Graham Harrell still has plenty of folks to win over in the always passionate and opinionated Green Bay Packers fan base. But it doesn’t look like anyone will be usurping him as the team’s primary backup to star quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
While Harrell’s perfect performance in the exhibition finale against the Kansas City Chiefs last summer – at least, that’s what his 158.3 passer rating said – quelled some critics after a wholly imperfect preseason up until then, his first career NFL regular-season snap didn’t exactly inspire confidence.
After Rodgers, the reigning NFL MVP then and now the game’s highest-paid player, was poked in the right eye against the New Orleans Saints last Sept. 30, Harrell trotted onto the field for a first-and-goal from the New Orleans 1-yard line.
What happened next was a total disaster: When Harrell took the exchange from center Jeff Saturday, he turned and tripped as he tried to hand the ball off to running back Cedric Benson. The Saints recovered the fumble, and not only did the gaffe cost the Packers points, it led to New Orleans’ go-ahead touchdown. Although the Packers ended up winning the game and Harrell saw garbage-time action in three more games, the mistake is the lasting image of him from last season.
“I’m sure that was disappointing for him. That’s obviously not the way he wanted to get his first rep in the regular season there,” quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said during a break in this week’s minicamp. “But at the same time, he wasn’t walking around hanging his head or anything like that. He’s a young man that’s been around the game awhile and he approached it like a pro.”
It’s Harrell’s even-keeled, calm approach – coupled with his knowledge of the offense as he preps for his third season as Rodgers’ primary backup – that seemingly gives the coaching staff such confidence in him despite the fact that he’s thrown just four career regular-season passes.
“Graham’s been practicing well, he knows the offense and he’s a good decision-maker,” McAdoo said. “We trust him.”
Third-stringer B.J. Coleman, a 2012 seventh-round pick who spent his rookie year on the practice squad, appears to be a long way away from gaining the staff’s trust, much less challenging Harrell as the backup. After last season, McAdoo acknowledged that he wasn’t sure exactly what the Packers had in Coleman, and while McAdoo said this week that Coleman has “improved tremendously from last year,” he quickly admitted that he’s still in the rebuilding phase as a quarterback.
“We’re going to build him up brick by brick,” McAdoo said. “Fundamentally, he’s come a long way and still has a ways to go. Because in the drill work, he’s a lot better. When you carry it over to the team stuff, (only) some of that carries over. You have to carry everything over into the team drills.
“He still has some work cut out for him. At the same point in time, in training camp, when we go out there and are competing for jobs and not to improve, he’s got a chance. It’s an open competition.”
While the coaches are hopeful that Harrell’s growing pains from last year’s training camp – he was actually better in 2011, when he went 33 for 57 for 287 yards with two touchdowns and one interception (75.7 rating) after basically being handed the No. 2 job after the free-agent departure of Matt Flynn – are behind him, one would think he’d have to be even worse than he was in the first three preseason games last year to open the door for Coleman.
Harrell entered last year’s exhibition finale having completed just 32 of 63 passes for 261 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 53.7. Some of that could be traced to the rag-tag outfit he was playing with – the offensive line was shaky in protection (five sacks), his wide receivers were inconsistent – but other backup quarterbacks around the league have overcome the limitations of those around them to thrive.
That’s precisely what Harrell did against the Chiefs, achieving the maximum passer rating of 158.3 by completing 13 of 15 passes for 223 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His two incompletions were an intentional throw-away after being flushed from the pocket, and an on-target deep pass down the left sideline that wide receiver Tori Gurley dropped.
“You always want to look like that,” Harrell said Wednesday, after the second and final practice of the minicamp before Thursday’s dodgeball team-building event. “In preseason football, there’s a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of figuring out. It’s a lot of guys’ first shot out there, but coming off a game like that, I feel extremely confident and look forward to the preseason.
“It’s a fun time for backups and you’re chance to really get to play. It’s a fun time and a chance to grow and learn. As a group, you kind of grow together. I think the later on we went in the preseason, the sharper we got. That’s fun, but hopefully we can start a little further along than we did last season.”
Harrell has been getting plenty of help from head coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements, both of whom are former quarterbacks coaches, as well as Rodgers, who has become one of his best friends acts as a fourth coach in the room.
“Many times all three (McCarthy, Clements and McAdoo) sit in on my meetings. It’s a great place to be and a great opportunity because of that,” Harrell said. “Mike, his line of quarterbacks, he’s had some great ones. Tom is as good of a coach as there is knowledge-wise, and Ben has been a great coach for us, too, bringing a different side of the game to the quarterback room. You get to bounce questions off three different guys and get three different sides of the game. It’s a great system right now and a great place to be.
“(And) if you didn’t know any better you’d think (Rodgers) was a coach, too, sometimes in there. He asks more questions than the coaches ask to the younger guys. But it’s fun. He’s been around so long, he’s probably seen everything. He has knowledge to go off of and experience to pull from when he asks some of those questions, but he’s great to have in there, too.”
Since taking over as the starting quarterback in 2008, Rodgers has missed only one game – the Packers’ Dec. 19, 2010 loss to the New England Patriots with a concussion suffered the previous week – due to injury. (He did sit out the 2011 regular-season finale after the NFC’s No. 1 seed had been secured, serving as de facto offensive coordinator for the first half of Flynn’s 480-yard, six-touchdown day against Detroit.)
If Rodgers remains durable, Harrell again will see his most extensive playing time in preseason. But he’s actually getting the most practice reps now, during the offseason, since Rodgers needs more snaps during training camp to prepare for the regular season. Harrell and Coleman shared the scout-team reps once the Packers began prepping for upcoming opponents in practice last season.
“As a backup, you really get more reps now than you get anytime else. I think that’s one of the biggest things: I feel more comfortable now than I’ve ever felt, knowing the protection, pretty much (all of) the O-line calls and feeling good with protections,” Harrell explained. “Here, making protection adjustments and understanding projection is the biggest thing and Ben has done a great job of helping with that. Right now, I think that’s a great thing to work on for quarterbacks and I feel more comfortable now than I’ve ever felt.
“The more comfortable you feel, the more pop you’re going to get on it. You don’t think, you just throw. So that makes the game easier for sure.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.