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Taysom Hill, Green Bay and what could have been

Green Bay opens its playoff run against Seattle on Sunday — one week after former Packer Taysom Hill fertilized his legend in New Orleans. 

New Orleans Saints quarterback Taysom Hill (7) fends off Minnesota Vikings free safety Harrison Smith (22) on a long carry in the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 5, 2020, in New Orleans.
Brett Duke, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Taysom Hill and the Saints didn’t make it to the second round of the NFL playoffs, but the quarterback who does it all could still find his way into the conversation when Green Bay takes the field Sunday.

Some Packers fans wonder if the team made a mistake letting Hill get away after a strong preseason as an undrafted rookie. Fans of Hill, who’ve followed him since his days at Brigham Young University, are probably sure that’s the case.

Hill, the star without a position, shined last weekend in a Saints loss. Fifty yards rushing. Fifty yards passing. Twenty-five yards receiving, plus a touchdown, plus his usual role on special teams. With his third year in New Orleans over, his legend has grown to its largest-ever proportions.

His fans are sad to see his season finished so early in the playoffs, but also rejuvenated. Because Sunday, when the Packers open their playoff run against the Seahawks, they can spend endless debates pondering what might — or might not — have been.

To think, if Green Bay would have tabbed him over Brett Hundley as its backup quarterback in 2017 after they signed him as an undrafted free agent, Hill may have ended up as the team’s starter when Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone. To think, had he played well, he could’ve become Rodgers’ heir apparent. To think what a weapon he could be in Green Bay’s latest quest for a Super Bowl. To think, to think, to think ...

“Any time the Packers watch the Saints play,” Cheesehead TV writer and podcaster Maggie Loney said, “that’s the dominant narrative.”

It shouldn’t matter, really. Green Bay shouldn’t need to get gimmicky. Not with Rodgers at quarterback. Not at Lambeau Field. Not when favored by four and a half. But still … what if?

Speculation. Guesswork. Wondering. These are the pastimes of pastimes — the mugs we drink from when the jug of competition runs dry. What would the Packers have done in 2017 had Rodgers not broken his collarbone? What if Gordon Hayward had stayed with the Jazz? And, after Hill’s performance last weekend, Hill fans must wonder, “What would have become of him had he stayed in Green Bay?”

When Packers signed Hill after the 2017 draft, he presented risk. Four of his five seasons at BYU ended with injury. But in three preseason games, he flashed the athleticism that made him a highly rated high school recruit, including a game-winning, tackle-breaking, stiff-arm punctuated 23-yard touchdown run in Week 2 against Washington, sparking optimism among Packers fans.

“I really liked him in training camp and the preseason,” Loney said. “He brought an exciting skill set.”

But the Packers waived him anyway. Few NFL teams carry three quarterbacks, and the organization had already groomed Hundley for two and a half years. The Packers hoped he’d clear waivers so they could sign him to the practice squad, but the Saints scooped him up.

Since then, he’s become the NFL’s most enigmatic player. He can throw with poise and accuracy; he can run; he can catch; he can block — and the Saints give him the opportunity to do all of it. Could he have made a similar impact in Green Bay?

Loney believes he may have eventually been used on a goal-line trick play. Perhaps even risen to No. 2 on the quarterback depth chart. But he wouldn’t be the spectacular multi-tool he’s become in New Orleans.

“And that’s not a knock on (former Packers coach) Mike McCarthy,” she said. “His offense was just very traditional.”

Mike Price, 29, remembers Hill’s time with the Packers well. The Pleasant Grove High School graduate hasn’t missed a Green Bay game since 2004. He watches most of them multiple times, he said, via NFL Game Pass and has alerts set up on his phone for “about 15” Packers beat writers. In 2014, after the Packers fell to the Seahawks in the NFC championship, he was so distraught that when backing out of his garage to purchase some sorrow-drowning snacks, he closed the door on his Hyundai Elantra.

In short, if anyone is going to engage in retrospective angst about Hill, it’s him — a Utahn and Packers superfan.

“I probably would have been more nervous,” he said, “if they would have kept him as their backup quarterback.”

Hill’s injury history was too significant, he figured, and he was just one in a long line of backup quarterbacks for Rodgers. Even now, looking back, Price isn’t convinced McCarthy would’ve used Hill to his maximum benefit. Maybe, but only after developing at quarterback for years, and only if his development earned him a spot as a backup. Still, it’s fun to imagine.

“I’m torn,” he said. “Because like I said, I think there are only a few head coaches who would really use him like that.”

Amy Kiechle, another lifelong Packers fan and native Utahn, agrees with both Loney and Price: Hill possessed tremendous talent — it was obvious — but he just didn’t fit with the organization.

Nevertheless, if the Packers screw up a trick play this Sunday, it’ll be hard not to imagine what Hill could’ve done in a similar situation — not to mention in 2017, as Rodgers’ backup, and the intervening seasons.

“It is fun to imagine what could’ve been,” Kiechle said. “Had we gone with Taysom Hill instead of Brett Hundley, we might’ve made the playoffs. … It could’ve been a different season.”

Alas, as long as Hill remains in the NFL, such what-ifs will keep swirling — however unlikely they would have been.