GREEN BAY — As he sat in his home office Monday afternoon — working remotely, like the rest of the NFL’s coaches, per a new directive from the league — Matt LaFleur wasn’t willing to name his top-secret, dire-emergency quarterback if the COVID-19 pandemic were to wipe the Green Bay Packers out at the game’s most important position.
But the second-year head coach was willing to say who wouldn’t get the call.
“That would be ugly,” said a chuckling LaFleur, who played quarterback in college at Saginaw Valley State and, having just turned 41 on Nov. 3, would only be the third-oldest starting quarterback in the league behind New Orleans’ Drew Brees (who turned 41 in January) and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady (43). “You do not want to see that. We’ll get (quarterbacks coach Luke) Getsy or somebody out there before that. That would be against NFL rules.”
Indeed it would be, something the Denver Broncos found out over the weekend when all of their quarterbacks were unavailable for their 31-3 loss to the Saints after backup quarterback Jeff Driskel tested positive for COVID-19 late in the week and the team’s three remaining eligible quarterbacks — starter Drew Lock, and backups Brett Rypien and Blake Bortles — were each deemed to be high-risk close contacts. The quarterbacks were found to have not worn their required face masks/coverings during a meeting, putting them in the high-risk category.
With no quarterbacks, the Broncos started practice-squad wide receiver Kendall Hinton, who was a quarterback during his first three college seasons at Wake Forest. Hinton completed one pass for 9 yards and threw two interceptions in the loss, having gotten the call after the Broncos mulled signing Rob Calabrese, their offensive quality control coach for the past two years, to the roster. But the NFL denied the Broncos’ request.
The Packers hope, of course, that such a scenario would not play out at 1265 Lombardi Avenue, where the team has taken a strict approach to the NFL’s protocols—and still had two players (running back AJ Dillon, linebacker Krys Barnes) test positive last month and three others (quarterback Jordan Love, linebacker Kamal Martin and running back Jamaal Williams) be deemed high-risk close contacts, landing them on the reserve/COVID-19 list, too.
The small outbreak happened in early November, and while the Packers had to make do in their Nov. 5 win over San Francisco without Williams or Dillon at running back, the team has so far avoided the more extensive outbreaks that have recently plagued other teams.
The team did have some initial concern about Love being deemed a high-risk close contact since he shares a meeting room with starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers, but the Packers’ vigilance about mask-wearing around the facility and the level of social distancing they require in their meeting rooms allayed those concerns after contact tracing was analyzed.
Nevertheless, LaFleur did admit he’s contemplated what he would do if such a problem would arise. Asked Monday if tight end Robert Tonyan, who played quarterback at Indiana State before moving to receiver, would be his in-case-of-emergency-break-glass QB, LaFleur wouldn’t say.
Others with quarterbacking experience in their backgrounds are inside linebacker Ty Summers, who was recruited by Rice to play quarterback but went to TCU as a linebacker instead; tight end Jace Sternberger, who played quarterback early in his high school career; and No. 1 wide receiver Davante Adams, who actually threw during some wide receiver drills in training camp this summer.
“That is something that I’ve definitely put a lot of thought into just in case something like that were ever to occur. And those are discussions that we’ll continue to have,” LaFleur said. “Certainly, guys that have past quarterbacking experience usually go to the top of the list. To say it would be Bobby, I think that’s a little soon to say. But we will have a plan for that.”
With the NFL moving the scheduled Baltimore Ravens-Pittsburgh Steelers game several times since the Ravens’ COVID-19 outbreak, the league last week issued even stronger directives for teams, just days after moving all 32 teams into their intensive protocol program — which previously was only required of teams with documented positive tests, like the Packers had earlier in November.
Then, over the weekend, the NFL informed teams that they had to shut down their facilities and conduct only virtual meetings on Monday and Tuesday, a preemptive measure amid concerns that positive tests would spike in the wake of players getting together with family members for the Thanksgiving holiday.
That’s why LaFleur was working from home Monday. LaFleur said he was already intending to give the players Monday and Tuesday off following the Packers’ 41-25 victory over the Bears on Sunday night before preparing for this week’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles.
“It feels a lot different. We’ve been able to have our meetings, our necessary meetings,” LaFleur said. “We actually gave the guys off until Wednesday. I just don’t feel like the Zoom meetings when you’re showing the tape, it just feels a little bit different. We’re going to restructure Wednesday a little bit and we’ll kind of put this game to bed Wednesday morning right away and then we’ll get on to Philly.”
LaFleur praised the work of security chief Doug Collins and head athletic trainer Bryan “Flea” Engel, who have been the point men on the Packers’ COVID-19 playbook.
“The only thing that I know that we can control is what’s right in front of us. That’s how we prepare on a daily basis,” LaFleur said. “There’s going to be things that can potentially happen that are totally out of our control. I guess we’ll have to deal with those situations as they come.
“I can’t tell you how good of a job that Doug Collins and ‘Flea’ have done navigating all of us throughout these strange times. Those guys definitely deserve a raise, man. They’ve worked a lot of hours. I think they’re a big reason why we’ve been able to stay safe as a team. They go above and beyond the call of duty all the time.”
LaFleur also credited his players, adding, “They’ve taken it to heart. I think everybody’s kind of looking out for one another. I think they all understand that we need everybody in order to be our best. I couldn’t be more proud of all the people we have in our building.”
Austin, Rush added
The Packers are in the process of signing wide receiver Tavon Austin to the 53-man roster. Austin, a 2013 first-round pick by the then-St. Louis Rams, spent the past two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, catching 21 passes for 317 yards and three touchdowns and was with the San Francisco 49ers earlier this year before reaching an injury settlement in October.
LaFleur declined to discuss Austin — “I don’t think anything’s official yet,” he said — but the speedy 5-foot-8, 185-pound Austin, 29, could fill the role of Tyler Ervin, who has missed time with a wrist injury, a concussion and now a rib injury.
The Packers used Ervin, an effective, versatile piece of the offense as a pass-catcher, ball-carrier and in-motion player, in much the same way the Rams used Austin, including in 2017, what LaFleur was the team’s offensive coordinator in Los Angeles. Austin finished that season having caught 13 passes for 47 yards and rushed 59 times for 270 yards and a touchdown.
Also, the Packers officially were awarded defensive lineman Anthony Rush off waivers from the Bears. The 6-foot-4, 361-pound Rush entered the league last year as an undrafted free agent from Alabama-Birmingham in 2019 and played in 13 games for the Eagles and Seattle Seahawks, recording 15 tackles (eight solo), four tackles for a loss, a half-sack, a quarterback hit and two passes defensed. Rush was in camp with the Eagles this summer, then rejoined the Seahawks and saw action in four games for Seattle before again being released. He was with the Bears for two weeks but did not appear in a game.
Photos: Packers' 2020 season so far in pictures