CHICAGO − The rest of the NFL-watching world saw Brett Hundley take a step in the right direction during the fourth quarter of the Green Bay Packers’ 23-16 victory over the Chicago Bears Sunday at Soldier Field.
The Packers offensive linemen saw it earlier than that. Like, say, during practice last week.
“You could kind of tell throughout the week that he grew that confidence, he grew that experience,” guard Lane Taylor said. “You could just tell his demeanor was a little different.”
What were the telltale signs?
“He knew everywhere we should be going and everywhere he needs to go,” Taylor said. “He got on us a few times (last) week, which was nice. I kind of liked it.”
Sunday, the Packers loved it. Making his third start in place of injured Aaron Rodgers, Hundley finally showed signs that he has NFL-level talent, especially at crunch time when his big plays helped the Packers hold off the late-charging Bears and snap their three-game, Rodgers-less losing streak.
Despite playing with a sore hamstring, Hundley’s 19-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Davante Adams with 5 minutes, 29 seconds left restored the Packers’ 10-point lead after the Bears had cut it to 16-13. When a subsequent Bears field goal whittled the lead to 23-16, Hundley led a time-consuming drive that ended in a botched field-goal try but was highlighted by his 42-yard pass to Adams up the right sideline.
Sure, it was only two plays − three if you count his slow-motion, 17-yard scramble during the touchdown drive − but they represented the one thing the Packers have been hoping to see from the third-year quarterback: Progress.
Playing quarterback in the NFL is a live-and-learn proposition. The only way to learn is by playing and an NFL game is a harsh environment for inexperienced quarterbacks. After Hundley turned in lackluster performances in his first three appearances − one in relief, two starts − many wondered if the Packers’ season was doomed.
A victory over the inept Bears doesn’t mean the season was rescued Sunday, nor does it confirm that Hundley is the Packers’ savior. But for the first time he provided a ray of hope that he can win games and keep the Packers in contention. The first sign came when Hundley scrambled to his right and fired a perfect back-shoulder fade to Adams between two defenders at the goal line.
“He’s getting comfortable back there,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “He’s making plays. He’s getting back to where he feels comfortable and has that confidence to let it go. It’s great to see. It’s a lot to expect from a a guy who hasn’t played in 2½ years of live football and to come into the NFL and handle it. I think he’s done a great job in the three weeks of staying calm, not putting a lot of pressure on him and just going out there and playing. But it was a big-time throw and big-time catch at a crucial moment.”
Hundley made another big-time throw on the next series. After a delay-of-game penalty made it third-and-10, he launched an on-target deep ball to Adams, with whom he clearly has built a trust. The 42-yard play put the Packers on the Bears’ 23.
In his first two starts, Hundley was hamstrung by two things: the conservative, risk-averse game plans employed by coach Mike McCarthy and a shortage of confidence that made him overly cautious and virtually unable to throw the ball down the field. But when he turned down a chance to run for a first down and winged the touchdown pass to Adams, it seemed to signal that had had crossed a threshold with his confidence.
“It’s an elite-level play,” Adams said. “Anybody can take off and run. You can put a running back back there and play quarterback if you want him to just run it all the time. I don’t think running the ball would have gotten him a score, but throwing a great ball, a back-shoulder like that to an open guy (did). I wasn’t wide open. It was a good throw and it actually made me a little bit more open the way he threw it. That’s a next level play. He’s got to continue to make those.”
Not only was McCarthy’s game plan more aggressive throwing the ball, but the coach’s renewed commitment to the run also helped out Hundley. Despite going through three halfbacks, the Packers ran for 160 yards on a season-high 37 carries.
Mind you, Hundley’s play wasn’t as flawless as his 110.8 passer rating would have you believe. His pocket awareness was a problem at times and his clock management cost the Packers yardage. With the clock winding down in the first quarter, he “lost track of things” and called an unnecessary timeout. On the play prior to the 42-yard pass, he took a delay penalty.
Still, Hundley played what McCarthy called his “best game of the year” and earned his first victory as a starter.
“Every snap he takes in the game is going to build not only his confidence but his coolness and his collectedness,” tackle David Bakhtiari said. “Those reps in games are invaluable. You can’t really put a number on it. We try to set up certain situations in practice, but at the end of the day, in a game when everything matters − play clock, down and distance, time, whatever the score is − those are reps that will pay big dividends.”
For the struggling Packers, they already have.