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What Brett Hundley’s season tells us about quarterback development in the modern NFL

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Hundley has looked great and awful and everything in between, so what does it all mean?

Green Bay Packers v Pittsburgh Steelers
Brett Hundley has been the first true Packers quarterback project in the McCarthy era.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Brett Favre, Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks, Ty Detmer, Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Rodgers, even Matt Flynn.

Watching the Packers draft and develop quarterbacks for two decades, a fan could be excused for believing this was normal. Draft backups, they sit behind Hall of Famers and they learn, at the very least by osmosis, to be an NFL quarterback to be flipped for picks at a later date.

This was the Brett Hundley model.

Draft an incredible athlete with arm talent to spare who has some raw mechanics and needed refinement as a passer — not just throwing the ball but determining where and when to throw it.

When Aaron Rodgers went down, Mike McCarthy stressed the importance of Hundley’s three years in the system, the head coach insisting he liked his quarterback room.

But in five starts, Hundley has played two good games, and three mostly bad ones.

The second half heroics in Chicago led only to a meltdown against the Ravens at home, which brought us the uneven-but-much-improved Sunday night against in Pittsburgh in which Hundley nearly sprung the upset over one of the league’s best teams.

Before that, the biggest, and perhaps only, indicator of Hundley’s talent was the end of the Bears game in which Hundley made plays with his feet, extended a play for a touchdown to Davante Adams, and essentially sealed the deal with a deep shot to Adams down the right sideline.

Packers fans expected more from their quarterback than such a brief flash of brilliance.

Mike McCarthy thought Hundley would play better. This writer believed the same after being told by people around the league they believed it too.

But Hundley’s half season as the starter provides important instruction.

The first thing we should glean we should have already known: three years in the system without any actual meaningful game reps simply doesn’t mean much anymore.

CBA restrictions on practice time makes it too difficult for backups to get practice reps, and even the preseason games Rodgers inevitably sits feature vanilla defenses and no game plans.

There’s no substitute for live bullets. A quarterback can’t practice what it’s like to face a defense schemed to stop him and designed to test him, challenge him, and expose his flaws.

There’s no practice for coming back after a bad read, a missed throw, or a tipped interception that wasn’t your fault.

It’s a learned skill, something to be gained only through experiential acquisition.

As I wrote earlier this month, there’s empirical evidence to suggest Hundley’s practice time doesn’t translate to actual NFL experience and that, developmentally, he’d be only marginally ahead of an average rookie.

The one key place Hundley would have an advantage is knowledge of the scheme.

Hundley knows this offense. He’s making calls at the line, getting “check with me’s” from his coach who trusts him to get guys lined up and in the right position. He’s shown a proficiency with audibles.

The Aaron Jones touchdown run against the Saints was a check.

On a number of occasions he’s turned hand signal calls into first down throws.

One area we overestimated though is McCarthy’s knowledge of his quarterback. Last week, he hinted that what they were doing in practice wasn’t what they put on film offensively, a subtle indicator Brett Hundley shows tendencies in the game that don’t come up during the week.

McCarthy has seen Hundley practice for three seasons and until Hundley faces the bright lights of real NFL action, he can’t know what his quarterback truly is and isn’t capable of handling.

This week was perhaps the first week McCarthy showed dexterity in handling his first-time starter.

We underestimated how long that process would take. And to be fair, McCarthy did too.

But the second major factor here should also be instructive: progress, especially at the quarterback position, usually isn’t linear.

Hundley showed some arm talent and playmaking ability against the Vikings when he played freely, then tightened up, locked into receivers, and struggled against the Saints outside of two drives.

A final drive made the box score more aesthetically pleasing, but Hundley never really got in rhythm against the Lions, then played well against Chicago in the second half in particular.

The Ravens game snowballed out of his control, but early Hundley looked decisive, sharp, and dynamic. A great play by Jimmy Smith cost Green Bay a scoring chance and a horrible decision by Hundley led to a second pick, but there were kernels of promise in that game until it got out of hand.

Instead of bailing out to his right, Hundley actually stepped up and through the pocket a number of times to pick up first downs with his legs.

He’s still taking too many sacks and can be slow to process, but he’s shown progress in pocket awareness and he’s taking the hint that he needs to step up rather than bail out of the pocket.

In practice, with a red jersey on, it’s nearly impossible to build that skill, and even harder to take from the practice field to game day.

More to the point, could Hundley have played as well as he did against Pittsburgh without the Chicago game, even if that game preceded the debacle against Baltimore?

Hundley pointed to the Ravens game as motivation. What if the sloppy game propelled him to push harder against the Steelers?

Quarterbacking in the NFL isn’t going to be one step in front of the other. Often it will be two steps forward, one step back, or even one step forward and two steps back.

Carson Wentz starting his rookie season strong, struggled for two months, and now might be the MVP of the league.

And one of the reasons is there’s nothing more useful to development than actually playing in the games, stringing games together, and working on areas of weakness as teams find new ways to attack.

That just can’t happen in practice.

The two key ideas are inextricably tied. Progress isn’t a straight line if for no other reason than it can truly only be made in games, which are few and far between, and so dependent on other factors like opponent and the performance of one’s teammates.

Brett Hundley might turn out to be good; he might also turn out to be bad. The only way the Packers could have possibly known for sure is exactly this type of extended audition to grow, fail, learn, and most importantly play.

Though Hundley is only playing as a substitute, for his own development there’s no substitute for playing.