Green Bay backup Matt Flynn ready to prove he can lead a franchise
The first day of NFL free agency -- March 13 -- can't come soon enough for Matt Flynn. The soon-to-be ex-Green Bay Packer backup is expected to be the league's most in-demand free-agent quarterback --once Drew Brees is signed or franchised by the Saints and outside of Peyton Manning being healthy and released by the Colts.
"I'm a confident person but the element of the unknown makes you wish March 13 was tomorrow," Flynn said this week. "I've loved being a Packer, and it's not 100% sure I'm leaving Green Bay, but as a competitor and football player, that's what you play the game for -- to be a starter in the League. Hopefully some teams will be interested in me and I can find a good opportunity. I want to lead a team and I'm excited about it. But I can't talk to teams now. I don't know if I'm on their radar. It's going to be a long month leading up to that time -- waiting and wondering."
Such is the beauty and curse of free agency for the top players. They've paid their dues with their current teams. They have visions of grandeur and a big payday, yet fear a soft market.
Matt Flynn need not be overly concerned. In a quarterback-driven league, the 6-2, 225 pounder is definitely on the radar of teams in need of a new starting quarterback, such as Miami, Washington, Seattle, Cleveland and perhaps some surprise team, like Arizona, Oakland, Houston and the New York Jets. His meager two career starts in the NFL will not deter teams from seeking a 26-year-old with a great pedigree and promising future.
That's what setting two Packer franchise records -- 480 yards passing and six touchdown passes -- in the regular season finale (a 45-41 win over Detroit) will do for you. That, along with a background that includes growing up in the spotlight of Texas high school football, winning a national championship at LSU and being a seventh-round pick yet beating out a second rounder (Brian Brohm) for the Packers No. 2 QB job in his rookie year. And let's not forget his impressive first regular season start, at New England in 2010, when he filled in for an injured Aaron Rodgers and passed for 251 yards and three TDs with a 100.2 rating in a 31-27 loss against an 11-2 Patriots team.
"You can have all the confidence in the world but those two NFL starts were important for me and more important for my teammates, especially the New England game," Flynn said. "After that, they knew if something happened to Aaron, I could keep us competitive."
Teams are doing their due diligence on Flynn now before they commit to the expected $10 million per year deal that it will take to sign him. Teams know all about the backup made good success stories of Tom Brady (former sixth-rounder, backed up his first year), Rodgers (No. 1 pick who sat behind Brett Favre for three years) and Tony Romo (undrafted, backed up in Dallas for three years before getting his shot).
They also are well aware of the recent longtime backups who received big money to move on but have not yet proven their worth. That list includes Kevin Kolb, who was traded from Philadelphia (where he had seven starts in four years) to Arizona last year, signed for five years, $63 million and was 2-6 as a starter in 2011. Matt Cassel was Brady's backup for three years, had a good season when he replaced the injured Brady in 2008 and then was traded to Kansas City, where he signed a six-year, $63 million contract. He has had one good season out of his three with the Chiefs.
Matt Schaub has done reasonably well as an Atlanta backup turned Houston starter. Tavaris Jackson not so much as the Vikings backup turned Seahawks starter. A classic bust further back in time was Rob Johnson, a Jaguars backup for three years who was traded to Buffalo for first- and fourth-rounders and received a big contract but couldn't beat out Doug Flutie.
A good omen for Flynn is the strong track record of former Packers backups who have gone on to successful careers elsewhere. This list includes Mark Brunell and Matt Hasselbeck, who both backed up Brett Favre early in their careers and went on to stardom at Jacksonville and Seattle, respectively. Then throw in Kurt Warner, who was cut by the Packers in training camp in 1994 and battled back to become NFL MVP and a Super Bowl champion in St. Louis in 1999. Warner then played in two more Super Bowls for the Rams and Cardinals.
As Vikings GM in the 1990s, I saw Brad Johnson successfully transition from a ninth-round pick who was our backup for four years until he replaced an injured Warren Moon and led us to the playoffs in 1996 and 1997. After being injured and replaced by Randall Cunningham, Johnson was traded to Washington and eventually won a Super Bowl as Tampa Bay's starter in 2002.
In the 1980s, I watched Wade Wilson do similar great things in moving from backup to starter and taking our 1987 Vikings team to the NFC Championship Game (a close loss in Washington). So I always had faith in the ability of the right backup to move up and be successful.
GMs and coaches can't speak publicly about impending free agents, but several have told me their scouting reports on Flynn state: good to very good in the following categories -- arm strength, quick release, accuracy, athleticism and mobility (especially moving in the pocket); hard worker, smart, tough, composed, great competitor, an excellent teammate and leader; good character.
