Bubby Brister knows how Hundley feels.
So does Jay Fiedler.
And Jeff Garcia.
Teams talk a lot about the “next man up” philosophy. But what about when it’s next Superman up?
“I didn’t want to let John down, I didn’t want to be the weak link in the chain,” recalled Brister of that 1998 Broncos season when he started four games in place of an injured Elway. “I remember talking to my wife. I’d wake up in the middle of the night and flip through the playbook and all that, and I was like, ‘Damnit, I know it,’ but you just didn’t want to be the guy who let him down.”
That self-imposed pressure and attention to detail paid off, as Brister went 4-0 as a starter and had a better passer rating that Elway, a mostly forgotten tidbit in what turned out to be a Super Bowl repeat for the Broncos.
Even when a star is finished for good, he leaves an afterglow. Fiedler discovered that in 2000, when he was Miami’s starter the year after Marino retired — and was reminded every week just who came before him.
The media in Miami was fixated on that story line early in the season, naturally, but then eventually let it go once the Fiedler-replacing-Marino story got old. But each Wednesday when he did his mandatory conference-call interview with out-of-town reporters covering that week’s opponent, Fiedler was asked to answer the same question about what it’s like to replace a legend.
“I probably could have put a tape recorder out with my standard response and played that,” Fiedler said. “It was just, hit the replay button and here you go again.”
Garcia, who was undrafted out of San Jose State and started his career in Canada, thought he’d be able to learn at the elbow of Young and have a few years to fine-tune his game behind a future Hall of Famer.
Then, three games into the 1999 season, Young suffered what would be a career-ending concussion, and Garcia was rushed into action. No leisurely ramp-up, no perfecting his craft and holding a clipboard on Sundays. It was: Hey, Garcia, you’re up!
“For me, stepping onto the field all of a sudden, having limited repetitions in practice with the starters, mostly running the scout team, it was really trial by fire,” Garcia said. “As much as it was a great opportunity for me, there was pressure … Before Steve, there was Joe Montana. So you had two of the best quarterbacks of all time, and now all of a sudden there was this guy was a Bay Area guy but people didn’t know him, wasn’t drafted, came from Canada, and now all of a sudden he was the starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers?
“For me it was a dream. But for everybody else … they were questioning.”
Those questions are bouncing around Green Bay this week, with Hundley, a former UCLA star selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft, trying to fill the cleats of Rodgers, a two-time NFL most valuable player who suffered a broken collarbone in Sunday’s loss to Minnesota. It’s unclear whether Rodgers will be able to return this season, as he did after missing seven games with a similar injury in 2013.
Hundley will get his first NFL start Sunday when the Packers play host to New Orleans. Green Bay is tied with Minnesota for first place in the NFC North at 4-2.
“This week I’ve had a whole week of preparation,” Hundley said, “and we’ll have some fun, I’ll tell you that much.”
Packers nation holds its collective breath.
“My wife went out and bought me a No. 7 [Hundley] jersey, and I’m wearing it on the field,” said Jim Schmitt, mayor of Green Bay. “I’m going to support this guy. I think we need to, as a community, get behind him. People are like, ‘Ugh, the season’s over.’ I say, ‘No. Many quarterbacks who were riding the bench stepped up and have done some great things.’ I think that’s what’s going to happen here. We’ve got to give this kid a chance.”
Hundley certainly made his share of great plays at UCLA, where he was recruited by Rick Neuheisel and played for Jim Mora. He looked pretty rough in last Sunday’s 23-10 loss to the Vikings, with his three interceptions overshadowing his one touchdown.
“With Aaron Rodgers and his mastery of that offense, the confidence he instills in everybody, there’s some shock that goes into it when you lose him,” Neuheisel said. “And Hundley is also part of that shock wave. There’s going to be some, ‘Holy smokes! I gotta go in!’ All of a sudden you’re looking around and trying to find your helmet.
“It will be infinitely better this week, because there will be an adaption period. So they’re not going to run the same Green Bay Packer offense they ran with Aaron Rodgers. But there will be some things that will be better with Brett Hundley. They’ll incorporate his legs … He is going to make some heroic plays with his legs.”
Matt Hasselbeck began his NFL career in that Green Bay system, and backed up Hall of Famer Brett Favre. Although Hasselbeck wasn’t overly impressed with what he saw from Hundley last Sunday, he’s confident that Packers coach Mike McCarthy will have him prepared.
“I remember when I was Brett’s backup, and Mike McCarthy was our quarterbacks coach,” Hasselbeck said. “He would have me prepared. When we would do red-zone installations, instead of him teaching Brett, he’d say, ‘All right, Hasselbock’ — he couldn’t pronounce my name — ‘you install it!’ So I’d be there teaching it to Brett, and that was funny because Brett already knew it better than anybody.”
McCarthy would have Hasselbeck compile a book of “quarterback reminders,” which would be roughly 15 pages of detailed notes and observations that the backup would give the starter to fill in any information gaps.
“Essentially, I had to prepare like a starter,” Hasselbeck said. “Legitimately. With a real-time notebook that I was handing in to Mike McCarthy to give to the group.”
It was almost like a graduate-level course for a young player learning behind a superstar. It’s likely that Hundley had to do the same.
Now, graduate school is over. Time for Hundley to show what he knows.