Much of the fog surrounding the off-season NFL quarterback market is lifting. The Colts, having released Peyton Manning, are practically assured of drafting Stanford's Andrew Luck No. 1. The Redskins' blockbuster move for the Rams' slot at No. 2—giving up three first-round picks plus a second-rounder—means Baylor's Robert Griffin III will almost surely join Washington in 2012. Assuming Manning has a home by the time you read this, Matt Flynn would be the big man on the market. Strange. Flynn sat for three years behind JaMarcus Russell at LSU before being drafted by the Packers in the seventh round in 2008, and he just completed his fourth season as Aaron Rodgers's backup. Over the last eight years of his football life, Flynn, 26, has been a starter for just one. In a league obsessed with and driven by QBs, he's a mystery.
And to think that the Brett Favre melodrama almost drove Flynn from Green Bay—and maybe from pro football. In early July 2008, Flynn was at the San Diego airport, on his way home after attending the NFL rookie symposium. Along with fellow Packers draft pick Josh Sitton, he watched a TV report on the story of the day: Favre was considering ending his four-month retirement to return to the Packers. Rodgers was already poised to take Favre's place, and Green Bay had drafted Louisville's Brian Brohm in the second round, 153 spots before Flynn. He did the math. Teams don't keep four quarterbacks. Some don't keep three. "Good knowing you, buddy," Sitton said. He wasn't smiling.
"What if Brett comes back?" Flynn recalls thinking. "What happens to me? Maybe I can get on somebody's practice squad. Was I [envisioning] what's happening now? Absolutely not."
Flynn's résumé may be brief, but what he's done with his limited chances makes him very tempting. As the starter in 2007 he led LSU to the national championship. In his two starts with the Packers when Rodgers was either injured or being rested, he almost beat one playoff team (the Patriots in 2010) and did beat another (the Lions in '11). While footballs were flying and passing records were falling last season, the single best performance by an NFL quarterback belonged not to Rodgers or Drew Brees or Tom Brady but to Flynn: Against Detroit in the season finale at Lambeau Field, he set Packers records for passing yards, with 480, and touchdown passes, with six, in a 45--41 victory.
So how good is he? Do those two NFL starts signify a potential franchise quarterback? To get a sense of Flynn's ability, I sat down with him in the LSU football offices in early March—he lives in Baton Rouge in the off-season—and watched the video of that Lions win. The takeaways were positive: Flynn is not overly quick, but he showed a knack for avoiding the rush when pressured. His arm appears average, but his touch on three deep completions (one slightly underthrown) was big league. On his 49 drop-backs, including three sacks and two scrambles, he had just one brain lock: a telegraphed short throw to the left side that was picked off by cornerback Alphonso Smith, Flynn's only interception. Throughout the game he showed that he understood the two imperatives of the Packers' offense: Keep the chains moving, and don't take unnecessary chances. "We're very methodical," Flynn said in the midst of eight straight completions, only one of which traveled more than 13 yards past the line of scrimmage. "The home run shots come when you least expect them."
One home run shot in this game was notable because it showed why a team with a thick playbook would like Flynn. "You don't surprise Matt," Rodgers said last week. "He's got an answer for everything."
Late in the first half, with Green Bay at the Detroit 36, the Lions jumped into the neutral zone. "When this happens," Flynn said, "I'm in the middle of my cadence, but [center] Scott Wells's job is to snap it immediately to try to get that free play off. And our rule is, once that happens, the receivers have to recognize it, and they all head straight to the end zone. We take a shot." On the left, wideout Jordy Nelson sprinted downfield, with Smith hanging stride for stride. The 36-yard rainbow, thrown perfectly, landed in the hands of a leaping Nelson at the goal line. Touchdown.
It sounds easy, but a quarterback has to recognize the neutral-zone infraction, expect the quick snap, erase the play call from his head and know he's got to throw deep, accurately, to take advantage of the offside. Flynn might leave one or two 18-yard outs to the far hash a little shy, but in today's NFL the smart, accurate quarterbacks who can evade pressure are the winning quarterbacks.
And in the right offense, Flynn can be just that.