GREEN BAY, Wis. — If Aaron Rodgers is forced to miss any games this season due to injury, clearly the Green Bay Packers will not be the same team no matter who the backup quarterback is. After all, Rodgers is the NFL’s Most Valuable Player and the biggest reason the Packers led the league in scoring last season.
But in recent years, Green Bay was in reliable hands in the event Rodgers was unable to play, with Matt Flynn proving himself more than capable of stepping in. With Flynn now in Seattle battling for a starting spot with the Seahawks, the Packers have turned to former practice squad quarterback Graham Harrell. And so far, the results have been mixed at best.
Harrell, who is 27 years old and has never thrown a pass in a regular-season game, has played the vast majority of Green Bay’s first two preseason games, both resulting in losses. Playing at home last Thursday against the Cleveland Browns, Harrell threw several passes behind on-the-run wide receivers, an ongoing issue that has brought his accuracy into question.
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In that game, after Harrell took over in the second quarter, the Packers totaled only 19 yards and one first down in his first five drives running the offense. It took until Harrell’s ninth series at quarterback for Green Bay to score any points, and those came on a long field goal. Harrell also threw three interceptions, including one that was returned for a touchdown but nullified due to the defense lining up offside. Through two games, he’s 27 for 51 for 235 yards, two interceptions and one TD.
Harrell came under a lot of criticism for his performance and left many wondering why Packers general manager Ted Thompson hasn’t made a move to bring in a veteran or game-ready quarterback to soften the blow should Rodgers get hurt.
Within the organization, however, Harrell still has plenty of public support.
“I think he’s been doing a good job and probably unfairly taken some harsh criticism at times,” Rodgers said of his backup. “I can tell you, like I said after the game, I don’t think anybody in this locker room or the coaching staff is worried about Graham or doesn’t have confidence in Graham. It’s the preseason. Some stuff can happen at times to make it difficult to be successful. I’ve been there before.”
When Rodgers exits a preseason game, so do the rest of Green Bay’s starters, including its solid offensive line and terrific receivers. So Harrell is not working with the same group of players he would in a regular-season game. That’s part of the reason Rodgers is reserving his judgment on Harrell.
“That unit has to play better,” Rodgers said. “The front, they have not played very well. And at the skill positions there has been some poor play as well. You have to have guys around you making plays, and he (Harrell) has to do a better job decision-making and making the throws he knows he can make.”
When coach Mike McCarthy sat down to evaluate Harrell’s overall performance in the Cleveland game, what he saw wasn’t as discouraging as it appeared to most at first viewing.
“I would say Graham probably graded out higher than the perception of the questions or how people felt that he played,” McCarthy said. “The quarterbacks are graded in detail. There’s some throws that he missed. He’s growing. He’s getting a full dose of what it’s like to play, and more things went wrong, unfortunately, than normal, and we need to do a better job as an offense and he will do a better job leading us.”
Like Rodgers, McCarthy placed a good amount of blame on the second-string offensive line for not doing a better job of protecting Harrell and giving him adequate time to throw in the pocket.
“The second offensive line needs to play better,” McCarthy said. “They did not grade out very well.”
For a team that has Super Bowl aspirations and a legitimate chance at winning the Lombardi Trophy for the second time in three years, the Packers can’t wait too long for Harrell to show he’s ready for this elevated role.
If Harrell is not yet ready for this added level of responsibility and pressure, one glance at the 2011 season of the division-rival Chicago Bears is enough to show just how important having a suitable backup quarterback is. The Bears were rolling with Jay Cutler last season, carrying a 7-3 record into a weak part of their schedule with upcoming games against three teams from the AFC West, the worst division in the NFL in 2011. When Cutler broke the thumb on his throwing hand in Week 11, Caleb Hanie became the starter and led Chicago to four consecutive losses while throwing three touchdown passes and nine interceptions.
Harrell could prove to be better than Hanie, but he has even less NFL experience than the now-former Bears quarterback.
“It’s not like I’ll ever lose confidence in myself,” Harrell said after the loss to the Browns last week. “I think I’m fine.”
It’s possible Thompson has already made the decision that he’s sticking with Harrell this season, regardless of the outcome of Green Bay’s final two preseason games. But Thompson admitted Tuesday that “we fish from time to time,” referencing that he does make exploratory trade calls on occasion this time of year.
With backup quarterbacks like Cleveland’s Colt McCoy, Miami’s Matt Moore and Seattle’s Tarvaris Jackson all reportedly available on the trade market, Thompson may go fishing in those cities if he decides the team needs a more experienced No. 2 behind Rodgers.
But for now, Thompson just wants to see “continued improvement” and a “bounce back” game from Harrell this week.
“I know there’s been a lot of criticism,” Thompson said. “I think Mike mentioned that he (Harrell) graded out much better than you might expect. It’s not always easy doing the second half of a preseason game when the chaos is coming at you pretty good.
“He’s doing OK.”
Knowing that Flynn was going to get a multi-year contract offer this past offseason, which he did, Thompson had already begun making plans for Harrell to take that spot in 2012. When the Buffalo Bills tried to sign Harrell off the Packers’ practice squad before Week 14 last season, Thompson promoted Harrell to the active roster and gave him a sizable pay increase to keep him in Green Bay.
Now, Thompson has to hope that Harrell can be ready and that the Packers won’t find themselves in the undesirable situation that the Bears were in last season.
“He’s a very hard worker,” Thompson said of Harrell. “He really likes playing the game of football. He knows the nuances of playing that position. We have faith in a lot of our guys.”