GREEN BAY, Wis. — Green Bay Packers tight end Robert Tonyan knew quarterback Aaron Rodgers was going to start this season off on a tear — how so, he would not say — but that would have at least sounded more believable than someone saying Tonyan would lead the NFL in touchdown catches after one quarter of the season.
But here is Tonyan with five touchdown catches — three in Monday night’s 30-16 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at Lambeau Field — and here are the Packers at 4-0 thanks in large part to a nearly flawless start to the season by the 36-year-old quarterback.
“Before the season, I already knew it was going to happen,” Tonyan said when asked about Rodgers’ stellar play through the first quarter of the season. “I already knew it was going to happen. That’s all I’ve got to say.”
The numbers say the rest: The Packers have scored at least 30 points without a turnover in each of the first four games — making them the first team in NFL history to start a season with four such games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. And they’ve done it a variety of contributors while dealing with a bevy of injuries on offense. They played their second consecutive game without Pro Bowl wide receiver Davante Adams (hamstring) and also were without No. 2 receiver Allen Lazard (who is out indefinitely because of a core muscle injury that required surgery just days after his career-best game in Week 3).
And don’t forget the Packers didn’t draft a single wide receiver in the most receiver-rich draft and instead took Rodgers’ eventual replacement, Jordan Love, in the first round.
If Rodgers was inconsistent during the Packers’ 13-3 season last year, he’s making up for it now.
He completed 27 of 33 passes for 327 yards and four touchdowns against the Falcons. For the season, he has 13 touchdown passes without an interception — the fourth-most passing touchdowns without an interception over a team’s first four games in NFL history.
He has Tonyan to thank in part for that, at least after Monday night.
The former undrafted free agent from Indiana State, where he started his career as a quarterback, isn’t exactly a newcomer to Green Bay. He’s been with the Packers since the final month of the 2017 season, when was signed to the practice squad. He made the team in 2018 and despite playing in all 16 games had just four catches for 77 yards and a touchdown. He appeared poised to break out last season but sustained a groin injury that eventually required offseason surgery and caught just 10 passes for 100 yards and a touchdown.
Tonyan, an offseason workout partner of 49ers tight end George Kittle (who tweeted his approval of Tonyan’s performance multiple times on Monday night), got his opportunity this season after the Packers cut their primary tight end of the past two years, Jimmy Graham. They also were without veteran tight end Marcedes Lewis (knee) on Monday against Atlanta.
With six catches for 98 yards and three scores against the Falcons, Tonyan ran his season touchdown total to five — tied with Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans for most touchdown catches in the NFL. In four games, Tonyan also has matched Graham’s touchdown output in 32 games with the Packers over the previous two seasons.
“You can’t help but gain a lot of respect for [Tonyan],” Rodgers said. “And I don’t think it was just myself. There was a lot of people who really saw that and saw he was trying to battle to be out there that he earned a lot of our respect. As far as talentwise, we always knew. He’s a talented guy and it’s a just a matter of time before a game like this happens. But talking about respect and trust and being able to count on a guy, we saw that last year with Bobby.”
Tonyan’s third and final touchdown of the night — a 21-yarder in the third quarter — earned him some extra points with his quarterback. He stumbled after Falcons safety Jamal Carter dragged him down and did a full barrel roll before he got up and kept running.
“I’ve been doing yoga twice a week, so I think the somersault helped,” Tonyan joked. “I just got back up on my feet and next thing I know the ball is in the air. It’s crazy Aaron held onto it that long for me to get up and throw it to me. But yeah, that was crazy.”
Now, the Packers enter their bye week, which means players will have to remain in Green Bay because of daily COVID-19 testing — something Rodgers said “totally sucks” but “obviously it is what it is [given] the situation” — and perhaps it will allow Adams to return for the Week 6 showdown with Tom Brady and the Buccaneers in Tampa, Florida.
If it seems Rodgers has enjoyed making it work without some of his most trusted playmakers, he must be doing a good job of faking it.
“Not really; I’d rather have those guys,” he said. “I’d rather have us as healthy as possible but the beauty in this game is that’s rarely the case, whether it’s guys playing with injuries or guys who can’t play because of injuries, and that’s just part of the game. You love the opportunities for those other guys because a lot of them have really earned it, have earned the opportunity to be out there, earned the opportunity to be in position to make plays and you get to learn a lot of about character and ability in those moments.”