Play defense, run the ball and win the kicking game. That’s the stale blueprint that gets tossed around when quarterbacks get injured and teams have to survive with their backups. But when a superstar goes down, like Aaron Rodgers has in Green Bay, it’s not that simple. How can the Packers adapt with Brett Hundley running the show and stay alive in the NFC playoff race?
Let’s look at the Packers’ quarterback situation through the lens of both the player and the coaching staff. Hundley has played only 82 regular-season snaps, so this isn’t a deep dive into what he can and cannot do. No one knows that off 82 snaps. Instead I’m focusing on the bigger picture and how Mike McCarthy’s team can move forward and not let the loss of its star be the downfall of its season:
The first 24 hours
The Packers probably experienced a wide range of emotions after the results came in on Rodgers, who had surgery on his broken right collarbone on Thursday. Throw in a divisional loss to the Vikings, the plane trip back home and the uncertainty of the immediate future? Yeah, those first 24 hours will lead to questions and even some self-doubt for everyone involved with this team.
But that’s also normal when you lose the leader, the centerpiece of your team. And it’s OK for players and coaches to show some apprehension when the season suddenly gets interrupted like this. Gone is the security blanket of the league’s best player. I’m talking about that comfort level for not only the Green Bay offense, but also those guys who play defense and cover kicks for a living. And they will also question how, or if, their roles will be impacted moving forward.
Remember, Rodgers could create instant magic. That’s something you can’t replace. And in those first 24 hours after the injury, the emotions of the team ride all over the place. Up, down, sideways. Once the squad gets through that period, however, the coaching staff can start to revive hope.
Sell Hundley as ‘The Guy’
As a coach, I would address the injury in the team meeting on Monday by first building up Hundley. That’s no disrespect to Rodgers’ greatness. But I have to make this team believe in Hundley. And I have to get them to move forward after those past 24 hours. Create a new sense of normal. That’s the goal.
Point to Hundley’s time in Green Bay learning the system, discuss how the staff is going to adapt the game plan, and be ultra-confident when talking about the remaining stretch of the season. Tell the team why and how they are going to win with the 2015 fifth-round pick. Address some playbook changes that will maximize Hundley’s ability or emphasize the matchups the offense is going to expose versus the Saints this Sunday. And do this while selling the team on the young quarterback.
The same goes for the media. Just as McCarthy did earlier this week, the head coach must deflect every question about bringing in a new quarterback. He has to support his new starting quarterback and make sure the entire organization and fan base know Hundley’s the guy — while everyone’s watching. That has to be done to erase any doubt about Hundley’s ability to run the offense, lead on the field and show up in critical game moments.
Because once McCarthy can instill trust in Hundley’s talent and make the team believe, he and offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett can get to work on creating the game plan to get the most out of Hundley’s ability.
Massage the game plan to fit Hundley’s ability
Hundley’s Vikings tape will be graded, but the coaches know that isn’t a true reflection of what he brings to the field. Three interceptions. Completed only 54.5 percent of his passes. Missed some easy throws. He was thrown into the fire, running a game plan designed for Rodgers. That’s a tough spot to be in.
The job of McCarthy now is to develop a custom call sheet that fits Hundley, one that will maximize his ability within the core offense and also hide his weaknesses. The staff can’t ask him to play like Rodgers. And it starts by sitting down with the quarterback to identify the concepts that make him comfortable.
What does Hundley like, and what does he want thrown in the trash? And break it down by field position and game situation. Ask him for his favorite red zone routes, the deep ball shots he loves or play-action concepts he can execute. And don’t forget about the quick game. Throw slant-flat, curl-flat. And get the ball out.
From there, it’s about packaging those concepts with the complete game plan. McCarthy doesn’t want his young quarterback to throw the ball 40 times a game, so we should expect a more balanced call sheet. Run the rock with Ty Montgomery and Aaron Jones. And commit to it.
But also show more spread looks, sprinkle in the run-pass options to create open windows and call for some QB-designed runs. He brings another dimension to the offense with his athleticism that can generate some stress for opposing defenses. And that includes movement passes.
The Packers can widen the field and get away from those static formations by using shift/motions. Force the defense to declare coverage (zone or man) and give Hundley the exact matchup he wants. With the arm strength to push the ball outside of the numbers and attack the deep middle of the field, Green Bay can mix alignments to create some big-play opportunities.
In a way, the Packers can expand a bit from a play-calling perspective. And they can do that without limiting Hundley. Forget about reducing the call sheet or being conservative with the No. 2 under center. This is an opportunity for McCarthy to be aggressive while massaging that game plan to fit Hundley.
Supporting Hundley for the stretch run
Hundley is the guy for at least the next 10 games and into January, if the Packers extend the season into the playoffs. Yes, McCarthy promoted Joe Callahan from the practice squad, but he is adamant that he’s rolling with Hundley. The former UCLA star is his new No. 1.
Now, the Packers have to help Hundley succeed. Again, he’s not going to be Rodgers. No one is. But with a loaded group of Jordy Nelson, Davante Adams and Randall Cobb at wide receiver, the big body of Martellus Bennett in the middle of the field and a run game that can provide real balance, Hundley is in a pretty good spot. And even with the slight transition period, Hundley can give the Packers a chance to compete in a wide-open division.
Remember: Matthew Stafford is banged up in Detroit. Sam Bradford has taken only 89 total snaps for the Vikings. And the Bears are playing rookie Mitchell Trubisky. Hundley and the Packers are a threat in the NFC North.