GREEN BAY, Wis. — With four weeks remaining in the 2011 NFL regular season, quarterback Graham Harrell had an important choice to make.
After spending nearly two years on the Green Bay Packers’ practice squad, Harrell was offered a spot on the Buffalo Bills’ active roster. When the Packers chose to match that offer, the former Texas Tech star opted to remain in Green Bay.
This offseason, the Packers had a choice of their own to make regarding Harrell. When previous No. 2 quarterback Matt Flynn signed a multiyear deal with Seattle, coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson had to decide whether they believed Harrell was ready to serve as Aaron Rodgers’ backup.
Green Bay’s front office and coaching staff gave Harrell a vote of confidence, allowing the 27-year-old QB an opportunity to fill the role Flynn had mastered in recent seasons.
“It’s nice that they didn’t bring in a veteran guy,” Harrell said. “A-Rod is a pretty durable guy, and you don’t want anything to happen, but no matter where you are, you have to prepare like you’re going to be the guy at some point, or that you’re going to be called on at some point.”
While playing behind Rodgers didn’t bring about too many chances to get called upon in recent seasons, it did happen occasionally. During Flynn’s time as the Packers’ second-string quarterback, he made just two starts. The first came in Week 15 of the 2010 season when Rodgers had to sit out with a concussion. Traveling to New England to face the Patriots, Flynn came up big, completing 24 of 37 passes for 251 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Though Green Bay lost 31-27, it was obvious Flynn was about as good as it gets in the world of reserve QBs.
Nearly a year later, in Week 17, with Rodgers resting for the playoffs, Flynn got another start and broke several franchise passing records in an explosive 480-yard, six-touchdown performance.
Those two games led to Flynn receiving $26 million ($10 million guaranteed) from the Seahawks, with a chance to become a full-time starter.
Harrell knows that, in a couple of years, Flynn’s path could be his.
“Everyone that plays in this league, their goal is to eventually start,” Harrell said. “As far as a place to learn and a place to develop, Green Bay is an awesome spot. With Aaron being here and learning from him, and the staff we have, it’s a great place to learn and develop as a quarterback.”
It certainly helps one’s development that Rodgers is willing to take on an active role in assisting the rest of the quarterback group to improve. Flynn talked about Rodgers’ helpfulness on a regular basis last season, crediting him for much of his success. In the week leading to Flynn’s start in Week 17, Rodgers spent several hours every night after practice working with his backup.
In fact, in an interview with FOXSportsWisconsin.com last season, Rodgers said he hopes Flynn and Harrell go on to have even better NFL careers than his. There was no laugh or wink when Rodgers said that. He is legitimately invested in helping out his understudies, something Brett Favre wanted no part of when Rodgers came to Green Bay in 2005.
“Aaron’s always been great to us, no matter where you are on the depth chart,” Harrell said. “When we bring new guys in, when Nick (Hill) was here and now with B.J. (Coleman), no matter who it is, Aaron is always very helpful, and that doesn’t change no matter where you are on the depth chart.”
Harrell is far from a proven NFL commodity at this point. He has yet to attempt a pass in the regular season. His 88 preseason passes in 2010 and 2011 brought two touchdowns and one interception. He also fumbled the ball five times.
But McCarthy isn’t hesitating about giving Harrell a lot more responsibility. After all, this is a player who figured out how to throw for 15,371 yards in his final three seasons at Texas Tech.
“I’ll say this about Graham: I’ve always been impressed with the progress he’s made with every opportunity he’s been given,” McCarthy said. “This is clearly his best opportunity of his professional career, from my view of what’s gone on since he left Texas Tech.
“He’s getting better. It’s right there for him as far as being the No. 2. We definitely increased his reps. This is a great opportunity for Graham. He’s doing well.”
Harrell is benefiting this offseason from getting to go through McCarthy’s highly regarded quarterback school, something that wasn’t possible a year ago during the lockout. Working with McCarthy since mid-April — the sessions begin in the classroom and eventually move to the field — Harrell is already noticing the difference.
“I think that in this offense, the most important thing is learning the terminology, learning the offense, getting comfortable calling plays and knowing where you’re going to be,” Harrell said. “When you get to break it down from the beginning more, like we do with QB school, it really gets you more familiar with the terms and the offense, and that’s huge for a quarterback.
“That alone has been very important. On the field, they break down every step, to the crazy smallest things that you do in your throwing motion and your drop. Being a spread-offense quarterback my whole life, any time you have an opportunity to do that from under-center type of stuff, then you really get it broken down, it’s helpful.”
The terminology of the Packers’ offense was nothing new to Harrell, but without McCarthy’s offseason teachings a year ago, it made for a more challenging situation at the time.
“It’s just easier now, quicker, more natural, and there’s not as much thinking at the line involved,” Harrell said. “It just comes to you quicker. And it’s getting to build the offense from the beginning more. How I’ve learned (in the past) is just jump in and pick it up as you pick it up. But to get to learn it from the beginning has been really helpful.”
Not having a reliable backup quarterback can destroy a team’s season. The Chicago Bears found that out the hard way a year ago when Jay Cutler was injured and Caleb Hanie lost four consecutive games while throwing just three touchdown passes and nine interceptions.
Though an injury to Rodgers would be devastating for the Packers, McCarthy is holding out hope Harrell will be ready if something ever happens to the NFL’s MVP.