GREEN BAY — The nicknames, courtesy of Aaron Rodgers, keep coming.
When Joe Callahan was the feel-good story of the Green Bay Packers’ 2016 training camp as an undrafted free agent from tiny Wesley College, the two-time NFL MVP took it upon himself to bestow a few nicknames on the new kid in the quarterback room.
First it was “Big Tom Callahan’s Son,” a reference to Chris Farley’s character in the movie “Tommy Boy.” Then it was “Bo,” after the fictional, unlikable ex-University of Wisconsin quarterback whose stock plummets in the film “Draft Day.” Then it was “Francis,” which is Callahan’s actual first name. (“Franny” quickly followed.) And most recently, it was “Joseph-Joseph,” the product of Rodgers and offensive assistant David Raih having a bit of a misunderstanding about Callahan’s middle name.
“We were going over middle names in the QB room and coach Raih guessed my middle name was Joseph. And (Rodgers) is like, ‘So your name is Joseph Joseph?’ And that kind of turned into an ongoing joke,” Callahan said. “So I’m ‘Joseph Joseph.’
“Every couple months he’ll come up with something new to keep you on your toes.”
These days, with Rodgers still sidelined while his fractured right collarbone continues to heal and backup Brett Hundley starting in his place, Callahan is something else, too: The next man up at quarterback for the Packers — and someone at least a portion of the fan base would like to see get an opportunity amid Hundley’s struggles.
Despite the Packers coming off their first shutout loss in 11 years — a 23-0 blanking at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens — Packers coach Mike McCarthy has given no indication he’s mulling a quarterback change. He reiterated his belief in Hundley yet again earlier this week, and even if Hundley has another rough outing on Sunday night at Pittsburgh, it seems unlikely that McCarthy would give Hundley the hook and call Callahan out of the bullpen.
But if McCarthy does decide to make a change — or Hundley, who has done a lot of running since taking over after Rodgers went down Oct. 15 at Minnesota, were to get hurt — Callahan insists he’s ready.
“You know, I feel good. It’s my second year in the offense, and the past couple weeks I’ve really been in tune with the game plan,” Callahan said. “If anything were to happen, I’m ready to go. I’m preparing like I’m one play away.”
Callahan, who has yet to throw a regular-season NFL pass despite being on the 53-man rosters of the Packers, New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns last season, took advantage of Hundley’s ankle injury during the 2016 preseason to earn a roster spot by showing his knack for playmaking and improvising.
This past summer, though, Callahan went head-to-head with rookie Taysom Hill for the No. 3 quarterback job, and at the final cutdown, the Packers decided to cut them both and see who made it through waivers. Hill was claimed by the Saints and remains on their active roster; Callahan went unclaimed and joined the Packers’ practice squad before being promoted to the roster following Rodgers’ injury.
The combination of: a) the coaches wanting to see as much as possible of Hundley after the wasted summer before; and b) the competition with Hill meant Callahan didn’t get nearly as much work this preseason, which would have come in handy now. But McCarthy has liked what he’s seen in practice of late from Callahan, including earlier in the week.
“If you’d have seen the team drills (the other) day, he had three big-time go-route balls — deep, deep balls. Clearly I think Joe’s deep ball has gotten a lot better throughout the year,” McCarthy said.
“He’s comfortable running the offense, does a great job running the opponent stuff, so he’s definitely progressed.”
It’s progress in his understanding of the Packers’ offense that would give Callahan a chance to play, however.
“He’s right there. He’s been in the system now for two years, so he’s very familiar with what we do,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. “Footwork-wise, he’s right up to speed. Obviously just the experience of playing in a real NFL game would be a first for him.”
And if that happens, Callahan believes he could run the offense and be productive.
“I mean, it’s always important to be confident in yourself and I haven’t changed that mindset,” Callahan said. “I still feel good about my game and my ability to play.”
The NFL scheduling rotation means the Packers only make it to Pittsburgh once every eight years, so this will mark McCarthy’s second regular-season trip there, having lost a close one at Heinz Field late in the 2009 season. With the game set for Sunday night, he’ll have some time Saturday night to have dinner with family and friends but it’ll be close to the team’s downtown hotel.
“Anytime you get to see your family for a little while, the night before the game, it’s a special opportunity,” McCarthy said Friday. “But we all understand what this trip and this game means. We need to be 6-5 when we get on that plane ride coming back home. That’s ultimately the focus. But yeah, definitely I love Pittsburgh and it’s good to go back there and see your family and compete against the Steelers.”
Packers veteran safety Morgan Burnett, who has played in just one of the team’s past five games because of hamstring and groin injuries, said he will “definitely be out there” Sunday night. Burnett played 43 snaps against Detroit on Nov. 6 before suffering the groin injury that has sidelined him the past two weeks. … McCarthy said he’s not concerned about starting center Corey Linsley, who didn’t practice Thursday after his back tightened up on him. “I think he’s going to be fine,” McCarthy said. … Running back Ty Montgomery (ribs) and defensive tackle Kenny Clark (ankle) are listed as doubtful for Sunday night’s game. … Look for ex-University of Wisconsin linebacker Vince Biegel to get more playing time with Clay Matthews unlikely to play due to a groin injury. If Matthews can’t go, linebackers coach Winston Moss said he’ll rotate five edge players, including Biegel and Kyler Fackrell.