But while the No. 2 quarterback’s free-agent fate clearly depends in part on whether the Packers want him back -- and in part on whether another team would like to have him compete for a starting job -- he might still have a decision to make. And that decision won’t be as obvious as one might think.
Could backing up Aaron Rodgers for another year be a better option than competing for a starting job? Well, yes.
While every quarterback longs to be a starter, Tolzien said he’s seen other quarterbacks in his position jump at the chance to compete for a starting job elsewhere, only to struggle in a new system, surrounded by potentially inferior personnel -- after all, a team that’s willing to give a career backup a shot at its starting-quarterback job probably isn’t an upper-echelon franchise -- and with the odds stacked against him.
What seemed like a dream opportunity turns into a nightmare, and suddenly you’re unemployed with less-than-stellar game film from the preseason to sell other teams on.
“In complete sincerity, I haven’t spent much time thinking about what’s ahead,” Tolzien said. “And obviously I’ll [have to] do that now.”
It’s no slam dunk that the Packers, who brought Tolzien back on a one-year, $1.35 million deal that included only $100,000 in guaranteed money last season, will want to re-sign him, although soon-to-be second-year man Brett Hundley's performance in preseason last summer probably wasn’t good enough that the Packers would simply hand him the No. 2 job.
Nonetheless, with the improvement Hundley showed during his first training camp, it’s possible the Packers will decide to go back to the approach they were using before Rodgers fractured his collarbone midway through the 2013 season -- carrying Rodgers and one backup on the 53-man roster, with a developmental QB on the practice squad.
Rodgers’ injury was Tolzien’s entrée to the 53-man roster, as the Packers ended that season with Rodgers, Matt Flynn and Tolzien as their three quarterbacks after Tolzien was called up from the practice squad and veteran backup Seneca Wallace suffered a season-ending groin injury. They carried that same threesome in 2014, then let Flynn go and went with Rodgers, Tolzien and Hundley, a rookie fifth-round pick from UCLA, last season.
The most likely scenario would have the Packers giving Tolzien another one-year deal with limited guaranteed money. Would another team make a better offer? Perhaps, but it might not be a better situation.
Packers coach Mike McCarthy, associate head coach/offense Tom Clements and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt all liked what they saw from Tolzien in his third season in their system, even though his preseason numbers (28-of-46, 250 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, 80.9 rating) weren’t as good as they were the previous summer (38-of-56, 477 yards, three TDs, no picks, 112.0 rating).
“It takes time to learn this system, it takes time to learn how the quarterback plays in this system: from his feet up,” Van Pelt said. “He’s done a tremendous job of changing his mechanics, his footwork. I think his arm looks as live as I’ve seen it, his accuracy is as good as I’ve seen it, decision-making is where you’d want it. So he’s made huge strides.”
Despite two consecutive years of Rodgers staying healthy -- Tolzien played just 10 snaps and threw only one pass during the 2015 season -- McCarthy also hasn’t forgotten 2013, when Rodgers’ collarbone injury reminded the Packers of the importance of a good backup quarterback.
Also in Tolzien’s favor if he wants to come back: Rodgers thinks the world of him. Tolzien could play Doug Pederson to Rodgers’ Brett Favre. Pederson spent seven seasons backing up Favre (1996-98, 2001-04) and threw just 77 passes during his time behind the NFL’s greatest ironman. He was more BFF than backup QB.
“I’m in the unique situation where I get every day to be around the best player on the planet. You can’t put a price tag on that experience, what I’ve learned from just being around Aaron and observing him in a practice week leading up to a game,” said Tolzien, who spent his first two NFL seasons with San Francisco. “You learn a lot about how to prepare for a game and how to lead a team.
“You’re always trying to improve yourself, no matter what profession you’re in, you want to get better every day and I think I was able to do that.”