They like that he has been tutored by Packers coach Mike McCarthy, former Packers offensive coordinator and now Miami head coach Joe Philbin and his QB coach at Green Bay, Tom Clements -- all well known for their ability to develop top quarterbacks. And he has soaked up QB savvy watching and learning over the last four years from Rodgers, the NFL MVP.
Those who know Matt Flynn best certainly are not surprised by his development. He comes from a family of five kids and high achievement (his sister Amanda has been in the Broadway National Tours of Wicked and Mamma Mia). His father, Alvin, was a quarterback at Baylor.
"My mom always says I got my athletic ability from her, but my dad was a huge influence and the reason I started playing quarterback," Flynn says. "We spent hours and days out there throwing the football -- with him telling me to keep my elbow up. He taught me how to play the game, everything about quarterback mechanics and being mentally strong. Basically everything I knew about the position until I got to college, and he still influences me. After the 480-yard game against Detroit, he said, 'Good job but there's a couple of things you can do to be even better.' "
Flynn has fought through adversity throughout his football life. As a high school quarterback at Lee High in Tyler, Texas, he showed his toughness by playing the final four games, including the state semifinals, with a torn tendon on his foot.
At LSU, he backed up for three seasons (including his time behind 2007 No. 1 overall NFL pick JaMarcus Russell). He was 10-2 as a senior starter with four come-from-behind victories and the BCS title game win over Ohio State, in which he tossed four touchdown passes and was named Offensive MVP.
"It was tough to wait so long to start at LSU, but that experience of going from a backup to the spotlight for one year definitely will help me as I hopefully move forward as an NFL starter," Flynn said. "Just playing in the SEC was great with all the big games -- it's as close as you can get to the NFL. When we beat Alabama with two TDs in the last five minutes, that was Nick Saban's first game against LSU where he'd coached, so that was huge. I've been in those pressure cooker situations -- the big college games and the national championship -- so I know I can handle it. I'm a laid back person so it doesn't affect me too much. I was confident then and I'm confident now."
At Green Bay, other than his two starts, Flynn's playtime was limited to preseason action and his role as holder in his first two seasons. But he watched and learned. "Aaron is the best quarterback in the game and he took me under his wing," Flynn says. "He taught me a lot and I'm very thankful for the time I spent with him and my coaches. It will be bittersweet if I leave. I made a lot of friends for life there. I owe a lot to the organization. It was a great spot to learn and be successful as a team. We had an incredible core group of unselfish players and everyone knew that with Aaron, they could get the ball and score on any play. I saw the system grow and the players grow.
"I've learned so much mentally and physically from some of the best in Green Bay. When I first got there, I wasn't as prepared as I am now. I've worked on mechanical adjustments and I feel that I'm a lot better passer in arm strength and accuracy than I was in college. I've been working to get better and better and I continue to do so."
If he's fortunate enough to hit the jackpot financially in free agency and take the giant leap from his $600,000 salary of last year, Flynn says "it wouldn't change my world much. I'm a pretty simple person. You'll still catch me on a lake fishing or on a golf course in my free time."
There is still a remote chance that the Packers will place the franchise tag on Flynn and then try to trade him, as the Patriots did with Cassel. But the Packers would have to carry the estimated $14 million tender on their cap until they traded him and that makes it very unlikely, especially when they know they will get a compensatory pick -- probably a late third -- for him leaving in free agency.
As for his next destination, Flynn won't reveal his wish list at this time. Miami with Philbin and Mike Sherman (new offensive coordinator and former Packers coach) seems like the perfect fit since the Dolphins will adopt the Packers system that Flynn is most familiar with, and there is offensive talent there with wide receiver Brandon Marshall, running back Reggie Bush and perennial Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long.
Washington, Seattle and Cleveland are the next most likely landing spots but both the Browns (with the No. 4 pick in the draft) and Redskins (No. 6) may be looking to trade up to the Rams No. 2 spot and select Robert Griffin III if Andrew Luck goes No. 1 as expected to Indianapolis. The Browns could stick with Colt McCoy but the Redskins are moving on from Rex Grossman and John Beck. Also remember that new Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie came from Green Bay, so he knows Flynn well.
The Peyton rumors are in play with the Redskins and especially the Dolphins, where owner Stephen Ross is said to be enamored with the idea of bringing Manning to South Florida to sell tickets and win more games. Philbin would probably just as soon go with the QB he knows in Flynn. Meanwhile Matt isn't sweating the Peyton rumors.
"I try not to worry about things I can't control so there's no reason to have negative thoughts about that, " he said. "My goal is to be one of the top quarterbacks in the NFL and all I can ask for is an opportunity to find a good situation with a team that wants me. And then go there and have success."
That good news should be forthcoming early on March 13, when the phone starts ringing with strong offers for Matt Flynn. Meanwhile, his waiting game continues.