The Green Bay Packers' season changed irreversibly the moment Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. The team has already announced that Rodgers' injury will require surgery, likely sidelining the two-time MVP until next year. Understandably, Rodgers leaves an enormous void under center, reducing a Super Bowl frontrunner to an afterthought in the national perception.
While the injury essentially dashes the Packers' title aspirations, they hope to stay competitive with Rodgers replacement, 24-year-old signal-caller Brett Hundley.
Hundley entered the NFL as a fifth-round pick, considered a high-upside project coming out of UCLA. Now in his third year, Hundley has developed into a more-competent quarterback even if he remains an unfinished product.
Where he succeeds
Hundley navigates the pocket well for a quarterback with limited regular-season experience. With pass-rushers crashing down the edges, the third-year signal-caller knows to step up in the pocket while keeping his eyes fixed downfield. He did so expertly on the first touchdown pass of his NFL career, avoiding three Minnesota defenders and creating two extra seconds to scan the field, enough time for Davante Adams to find a soft spot in the zone for a walk-in score.
A less-refined player might lose focus on his progressions and concentrate on the pressure barreling down upon him, a mistake Hundley committed frequently during his career at UCLA. Mike McCarthy and the coaching staff have done an admirable job improving this area of Hundley's game, transforming it from a weakness to strength in three offseasons.
As a passer, Hundley possesses above-average arm strength and does a solid job of placing the ball and timing his release on throws outside the numbers. Indeed, most of his completions against the Vikings occurred along the boundaries. While the Packers will manufacture some easy throws for Hundley in the middle of the field, they don't have to avoid passes to the outside like they might with most backup quarterbacks.
While Hundley's three turnovers from Sunday loom large, he has shown good discipline with the football in the past. He threw just two interceptions in 148 pass attempts in his preseason stints and rarely forced the ball into coverage. He also appears to have Rodgers' gift for securing the football on contact. Despite taking four sacks and 12 total hits from Vikings defenders, Hundley didn't lose a fumble.
The Packers didn't incorporate many run-pass options or zone reads for Hundley last week, partially the result of a game plan catered to a different quarterback. That should change, as Hundley has the wheels (4.63 second 40-yard dash, 6.93 second 3-cone drill) and the size (6-foot-3, 226 pounds) to threaten defenses as a runner. With Green Bay's bye arriving in Week 7, the coaching staff can fully commit to self-scouting and determining how to best utilize Hundley's athleticism.
Where he needs to improve
Hundley's athleticism allows him to break the pocket and extend plays. However, he often fails to locate receivers down the field after rolling out, instead grounding the ball out of bounds or running for a short gain. Hundley takes a conservative approach in these moments, choosing to simply live for another down rather than attempt to create something down the field. While not necessarily a bad approach, the Packers need more of these plays to result in completions for the offense to stay on the field. In the post-snap phase of the game, this marks the steepest drop-off from Rodgers' play to Hundley's.
That conservatism sometimes extends to Hundley's approach within the pocket as well. Even during the preseason, the quarterback has shied away from throws down the seams. During his four exhibition appearances this year, Hundley averaged just 6.3 yards per attempt, an even more unremarkable figure given he played primarily against backups. The Packers' passing game has focused on intermediate throws for years, but the team can't avoid deep shots altogether. Hundley has the tools to complete these throws, and perhaps he can grow as a deep passer as he becomes more comfortable.
Largely due to inexperience, Hundley also has trouble making adjustments at the line of scrimmage. His inability to get the offense set cost the Packers a timeout during the first half, an issue likely to pop up again in the future. Green Bay must take some of these responsibilities off Hundley's plate by putting more of the responsibility for blocking adjustments on the offensive line and limiting the amount of pre-snap activity from the receivers and backs.
The Packers might also have to wait awhile before Hundley develops the on-field chemistry with top wideout Jordy Nelson. Sometime after his ACL tear in 2015, Nelson lost the extra gear that made him one of the league's premier deep threats. However, the wideout remained highly productive thanks to his pristine route running and seemingly telepathic communication with Rodgers, allowing the two to connect through tight windows and back-shoulder throws. That sort of relationship develops over several years and countless practice reps. The Packers can't expect Hundley and Nelson to replicate that in such a condensed period.
If and when the Packers offense becomes sustainable again, it will look markedly different than it did earlier in the year. Hundley doesn't play an altogether different style of quarterback, but he doesn't possess Rodgers' trump cards and experience, and McCarthy must adjust his scheme to account for that.
Hundley works best as a pocket passer, one who can attack defenses if given adequate protection. The Packers didn't afford him quality blocking on Sunday, but the upcoming bye should allow for injured tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga to recover as well as give Lane Taylor time to recuperate from his knee and ankle injuries. If the offensive line rounds into form, Hundley should avoid at least some of the mistakes he made in Minnesota.
The high-flying offense the Packers have traditionally rolled out with Rodgers at the helm doesn't appear likely to return without him. Still, Hundley has enough strengths to build a passing attack around. The drop-off depends on how quickly the young quarterback grows into his new role.