GREEN BAY − Aaron Rodgers never plays in the Green Bay Packers' exhibition opener anyway, but coach Mike McCarthy certainly wasn't going to put his franchise quarterback in harm's way with his starting offensive tackles out with injuries.
That left the bulk of the quarterbacking duties to Brett Hundley and DeShone Kizer in the Packers' 31-17 victory over Tennessee on Thursday night at Lambeau Field.
The Packers certainly know what Rodgers can do and they need to find out if Hundley or Kizer can direct the team efficiently if Rodgers isn't available. They began gathering evidence for their backup quarterback competition in earnest against the Titans.
"This is when guys have a chance to make a team, increase their value," McCarthy said early in the week. "Especially for quarterbacks and especially when you’re playing behind a guy like Rodgers. Because the goal is for you not to play all year. These opportunities are so important for both of those guys."
They're important for the Packers, too. No one in Wisconsin needs to be reminded that when Rodgers went down with a broken collarbone last season, Hundley wasn't up to the task and the Packers missed the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
Hundley is back for his fourth season and the former fifth-round draft pick is trying to turn the experience he gained in his 10 games last season into a step forward this season. The Packers are hoping that happens, but they covered themselves by trading for Kizer, who started 13 games for winless Cleveland as a rookie second-round pick last season with predictably poor results.
With Rodgers expected to play sparingly, if at all, in the preseason, the four exhibition games will determine which of the two is better and, more important, if either one can be trusted as Rodgers' primary backup.
What will the Packers be looking for?
"I think it's managing the offense, managing the huddle, moving the ball and making plays," general manager Brian Gutekunst said. "That's ultimately what those guys are out there for. Those are the things we'll look for."
What they saw was a significantly improved performance from Hundley, a promising if uneven game from Kizer and even a surprisingly solid outing from rookie fourth-stringer Tim Boyle.
Under less-than-perfect conditions, mostly because tackles Byron Bell and Kyle Murphy were inconsistent in pass protection, neither Hundley nor Kizer was perfect. However, each showed some positive signs, with Hundley looking more comfortable in the pocket and making timelier decisions and throws in the Packers' quick-rhythm offense and Kizer gaining experience in the offense by completing several of its signature slant passes. All three quarterbacks completed a deep pass, a vital element of the offense that was missing when Rodgers was sidelined last season.
"You have to be able to make big plays," McCarthy said.
Hundley came out strong, taking the Packers 71 yards on nine plays and completing the drive with an 8-yard touchdown pass to halfback Jamaal Williams. Though the touchdown was more run than pass, it amazingly was Hundley's first touchdown pass at Lambeau since the 2017 preseason. Still, he completed four of his five passes for 74 yards and looked to be more calm and collected in the pocket than last year. That was evident on the drive's biggest play when Hundley stepped up in pocket and hit wide receiver Davante Adams in stride for a 48-yard gain.
Hundley also had an impressive play on his second drive when he rolled to his left and fired a pass through a small window to rookie wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown for 13 yards. However, the drive stalled when Hundley fumbled after being hit from behind when Murphy let Harold Landry beat him around the corner. On the next drive, Hundley had the Packers moving again when Gimel President beat Bell around the corner and hit his arm as he threw, causing an interception.
"I thought Brett Hundley did some really good things," McCarthy said. "He got us started with the big throw there. Productive. Decision-making was sound. I thought clearly his tempo was the best of the three quarterbacks. We had the two sacks (that) were the negative of his time in there. But I thought he played well."
Kizer also started fast, driving the Packers to the 4-yard line at the end of the first half using mostly short passes and scrambles. However, he missed on two fade passes after that and the Packers came up empty.
Early in the second half, Kizer drove the Packers 90 yards for a touchdown, the big play coming on a 51-yard pass to rookie wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling. Kizer had trouble finding open receivers from the pocket on the drive, but on the long pass he scrambled forward and used his athleticism to throw a jump pass 50 yards in the air.
"I thought he did some good things," McCarthy said. "We had some very long drives."
Boyle showed signs of being a viable third quarterback, which means Hundley and Kizer might be competing for one spot. But it's early. We have three more games to see if Hundley can find a quicker rhythm and Kizer can harness his athletic ability enough so they can be efficient in an offense that demands it.