July 25, 2014
BY MIKE LUCAS
MADISON, Wis. -- Scott Tolzien went back to “school” last September and it coincided with the former Wisconsin quarterback landing a spot on the practice squad with the Green Bay Packers. Since then, there has been an ongoing education to coach Mike McCarthy’s high-powered offense.
“In years past, Coach McCarthy was telling me how all the quarterbacks were here in mid-March to start their quarterback school,” said Tolzien, conscious of NFL rule changes that have restricted offseason workouts. “This year, we couldn’t start until April 21.
“I couldn’t even go into the Don Hudson Center and have a game of catch with a teammate because it was against the rules. Your window is so much shorter now in the offseason, so you’re trying to press that much more in those times when you can get the green light.”
Press without pressing, he agreed, would still be applicable, especially since class will be back in session this weekend when the Packers open their training camp with Tolzien among the 39 former Badgers on an NFL roster. Everybody now will be graded on a pass/fail basis for roster spots. That includes the backup quarterbacks, Tolzien and Matt Flynn.
“It’s been huge to learn everything back at the 101 level,” said the 26-year-old Tolzien, who spent the 2011 and 2012 seasons on the 53-man roster of the San Francisco 49ers. “I got there (Green Bay) Week One of the season and you’re basically trying to scrap together each week’s game plan.
“The offseason is not only big to learn the basics but also the fundamentals because they’re really strict here on how they want their quarterbacks doing stuff from a fundamental standpoint. It has been really enjoyable to learn and see the benefits of it when you learn the rhyme and reason of it all.”
Tolzien’s mechanics aren’t noticeably different from when he completed a school-record 73 percent of his passes for 2,459 yards during the 2010 season and guided the Badgers into the Rose Bowl. “The meat and potatoes of it are still the same,” he said. “But you’re always tweaking different things.”
It certainly doesn’t hurt to have a mentor like quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“The bottom line is that you see Aaron do it every day,” Tolzien said, “and you go, ‘All right, there’s no better explanation for what we’re doing than seeing him do it.’ That has probably been the greatest help -- just watching him on a day-to-day basis.”
Tolzien’s respect for Rodgers has continued to grow over the past year.
“Aaron is an awesome teammate,” he said. “He goes out of his way for the young guys. You never feel weird asking him a question about anything. I’m fortunate because my locker is right next to his and that has been an invaluable experience just seeing how he commands the locker room.
“I’m literally with him every second of the day when I’m at the stadium and you can’t put a price tag on everything I’ve been able to pick up from him on the field. He’s super confident, yet he still has questions every day. He never feels like he has it figured out.
“From a leadership standpoint,” Tolzien continued, “it’s cool to see how he involved everybody else. He might know the answer but he’s going to ask a young guy like Jared (Abbrederis), ‘Hey, what are you thinking on this route? How are you going to get open versus this type of man coverage?’
“He (Rodgers) knows the answer but he wants to get Jared involved so that Jared knows, ‘Hey, we need to be on the same page and you need to be conscientious of how you’re doing this (running precise routes) because every little bit matters.”’
Abbrederis, a fifth-round pick out of Wisconsin, has been processing that message.
“He (Rodgers) is a competitor, he wants to win and that’s contagious with the whole team,” Abbrederis said. “They’re not going to wait for anybody; they’re trying to win a championship. The mindset is, ‘We have to go now, rookie; can’t wait for you, you have to get going, you have to perform right now.”’
Abbrederis, like Tolzien, has been going to school on others.
“I’ve just been trying to learn from everybody,” Abbrederis said. “All the receivers in that room have been great. That has been good to have (their support). Scotty knows a lot of the offense and I’ve been picking it up from him and different guys. I’ve been watching how pros go about their business.”
“I wouldn’t trade anything for the experience I had last year,” Tolzien said.
“I was kind of thrown into the fire, but there’s no substitute for game experience.”
The on-field chemistry still exists between Tolzien and Abbrederis.
