Packers drop uninspired preseason opener

It’s not wins and losses that are important in the preseason. It’s all about finding out which players are ready for elevated roles once the regular season begins and helping decide which of the 90 players on the training camp roster will earn the coveted 53 active roster spots.

Yes, the Green Bay Packers lost their preseason opener, 21-13, to the San Diego Chargers, but in one month, this game will disappear from the record books. However, there were a lot of significant moments and performances that will ultimately set the stage for the Packers’ upcoming regular season.

Five things we learned from the Packers’ first preseason action:

1. Graham Harrell was solid but has much to prove.

Aaron Rodgers played three series in the first quarter before exiting and allowing Harrell to show whether he belongs as the Packers’ No. 2 quarterback. After one drive, Harrell sure didn’t look ready for it. His first pass fell incomplete after missing on a timing route with wide receiver Diondre Borel and followed it up on third down by firing a pass behind Randall Cobb across the middle. The offense also went three-and-out on the next two drives as well, with Harrell making a couple more errant throws.

Then, running a two-minute drill offense, Harrell collected himself and had a terrific series of plays that resulted in a touchdown with just 32 seconds left before halftime. On that drive, Harrell connected on 5 of 6 passes for 68 yards, capped off with a rollout play and completed pass to Cobb for the Packers’ first points of the game. Harrell stayed in until late in the fourth quarter and finished his respectable night with 15 of 27 passes completed for 135 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. Not bad for his first shot at proving he’s worthy of being Rodgers’ top backup.

2. For the moment, the Packers are dangerously thin at left tackle.

It was likely Rodgers’ last pass of the game anyway, but at the conclusion of the MVP’s third and final drive, he got absolutely crushed by San Diego’s pass rush. With starting left tackle Marshall Newhouse out due to a concussion and Derek Sherrod still recovering from the broken leg he suffered last season, it was 27-year-old journeyman Herb Taylor protecting Rodgers’ blind side. As Rodgers dropped back to pass on fourth down, Chargers rookie Melvin Ingram burned right past Taylor and drilled Rodgers right at the release of his throw. That affected pass turned into an interception, but that is relatively meaningless.

The fact that the Packers had to rely on Taylor in this situation and put Rodgers in harm’s way for three consecutive drives seemed like a much bigger risk than it was worth. Rodgers was fine and walked off the field on his own — he even tried to make a tackle after the interception — but this was the exact scenario that coach Mike McCarthy wants to avoid. If Newhouse passes his concussion tests soon, as expected, Rodgers will likely never be in a game the same time as Taylor again. But the one time he was, it cost him a vicious blow from behind and an interception.

3. It’ll be a little while before we know the extent of Desmond Bishop’s leg injury.

The most important goal of any preseason game is to leave the field without any significant injuries. Unfortunately for the Packers, on the first play of San Diego’s second drive, Bishop hurt his right leg while making a tackle. Bishop, who led Green Bay in tackles last season and was second in sacks, was unable to put any weight on his right leg as he was assisted off the field. Soon after, he was carted to the locker room. The only information that McCarthy would divulge after the game was that Bishop had a knee sprain that could also involve his hamstring.

If Bishop misses several weeks or several months, it will give promising second-year linebacker D.J. Smith an opportunity to step in and show if he’s ready to be a starter. Last season, Smith was very impressive when he was given more chances late in the year due to a calf injury to Bishop. So far throughout training camp, Smith has continued to look good. But with Bishop ahead of him on the depth chart, as unfortunate as the circumstances are, this was the only way that Smith was going to become a starter any time soon. The specific details of how much time Bishop will miss will likely not be known for a while.

4. James Starks must cut down on mistakes.

McCarthy, general manager Ted Thompson and the rest of the Packers organization has faith that Starks can be Green Bay’s primary running back this season. Not re-signing Ryan Grant or using a draft pick on this position was a strong vote of confidence in Starks, who was named the starter from the first day of training camp. But against the Chargers, Starks struggled. On the first drive of the game, Starks dropped an easy pass from Rodgers. A few plays later, Starks fumbled a basic handoff that Rodgers had properly placed right into his body. San Diego recovered that Starks fumble and the Packers’ opening drive was gone. It also gave the Chargers terrific field position and led to a touchdown and an early 7-0 lead for San Diego.

The one encouraging moment from Starks came when he successfully picked up an outside blitz and blocked well in front of Rodgers. This has been a part of Starks’ game that has been a glaring weakness and has drawn the ire of Rodgers on several occasions throughout training camp. Behind Starks, Alex Green was given only three carries as he continues working a light schedule while recovering from the torn ACL he suffered last season. Undrafted rookie Marc Tyler was having a decent night, including a touchdown run, but had a game-ending fumble with under one minute to go in the fourth quarter. The Chargers recovered that Tyler fumble and ran out the clock with a kneel-down to secure the victory.

5. The NFL needs its regular referees — now!

It took less than one series to discover just how ill-prepared this group of replacement officials are. In what should have been a big moment for Packers first-round pick Nick Perry when he recorded a sack on Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, the replacement referees flagged Perry for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. So what did Perry do to warrant such a call? He did the Clay Matthews muscle flex that has never been an issue whatsoever to the regular group of NFL referees.

That was really just the beginning of an almost laughable night by the replacement officials. When Starks fumbled, there was a pile of players trying to get the ball. Where were the referees? Standing nearby watching all the action. The ball changes hands so many times in an NFL fumble situation involving a large group of players on the ground that the regular referees know they need to get in there, break it up and find out who really recovered the fumble. Later, when Borel fumbled a kick return, the referees were incredibly indecisive.

The NFL has been too good of a product for too long, a product with too much money on the line that the game simply cannot be left in the hands of a group of referees not ready for these types of moments yet. Yes, it’s the preseason for the referees too and they will get better, but the regular season is less than one month away and a deal between the NFL and the NFL Referees Association will need to get done before then in order to maintain the high quality of product on the field. Thursday night was far from a high-quality performance by the replacement referees.

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