Tolzien: Back to school
Tom Clements’ guesstimate took a moment to sink in.
The Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator was attempting to encapsulate just how unfairly stacked the deck was against Scott Tolzien last year, when the ex-University of Wisconsin quarterback went from being employed by the San Francisco 49ers, to being on the street as a free agent, to signing onto the Packers practice squad, to becoming the team’s quarterback after injuries to Aaron Rodgers and Seneca Wallace in successive weeks thrust him onto the field to throw his first career NFL regular-season passes.
And to look back on the team’s Nov. 10 loss to Philadelphia and know how much of the offense Tolzien knew – or, more accurately, didn’t know – makes the fact that he wasn’t an unmitigated disaster all the more impressive.
“I was impressed with what he did because of the situation,” Clements said amid the Packers’ organized team activity practices each of the past two weeks. “That first game that he played against Philadelphia, 95 percent of those plays he ran in that game, that was the first time he ever ran them.”
Think about that. Of the 70 snaps Tolzien played in the Packers’ 27-13 loss to the Eagles that day, only three or four were plays he’d run himself in practice. The other 66 of 67, he’d only simply seen in the playbook or, at best, watched Aaron Rodgers or Seneca Wallace run.
No wonder Tolzien and his coaches can’t wait to see what he can do with an entire offseason of quarterback school, OTA and minicamp practices, and playbook immersion.
“For him to come in and for us to expect great success of the kid is kind of unfair,” said quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who was the running backs coach last season. “He got thrown into a tough situation and he made the best of it. And he will only grow and get better because of it – especially with an offseason to understand the system and digest it.
“I don’t think there was anything about Scott that he couldn’t win a game for us other than he was thrown into the mix as a late addition on to the club. Third-string quarterback, and all of a sudden you’re starting. That’s a tough situation for anybody.”
With a week to prepare for the New York Giants, Tolzien had some of his best moments. He completed 24 of 34 passes for 339 yards, including explosive plays of 45 yards to James Jones, 26 yards to Brandon Bostick, 29 yards to Jordy Nelson, and 52 yards to Jarrett Boykin. But the game was lost on his three interceptions – the second of which, coming just after the Packers had pulled within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter and gotten the ball back with a chance to tie, was returned for a touchdown by Jason Pierre-Paul. Tolzien was picked off on the next series, too, en route to a 27-13 loss.
Now, as he looks back on that experience – he got the starting nod the next week against Minnesota but was benched in favor of Matt Flynn, who would go 2-2 in his four starts before Rodgers’ return – Tolzien is building off both the good, and the bad.
“There’s no substitute for game reps. You make a mistake in practice versus making a mistake in a game when there’s 80,000 people watching, you truly learn the lesson in a game,” Tolzien said. “It’s probably a boring answer, a broken record, but you learn from the good and the bad, trying to build on the good and learn from the bad and really try not to make the same mistakes twice.”
But, for as much learning as Tolzien did from his mistakes, his triumphs were also valuable.
“When you make good plays in a game atmosphere, you realize you can do it,” Tolzien said. “And that’s a super powerful thing to have that inner confidence that you’ve done it before.”
What Tolzien is most confident in is his preparation. After arriving the week of the regular-season opener last year – then being elevated from the practice squad after Rodgers fractured his left collarbone on Nov. 4 – Tolzien has been at Lambeau Field almost daily since the season ended, even during the time when coaches weren’t permitted to talk football with their players due to NFL offseason rules. He went through quarterback school with Van Pelt, Clements, head coach Mike McCarthy, Rodgers and Flynn, and he’s now starting to grasp the hows and whys of an offense he learned on the fly a year ago.
“It’s been super helpful to kind of learn stuff from the ground up. I was kind of pressing last year when you get in Week 1 and it’s a scramble to learn it all, so it’s been nice to take a step up back and learn it from the ground up,” said Tolzien, who in three games completed 55 of 90 passes (61.1 percent) for 717 yards with one touchdown and five interceptions for a passer rating of 66.8.. “You do want to go back and learn the A, B, Cs again because what I’ve learned is when you step on the field, especially on game day, it’s that much faster, so you really do want to know your stuff.
“[Learning[ the 101 of the offense, if you will – that’s been great for me. It will be something that should have been a basic thing last year, you kind of have a moment this year like, ‘Oh, that’s what that meant.’ And it’s been helpful to slow down and learn it from the bottom.”
Although the coaches have worked on altering Tolzien’s fundamentals – something they didn’t have time to do last year – by overhauling his footwork and tweaking his throwing motion, they are convinced that despite leaving UW as an undrafted free agent and never moving far up the 49ers’ depth chart before his release, Tolzien has the tools required to be an NFL starter.
“He has the skill set to be a quarterback at this level – no question. He’ll only get better with more time,” Van Pelt said. “We expect a lot of growth out of him. He’s a hard worker, as smart as they come, diligent guy, always in the playbook, always asking questions.
“Arm talent is there, arm strength is there, footwork is coming within the system. The release is good; we’re working on some things there just to make him more efficient. But the ball does jump out of his hand.
Added Clements: “He’s talented enough, or he wouldn’t be here.”
To stay here, though, Tolzien may have to beat out Flynn for perhaps only one roster spot. Although McCarthy has expressed a desire to keep three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster after last year’s struggles, the Packers could opt for only two quarterbacks, as they’ve done in years past.
For his part, Tolzien isn’t worrying about Flynn. He, Flynn and Rodgers have a strong bond and friendship, and in Tolzien’s mind, he’s compete with himself first.
“All the way since college, you think about trying to bump yourself up the depth chart. Really, what I’ve learned is the most beneficial approach is to just really focus on yourself and not get caught up in the competition at the position,” he said. “I really feel that the competition lies within yourself. I’ve heard that from coaches time and time again. It’s taken me time to realize that but I really do believe in that.
“The biggest thing is confidence. That’s such a powerful thing. I’ve heard Aaron say that it’s the most important characteristic of a quarterback. So, that’s what I take from it. And with that, you still keep working. But you gain that confidence.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.