Alex Van Pelt still remembers that first time he stepped into the Buffalo Bills’ offensive huddle in 2001.
The veteran backup quarterback had been with the Bills since 1995, so it wasn’t like he was the new guy around there. But after seeing action in only 11 games, and starting only three, during his first six seasons in Buffalo, this was different. The Bills had just lost starter Rob Johnson to a fractured collarbone – sound familiar? – with a preliminary diagnosis that he’d miss at least five weeks. (Johnson would not play again that year.)
Suddenly, the Bills were Van Pelt’s team.
“They just lost their leader. So when you step in that huddle, if you waver, there’s going to be some doubt in those eyes,” Van Pelt said this week. “And that’s the worst thing that can happen.
“It’s critical. You may not play at the level of the other guy, but you better lead at that level.”
While he coaches running backs – not quarterbacks – for the Green Bay Packers these days, Van Pelt certainly can understand what Matt Flynn is up against. With star quarterback Aaron Rodgers having been declared out for Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Lambeau Field – the seventh straight game Rodgers will miss with the fractured collarbone he suffered Nov. 4 against Chicago – Flynn will start in his place.
While Flynn left as an unrestricted free agent in March 2012 and spent time with the Seattle Seahawks, Oakland Raiders and the Bills before re-signing with the desperate Packers on Nov. 12, he – like Van Pelt had been to his Bills teammates – is a familiar face who breeds confidence among his teammates. Those who were on the team in 2010 and 2011 remember his performance at New England while Rodgers was out with a concussion before the team’s Super Bowl XLV run took off, and they remember his 480-yard, six-touchdown performance in a victory over Detroit in the 2011 regular-season finale.
And, except for a horrendous Thanksgiving Day performance at Detroit – where the Packers were a collective trainwreck in a 40-10 loss – Flynn has rallied the Packers three times in the past four games. Taking over for Scott Tolzien against Minnesota on Nov. 24, he rallied the Packers from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit to a 26-26 tie; in his second start, he overcame a 21-10 halftime deficit to beat Atlanta, 22-21, on Dec. 8; and last week, Flynn led the Packers to a historic rally, coming back from a 23-point halftime deficit to beat the Dallas Cowboys, 37-36. The comeback matched the biggest in team history, and gave the Packers their first victory in Dallas since 1989.
Flynn will be making his fourth start of the season Sunday, and after veteran Seneca Wallace was ineffective in relief of Rodgers against the Bears and then suffered a season-ending groin injury in his first start, and after Tolzien was inconsistent in his two starts, Flynn has stabilized the position. Now, the Packers hope he can keep their playoff hopes alive – they’ll win the NFC North if they beat the Steelers Sunday and the Bears Dec. 29 in Chicago – and lead then to another victory.
“Matt’s a gamer. He’s been doing this his whole career,” said wide receiver James Jones, who was in his second season when the Packers picked Flynn in the seventh round of the 2008 NFL Draft out of LSU. “He comes in the game, he has ice in his veins. That’s the new Matty Ice over there. He just comes out and plays ball. That’s just what he does. We have 100 percent confidence in Matt to get the job done and go out there and help us win.”
Added wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who was in Flynn’s draft class: “I think we’re very confident, especially after what we did in the second half in Dallas, scoring that many points in a half. We know Matt can make plays. He’s been here, he knows the offense, but we’ve tweaked some things and he’s got to get comfortable with us again and the way we do things here. You can tell he’s picking back up, he’s more comfortable and more confident and the chemistry is going.”
Flynn has never lacked for confidence. As a rookie seventh-round pick, he coolly outplayed second-round pick Brian Brohm during the summer of 2008 – while the competition was overshadowed by a slightly more heavily covered quarterback storyline – and showed right away his knack for comebacks. Down 23-7 in the preseason finale against Tennessee, Flynn threw a pair of touchdown passes, the second one coming with no time left on the clock, and was a 2-point conversion incompletion from tying the game in a 23-21 loss.
“I just remember that preseason, he just had a knack for making plays. He made things happen, remained calm,” said offensive coordinator Tom Clements, the Packers’ quarterbacks coach at the time. “That game against Tennessee in the preseason where it was a wild comeback in the end, he just made things happen. Guys seemed to respond to him.
“Obviously you try to train guys, teach them what you want them to do, but they have to be able to make plays. Matt had that knack for being able to make plays, not being affected when things weren’t going well or things were breaking down around him – which happened a lot in the preseason.”
Flynn’s personality has always been easy-going, and he’s shown that during the comebacks of the past two weeks. He’s even low-key when talking about them.
“I think I’ve always kind of had that. I’m a laid-back guy, that’s my nature,” Flynn said. “I make a conscious effort not to try to get too overly excited or too down just because I feel like there’s a lot of chaos going on, whether it’s in the stands, whether it’s defense, there’s a lot of chaos going around. So when we get in that huddle, a couple seconds before we run each play I feel like it’s good for them to have a calming effect in the huddle. I think that’s good for them. But I definitely get excited when we do things or when it’s crunch times. It’s just kind of my nature.”
Flynn enters Sunday having completed 81 of 127 passes (63.8 percent) for 914 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions (91.1 rating). After his poor performance against the Lions and with some folks wondering if coach Mike McCarthy should go back to Tolzien, Flynn has more than responded. And now the Packers are counting on him to keep their playoff hopes afloat.
“I’m a competitive guy. I’m a hard-headed guy. So, I mean, trust me, we’d like to not be in these close games, we’d like to put up a bunch of points, and do all that,” said Flynn, who took virtually all of the snaps with the No. 1 offense this week after sharing them with Rodgers before the Cowboys game. “But there’s so much talent here, we’re such a good team, especially on the offensive side of the ball. There’s so many talented guys that a lot of times they make my job easy out there.
“I don’t know. I’ve just always been one that keeps on fighting, whether it’s stupidity or stubbornness or whatever it is.”
While his situation was different in Buffalo – the Bills were 1-7 at the time of Johnson’s injury and went 2-6 with Van Pelt at quarterback, finishing last in the AFC East – Van Pelt believes that Flynn’s familiarity with the offense and his teammates’ familiarity with him has been a big help. So too has his calm demeanor.
“I definitely see that,” Van Pelt said. “It’s just becoming more comfortable – with the guys, the system, the play-calling. Obviously all that plays into it. It’s just the natural progression.
“In my case, we’d been together for so long in Buffalo, they knew who they were getting. And I think these guys knew what they were getting with Matt.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.