GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers was not pleased with the way the media and the public had been treating his backup quarterback, Graham Harrell, throughout the preseason.
But Harrell’s play had warranted criticism. Through the Packers’ first three games, he had completed just 32 of 63 passes with one touchdown and two interceptions. He had made enough throws for fans and reporters to get a reasonable idea of the type of NFL quarterback he might be if forced into action by a Rodgers injury during the regular season, and concern was building around a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Amid his struggles, Rodgers and coach Mike McCarthy stood by Harrell and supported him, and that support was finally justified in Green Bay’s preseason finale Thursday night.
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In the Packers’ 24-3 win over the Kansas City Chiefs at Lambeau Field, Harrell finished with a perfect 158.3 passer rating and displayed arm strength and accuracy that weren’t readily apparent in the team’s first three preseason games. He completed 13 of 15 passes for 223 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Even his two incompletions were quality plays, one a smart throwaway and the other a deep pass that should have been caught.
“You guys have been killing him,” Rodgers said. “I’ve just kept saying, ‘Everybody’s got confidence in him on the team.’ We knew he was capable of a performance like this. He threw the ball great. He’s just like we all are – he’s a rhythm and confidence guy. He hit some throws early, got his confidence going and made some great throws.
“I feel great for him.”
Rodgers played only the first two series of the game and Harrell took over from there. Facing a third-and-12 in his first drive, Harrell rocketed a pass a bit high across the middle to starting tight end Jermichael Finley, who made a great catch for a 27-yard gain.
From there, the night belonged to Harrell.
On the next play, with plenty of time in the pocket — a rarity for Harrell in previous preseason games — he tossed a 50-yard pass in the air to wide receiver Tori Gurley, who was tackled at the 1-yard-line. The Packers scored two plays later on a run by Alex Green, so the big play to Gurley wasn’t even one of Harrell’s two touchdown passes.
“I knew I could do it,” Harrell said after the game. “I think I told you all along, it’s not like we weren’t confident in ourselves. It’s not like I lost any confidence in myself throughout the preseason or anything like that. We had put some good things together, we just hadn’t done it in a preseason game consistently.
“I don’t think I ever got down on myself or doubted myself. I think other people doubt us more than we doubted ourselves. We still were confident in ourselves, knew we could do good things and we just went out there and put it together. When you do it one play after the next, it looks a lot better.”
Prior to this game, Harrell’s play had come under scrutiny to the point where most assumed Packers general manager Ted Thompson was searching the market for a veteran or more game-ready backup quarterback. Though McCarthy would not confirm Thursday that he is now ready to publicly declare Harrell Green Bay’s No. 2 quarterback, he was “very pleased” with the performance.
“I think he definitely grew through the preseason and topped it off with an excellent performance tonight,” McCarthy said. “I don’t know if we’ve had a backup quarterback, a non-starter, play that well. It’s a credit to him. I think he’s handled this path through the preseason, and I’ve been more impressed with what he’s done off the field than on the field.”
While Rodgers was upset with some of the verbal bashing that Harrell had received in recent weeks, McCarthy looked at it as a learning opportunity.
“It’s part of playing quarterback, period, let alone playing quarterback in the National Football League,” McCarthy said. “That would fall under the category of adversity. We talk about it all the time. It’s nice when people say nice things about you and it’s not so nice when they don’t. It’s one extreme to the other, particularly at that position, and that’s part of the deal.
“I think he handled it very well.”
Harrell had a tremendous college career at Texas Tech, capping off his senior season by winning the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award, presented each year to the country’s most outstanding quarterback. Harrell also finished fourth in the 2008 Heisman Trophy voting.
Despite that success, he went undrafted in 2009 and began his professional career with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. Harrell was released by the Roughriders in 2010 but signed with the Packers less than one month later.
With Matt Flynn set as Green Bay’s backup quarterback, Harrell spent the entire 2010 season on the practice squad. Even last season, Harrell was just a practice-squad player until Week 14. At that point, with the Buffalo Bills offering Harrell an active roster spot, the Packers chose to sign him rather than lose him.
When Flynn signed with the Seattle Seahawks this offseason, Green Bay’s No. 2 quarterback job was given to Harrell despite his not having thrown a single pass in a regular-season NFL game.
Now at age 27, Harrell may have secured the spot with the Packers that seemed to be slipping out of his grasp.
“I’ve been blessed enough to play this game for a long time, and I love playing it,” Harrell said. “I want to play as long as they let me. It was fun tonight, and I love the game. I get to play a game as a professional right now. As long as they let me do that, I’ll do it. It’s something I love to do.”