INDIANAPOLIS — The 32 quarterbacks who start in the NFL each week are among the most well-known athletes in America. The most passionate fans will know their names and a bit about their backgrounds. The more casual fans will know less.
When the Indianapolis Colts travel to Los Angeles to face the Rams on Sept. 10 for the season opener, it’s reasonable to assume that Scott Tolzien will start in place of Andrew Luck, who’s still on the mend after offseason shoulder surgery. Luck is among one of the best-known players in the league. In contrast, Tolzien could be the most anonymous starting quarterback in Week 1.
So we asked Tolzien: Who are you? How would you describe yourself?
“I would think I’m an easy-going guy,” he says. “Maybe the boring word is that I’m just a normal guy.”
There is very little evidence to the contrary. As much of an everyman as someone who signed a two-year, $3.5 million deal could be, Tolzien is every bit of that. He is the Madden Create-A-Player of backup quarterbacks. Coaches extoll his work ethic, teammates elaborate on his great locker-room presence, every feature story on him makes mention of how smart he is. To top it off, his answers in this day’s group interview are store-brand vanilla:
“Just trying to watch the film and minimize the mistakes and capitalize on the things that you’ve learned in the meeting room” and “you take it one day at a time and nothing more” followed by the routine “whatever the coaches tell me to do, I’ll do.”
The most outstanding part of Tolzien—which, at first and second glance, can seem underwhelming—is that he’s developed from a two-star prospect to a seven-year NFL veteran and spot starter. Tolzien was a two-year high school starter in Illinois before becoming a last-minute commit to the University of Wisconsin. He and five others Badgers became known as the “Sunday Six” after Paul Chryst offered them scholarships the weekend before National Signing Day.
He redshirted one year and worked for two more years before becoming the starter, taking Wisco to the Rose Bowl in his senior campaign and going 21–5 under center when starting. No NFL team took the nation’s most accurate passer (based on completion percentage) in the 2011 draft, but the Chargers signed him as an undrafted free agent that summer. By putting pen to paper, Tolzien beat out the long odds he thought he’d never overcome.
“I remember as a kid you hear all the percentages of playing professional football, and it was always an awe-struck goal but you never really thought, oh you know…” Tolzien says, trailing off. “I was always a believer in those numbers and I better get a great education because odds are I’m not going to go professional. It’s a blessing to still be playing this game that I was playing in my street right in front of my two brothers.”
But Tolzien has flown under the radar since he wrapped up his career at Wisconsin. He was San Francisco’s third-string quarterback for its Super Bowl XLVII run before backing up Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn for three years in Green Bay. When he started in place of an injured starter—Luck last year and Rodgers before that—news outlets would publish the quintessential ‘Random facts to know about Scott Tolzien.’ Without fail, three facts would more or less overlap, and near the top of each list was the pronunciation of his last name: toll-ZEEN.
Other than that, he has virtually no online footprint. There’s a Facebook account with 639 friends that appears to be his, with the occasional updated photo depending on what team he’s on. No Instagram, it appears. No Twitter account promoting the latest energy drink or spitting out automated Bible verses each morning.
Tolzien says he doesn’t spend much time analyzing himself, so he recommends that I go ask other people.
Tight end Jack Doyle: “He does a great job. I think sometimes the backup quarterback, he’s kind of being like the starter, having the same type of cadence, too. I know he does a great job of asking Andrew how he does things. He’s done a great job through spring and training camp of taking control of our offense.”
Cornerback Vontae Davis: “He’s a great teammate, locker room guy. A lot of guys respect him from how he came in and the work he’s put in. He’s a veteran. He’s been in the league seven years, and you don’t stay in the league that long as a backup if you’re not thought highly of. He’s a great guy in the locker room.”
Yeah, Vontae, but what about him as a person?
“He’s kind of off to himself. When you get to know him he’s a funny guy,” Davis says. “Me, I talk to him all the time. He’s very personable and he’s a great guy. We love Scott. Everybody loves Scott.”
Because no one will give me a glimpse into the soul of the Colts’ possible Week 1 starter, I take the shortcut and ask him what the most-used app on his phone is. You can tell a lot about a person by the app that burns up his or her iPhone battery the most.
“I’m not a big app guy. Probably just the Weather app. That’s sad to say,” Tolzien says. “You ask this question but I haven’t spent a second of time looking at an app in training camp. It’s taken two weeks since I last looked at an app. I say the Weather app because that’s the only one I’ve been using the past two weeks.”
The Colts’ season rests on Luck’s throwing shoulder and everyone knows it. If Tolzien or Stephen Morris have to start the majority of Indianapolis’ games this season, the team will be sitting at home again in January.
Of the previous six seasons, Tolzien has been on the 53-man roster four years. He’s appeared in nine games with two touchdowns and seven interceptions, and he’s 0-2-1 as a starter. No doubt he’s started in tough situations, replacing the concussed franchise quarterback midseason with little work with the first-team offense. Last year he started Week 11’s 28–7 loss to the Steelers where he completed 61% of his passes and tossed one touchdown to two interceptions.
And in 2013 with Rodgers sidelined, Tolzien started against the Giants in a 27–13 loss where he threw three picks. But even his tie doesn’t hold up to close inspection: he began that Vikings game 7-of-17 passing and was replaced by Flynn midway through the third quarter with the Packers trailing 20–7. Flynn led the fourth-quarter comeback that ultimately finished in a 26-all knot.
However, there’s one thing missing from his NFL career—a win. And for a minute, there’s no more hackneyed backup quarterback talk.
“I would say that that is the one thing that you do think about,” Tolzien says. “When I grew up playing baseball, basketball and football, you played to win the game. Period. I want to get a win. That is something that I do think about. But how do you combat that? You work at it one day at a time and try to prove yourself daily.”
In the Colts’ first preseason game against the Lions, Tolzien underwhelmed in his three series under center. He threw five (mostly short) passes, completed two (including one 20-yarder) and took a sack. Two series were three-and-outs, and the final series produced one first down before stalling before midfield.
Colts owner Jim Irsay couldn’t say Luck would be ready for the opener when he spoke to reporters after Sunday’s exhibition, and he admitted the team looked closely at a veteran quarterback (not Kaepernick) before deciding his price was too steep. The notorious backhanded compliment given to backup quarterbacks rings true for Tolzien: he won’t win you a game, but he won’t lose you the game, either—and the team knows that.
As little as we may know about the man who’s assuming the starting QB role for the Colts, we do know one thing. Once he finished with his media duties on Friday after practice, Tolzien went to the aluminum bench at the practice field and unlaced his cleats, right foot then left foot, before heading inside the facility.
Scott Tolzien takes his shoes off after work just like the rest of us.