimes. He’s had very limited work. As any quarterback would know, or any player, when you have a chance to work the plan, obviously your preparation leads you to potentially a much better performance. But not only him not working the plan, he had to manage it. We didn’t just line up in one personnel group. We went out there to win the game, so he got us in and out of personnel groups, managed the runs. They challenged him, challenged the box. They did a good job against our run game in the second half, and Scott was able to take advantage of that. Like I said, you take away the interception, I don’t know if the young man could’ve played much better.”
The interception McCarthy referred to came in the second quarter with the Packers trailing 7-0. Positioned at the Eagles’ 5-yard line, Tolzien saw Nelson in man coverage to the left but underthrew him on a corner route. Brandon Boykin’s interception in the end zone and subsequent 76-yard return put a deflating end to a 17-play drive that began for the Packers at their own 4-yard line.
“You always start with where you can get better and there’s specific plays that you wish you had back,” said Tolzien. “The first one you think about is the pick in the end zone.
“I could have thrown a better ball. Well, could have? Should have. You learn from that and try not to make that same mistake again."
Tolzien threw one other interception on a deflected ball off a pass intended deep over the middle to James Jones. The Eagles had at least two other opportunities for turnovers, but the offensive production was there for the Packers. At halftime, they had 268 net yards (396 for the game) and more than double time of possession than the Eagles. Four of the five first-half drives for the Packers penetrated Eagles’ territory, yet the Packers scored just three points (two drives ended in missed field goals).
With the Packers’ second-ranked rushing attack held in check, Tolzien took his shots. He took advantage of a free play – when the Eagles jumped offside – for a 35-yard pass to Jarrett Boykin (8 catches, 112 yards). He hit backup tight end Brandon Bostick for a 22-yard touchdown. He used the swing pass multiple times on first down for positive gains. And he scrambled for 19 yards during a fourth-quarter field goal drive.
“He was aggressive. He went after it. He was confident in the huddle,” said Nelson. “He’s a smart kid who has put in a lot of work. He prepares, and it’s good to see it pay off.”
In the process, Tolzien was learning on the fly. During game breaks, he was getting input from McCarthy, offensive coordinator Tom Clements, and Rodgers, who was wearing a headset on the sideline. He even had to adapt to a new center when T.J. Lang moved over from his right guard spot in the second quarter after Evan Dietrich-Smith left with a knee injury.
“I thought Scott did a heck of a job,” said McCarthy. “We’re running plays he hasn’t even practiced yet. He comes here, and it’s a totally different language from where he’s been his first two stops (San Diego and San Francisco). He has worked diligently on our language, transferring plays he’s had in the past into how we do things, and for the most part he was seamless in the huddle. I thought his game management, especially for the amount of preparation he had going into this game was outstanding.”
Tolzien spent nine weeks on the Packers’ practice squad before being elevated to the active roster this week. The Packers signed he and Wallace during the first week of the regular season. Both had spent time in the 49ers’ training camp.
Tolzien, an undrafted free agent in 2011, was cut by the Chargers after training camp two seasons ago before catching on in San Francisco as a backup for 2011 and 2012. Outside of preseason action in the NFL, the last meaningful game he played in before Sunday was the 2011 Rose Bowl with the Wisconsin Badgers.
Now, says McCarthy, he will prepare to be the starter for the Packers’ game at New York against the Giants next Sunday.
“I’m just expecting to be the starter. I just found out,” said Tolzien at the podium, moments after McCarthy addressed the media. “But bottom line is we’ve got to just keep getting better. I think it’s pretty simple. You start by looking at yourself in the mirror. You always do that. Certainly, there's a few plays you’d like to have back in the game. But I really appreciate the guys’ help out there, rallying around me. And my coaches as well this week helped me prepare to be ready to go. I really appreciate these guys in this locker room. We’ve just got to keep getting better, bottom line.”
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com