“I was watching the draft when the Packers picked Jared,” Tolzien said, “and I was so fired up.”
“We kind of understand each other,” Abbrederis said.
In 2010, Tolzien was in his second year as the starter and Abbrederis was a redshirt freshman and still a walk-on. He caught 20 passes for 289 yards and three touchdowns while serving in a rotation with Nick Toon, Isaac Anderson and David Gilreath. The leading receiver was tight end Lance Kendricks.
Tolzien has encouraged Abbrederis to draw on his past experiences at Wisconsin.
“Jared came in as a walk-on and figured out how to get a scholarship and how to get drafted,” Tolzien said. “He knows the plan, he has done it before. So rely on that, trust that, it’s the same process. Being a freshman in college is very similar to being a freshman in the NFL.
“I told him, ‘You’ve been through it once and you should be even better at it this time because it’s your second go-around with the same process.’ He knows how to play ball and he had an awesome camp (OTAs), so he’s off to a good start.
“It’s funny because the other quarterbacks were accusing me of only throwing to one receiver at times and I’ve said all along, ‘I’ve got a comfort level with Jared.’ You don’t lose that. It has been three years since I played with him but I still know how to read his body language coming out of breaks.”
Tolzien got a crash course in reading NFL defenses last season. While he was still on the practice squad, the Packers thought enough of him to bump his base salary as a means to keep him from signing with another team. And it paid off after Rodgers broke his collarbone against the Chicago Bears.
In early November, Tolzien was promoted to Green Bay’s active roster to be Seneca Wallace’s backup. Wallace summarily got hurt, the Packers signed Matt Flynn and Tolzien finally got a chance to show what he could do in meaningful, regular season games. He wound up starting twice.
“I wouldn’t trade anything for the experience I had last year,” said Tolzien, who threw for 280 yards against the Philadelphia Eagles and 339 against the New York Giants. “I was kind of thrown into the fire, but there’s no substitute for game experience and it was invaluable to get those game reps.
“Just from a confidence standpoint, you realize that you can do it -- that it’s still the same game that you were playing in college, that it’s still the same game that you were playing in youth football, and I thought that was a real powerful thing for me.”
Tolzien conceded that he was running plays in games that he hadn’t even practiced before.
“But ultimately you realize you belong,” he said. “It was a great building step for my career.”
One of his shining moments was his first rushing touchdown as an NFL quarterback. Rolling out to pass against the Minnesota Vikings, he was forced to scramble out of the pocket and used a spin move on defensive tackle Letroy Guion to score on a 6-yard run. A Lambeau Leap followed.
“That wasn’t a genetic thing -- that was an act from above, I think,” said Tolzien, grinning. “There’s a big, 300-pounder (Guion, now a Packers teammate) in front of you and you’re just reacting. I fully expected to get whacked when I spun. I got lucky, I’ll say that much.”
As it was, Flynn replaced Tolzien in the Vikings game and took over as the starter until Rodgers returned. Flynn and Tolzien are once again vying for the same thing: to be Rodgers’ backup. And Flynn is the No. 2 quarterback going into training camp, according to position coach Alex Van Pelt.
Tozlien has run out of practice squad eligibility.
“You can probably look at it both ways,” Tolzien said with a shrug, “and say it’s good or bad.”
The last time the Packers kept three quarterbacks on the opening day roster was 2008 when they went into the season with Rodgers, Flynn and Brian Brohm. Given this backdrop, what question does Tolzien have to answer to stay in Green Bay?
“I kind of look back to my Wisconsin experience,” he said, “and you’re trying to prove yourself through consistent preparation and consistent play. I think that’s really what coaches are looking for at the end of the day. Who’s the most consistent?
“And, like anything in life, that starts with your preparation. That’s really my focus. I’m not trying to focus on all of the outside stuff, like ‘Who are they going to keep? Who’s going to get cut?’ My only focus is going to be on self-improvement every day. It has usually been the best formula.”