GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur was talking about his starting quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, on Friday afternoon and how game-planning was going for next Thursday night’s season-opener against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. As he spoke, LaFleur said something about playing quarterback in the NFL that he’s been saying since he became the Green Bay Packers coach back in January — and has believed for most of his coaching life.
“I feel like it’s the toughest position in all of sports,” LaFleur said.
While the Packers don’t have much to worry about at the top of their quarterback depth chart with Rodgers back for his 12th season as the starter, they were in the process of making a tough call Friday on what to do behind Rodgers: Which backups, and how many, they should keep when the NFL-mandated 53-man roster limit goes into effect Saturday at 3 p.m.
“You can never have enough good quarterbacks. That’s the one thing I’ll tell you,” LaFleur said, knowing general manager Brian Gutekunst had already informed a handful of players of their release earlier in the day. “So if you feel like you have three of them, you’re going to keep three of them.”
The Packers seem to think they have three of them in Rodgers, third-year man DeShone Kizer and second-year man Tim Boyle. But with other considerations at other positions and with an intriguing prospect and practice-squad candidate as their No. 4 quarterback in undrafted rookie Manny Wilkins, nothing was guaranteed after the team’s 27-20 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in the preseason finale.
Boyle started the game and completed 3 of 6 passes for 18 yards and one TD (95.8 passer rating), while Kizer came in during the second quarter and went 8 of 15 for 77 yards with one TD and one interception (62.4 rating). For the preseason, Boyle finished 34 of 57 (59.6 percent) for 356 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions (an NFL-best 112.9 passer rating); Kizer was 25 of 45 (55.5 percent) for 273 yards with two TDs and two INTs (70.0 rating).
For the preseason, Boyle played 109 game snaps, while Kizer played 95 and Wilkins got just 42. Boyle led the offense to 52 points; Kizer led the group to just 17.
“He’s a young player and he’s got a lot more to learn. He did a lot of good things, and then there’s some things that we were constantly on him about, about trying to be a little bit more consistent,” LaFleur replied when asked about Kizer’s fit in his offense. “He’s talented. He’s athletic. He’s definitely into it, and I thought it was a really good (fit). He’s been a great teammate; he’s been great in the room.”
If the Packers are unsure about their backup situation, they could be interested in ex-Los Angeles Rams backup quarterback Brandon Allen, whom the Rams released Friday. A sixth-round pick by Jacksonville in 2016, he spent that season as the Jaguars’ third quarterback and spent the 2017 season as the Rams’ third quarterback before spending last season on the Rams’ practice squad. This preseason, he completed 63.8 percent of his passes for 431 yards with no touchdowns and three interceptions (63.1 rating).
The Packers coaching staff knows him well, though, as offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett coached him in Jacksonville in 2016 and LaFleur was his offensive coordinator in L.A. in 2017.
After starting against Houston on Aug. 8 and again on Aug. 15 at Baltimore when Rodgers was a late scratch because of back tightness, Kizer was a bit unlucky with the circumstances he found himself in the past few weeks. His first series Thursday night, for example, began at the 4-yard line.
For his part, the 23-year-old Kizer said after the game that he was hoping to stay in Green Bay and perhaps spend back-to-back years in the same system for the first time since college. He played in one system in his final season at Notre Dame, another as a rookie starter in Cleveland in 2017, a third last year in Green Bay under ex-head coach Mike McCarthy, and now a fourth under LaFleur.
“What I’ve learned from this experience, especially this year, but also the many, non-ideal circumstances I’ve been in for my whole football career — from Notre Dame, where you get thrown into the fire; to Cleveland, where you get thrown into the fire and go 0-16, to being traded to a new team and trying to find your space in that — is part of being a pro is somehow or another being able to adapt to every environment and have success,” Kizer said. “I haven’t had as much success as I wanted, but for the most part I think the work that I put in and the time and effort that’s been spent the past offseason and this training camp has made me a better quarterback. And that’s all I can ask for.
“In terms of myself, I feel confident as hell. I’ve changed my body, I’ve changed my process as far as how I go about things, I’ve changed my mentality with how I approach the game, and with that, I’m happy. This has been a great offseason for me. The decision of whether or not I play for this team isn’t on me. But what I can say it that I’m confident I’ve become a better quarterback.”
In the waning days of training camp, Gutekunst wouldn’t say if having the Thursday night game to open the season might mean making cuts earlier than he normally would if the Packers were opening regular-season play on a Sunday. Obviously, he decided to get started Friday, knowing he had 37 roster moves to make to get the team down from 90 to 53 players before Saturday’s deadline.
As for Friday evening, according to reports from PackersNews.com, The Athletic and Maven Sports, the Packers had released 13 players: wide receivers Teo Redding and Malik Taylor; fullbacks Tommy Bohanon and Malcolm Johnson; tight end Pharoah McKever; offensive linemen Anthony Coyle, Gerhard de Beer and Dejon Allen; inside linebacker Brady Sheldon; defensive lineman Deon Simon; cornerbacks Nydair Rouse, Jocquez Kalili and Jackson Porter; and safety Tray Matthews.
“We’re kind of still in the middle of that (process),” LaFleur said Friday afternoon. While the coaches were watching film of the Bears and formulating their game plan for the opener, LaFleur said Gutekunst had spoken to him multiple times throughout the day.
“He just comes down and grabs me whenever he needs me,” LaFleur said.
Bring the noise
LaFleur admitted he didn’t notice during the game that the widely panned third-down foghorn had been taken out of circulation by the Lambeau Field game-day operations crew after it met with negative reviews following the first preseason game.
“I wasn’t aware of that. But I was told,” LaFleur said. “I’m sure some people are very happy out there.”
LaFleur, though, will be happy if whatever approach the Packers take leads to more noise and a greater homefield advantage this season. LaFleur said the game-day decision-makers have asked him for his input.
“I’m always trying to chime in a little bit,” LaFleur said. “I know that we’ve got other things that we’re focused on, but I truly believe that it does affect games. There’s no doubt in my mind. I’ve been in some of these hostile environments where it’s extremely tough on the opposing teams when the crowd is into it, they’re up on their feet, it’s really loud, you can’t hear. And I do think it makes a tremendous impact on games.”