GREEN BAY, Wis. — Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers figured that it wouldn’t be a problem if he sat out for one play after getting poked in the right eye midway through the third quarter Sunday against the Saints. In Rodgers’ mind, with the ball at the 2-yard line on first down, backup quarterback Graham Harrell should be able to successfully finish off the drive with a touchdown.
Well, that didn’t happen.
In the first-ever regular-season snap in Harrell’s NFL career, the 27-year-old former Canadian Football League quarterback stumbled backward after tripping on the foot of veteran center Jeff Saturday. As he was falling, Harrell attempted to hand the ball off to running back Cedric Benson, but it bounced away and was recovered by New Orleans.
Rodgers, who was having depth perception issues in his right eye, watched — with relatively blurry vision — as the Saints then capitalized three plays later with an 80-yard touchdown pass to take a 24-21 lead.
“I wanted to stay in the game — obviously, I don’t like coming out for anything,” Rodgers said. “I just didn’t have any depth perception immediately thereafter, so I figured we were a yard away and we could punch that thing in there. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.”
Typically, if a player’s injury requires a stoppage in play, like Rodgers’ did, he has to sit out the next play. But, as head referee Jeff Triplette explained through the Lambeau Field speakers, Rodgers did not have to be removed from the game because the injury was as a result of a defensive penalty — a 15-yard face mask on safety Malcolm Jenkins, whose finger hit Rodgers’ eye.
Following a short timeout during which Rodgers was tended to on the field by Green Bay’s training staff, Triplette announced: “Green Bay has chosen to substitute their quarterback,” with Harrell then getting his one and only snap.
“(Rodgers) could not refocus with his right eye, so with that the medical staff wanted to get him to the sideline,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “That’s why we took him out at that point. But he wanted to stay in. We took the high side of caution here and unfortunately it resulted in that fumble.”
Rodgers has always been very supportive of his backup quarterbacks — as evidenced by his decision to allow Matt Flynn to start in Week 17 last season — and defended Harrell’s mistake.
“I mean, that play could happen to anybody, including myself,” Rodgers said. “He was trying to make a handoff while falling down, which is something that I’ve done before and it’s just unfortunate that we weren’t able to complete that handoff. He’ll be fine.”
Rodgers soon regained full vision and depth perception in his right eye and returned to the game on the Packers’ next drive. In his postgame press conference, Rodgers did not have any redness or swelling around his eye.
For Harrell, he was just relieved that his error didn’t end up costing Green Bay a win.
“The snap was perfect; I just tripped,” Harrell said. “I probably should’ve just went down and taken the lost yards instead of hitting (Benson) in the hip with it. Unfortunately, it was my first snap . . . It’s not something I want to think about. If we would’ve lost, it probably would have been a little tougher to move on from.
“I probably gave us some unneeded adversity, but we answered the bell and got a win.”
At the time of Rodgers’ injury, it wasn’t clear to Harrell how many more snaps he would’ve taken had that drive been extended beyond the one botched play.
“I think for a little bit there was a little indecision, just because he got poked in the eye and it was pretty bad,” Harrell said. “They got him pretty good. The doctors were still checking him out when I got to the sideline, so it was obviously pretty bad.”
Harrell and Saturday were not allowed to take any practice snaps before the play, which was the first time in Saturday’s 14-year career that he’d ever had that experience.
“The ref said, ‘You’re not allowed,'” Saturday said after the game. “And that’s something I never heard before. Because I asked him, ‘Hey, can we get a couple snaps?’ They said, ‘Aaron’s going to stay in,’ and then Aaron left, and I said, ‘Hey, can we get a couple snaps?’ And he said, ‘No, you’re not allowed to have snaps.’ I’ve never heard that before.
“That’s tough. It’s not like Graham and I do a ton during the week. We probably have 10 snaps (together) a week.”
McCarthy also had some regret over the type of play that he decided to have Harrell run.
“We were running an outside zone play (and) that’s a tough play call for both the center and the quarterback,” McCarthy said. “So, in hindsight, I should have probably given Graham something a little easier, especially it being his first play. But obviously I had confidence.
“It was the call that fit the situation. But its quarterback-center exchange, goal line mechanics are a little different.”