Graham Harrell heard the boos.
"Oh, yeah," the Green Bay Packers backup quarterback said. "You always hear those. But that’s part of the game."
There were boos for embattled kicker Mason Crosby after the annual Family Night Scrimmage, when Crosby made just 2 of 6 field-goal attempts in a practice-ending head-to-head competition with challenger Giorgio Tavecchio and the team gave away his No. 2 jersey as part of a fan appreciation promotion.
And it happened to Harrell toward the end of his tour of duty in Friday night’s 17-0 preseason-opening loss to the Arizona Cardinals, in which Harrell completed just 12 of 19 for 76 yards with two sacks, an interception, and a 49.5 rating. He also lost a fumble on one of the sacks, by John Abraham, and was at fault on the other, by Tyrann Mathieu, when he missed the pre-snap protection adjustment and then couldn’t high-step away from the diving Honey Badger on the 12-yard loss.
That got some of the Lambeau Field-record crowd of 73,738 in a foul mood, and his coach wasn’t all that happy with him, either.
"Graham has to play better. And it’s tough," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said Saturday, after breaking down the Packers’ first scoreless exhibition game since a 9-0, rain-shortened loss to Kansas City in the 2003 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game.
"Playing quarterback in the preseason, it’s never clean, and it’s been like that as long as I’ve been in this league. You’re going to have things go wrong. You’re going to have guys run the route too deep and your guy who doesn’t get off the press and they run into each other. Then you have to go on to the next receiver. It’s those types of things – where you have to play through odd looks, play through situations that someone gets beat and throw the ball away, things like that."
"It’s a challenge for any of those guys that get in there at that time because you’ve got some guys playing in their first NFL game, you’ve got some guys playing right tackle that haven’t even practiced there. That’s the way the preseason goes. For quarterbacks particularly, you have to play above that."
In the intrasquad scrimmage, Harrell had done just that, leading a collection of backups to 10 points and unofficially completing 9 of 12 passes for 88 yards and a touchdown. And in the two practices after the team brought Vince Young in for a tryout on Monday, Harrell had thoroughly outplayed both third-stringer B.J. Coleman and Young, the 2006 No. 3 overall pick, NFL Rookie of the Year, and two-time Pro Bowler who was out of football last year.
In fact, Coleman, a seventh-round pick last year who spent the entire season on the practice squad, has been disappointing throughout camp despite the potential the coaches see in him. Young, meanwhile, looked lost in his first two practices after signing a one-year, minimum-salary deal on Monday, and Harrell responded to Young’s arrival with perhaps his best two practices of camp.
"Competition is only going to make you better, it’s only going to make you fight and scratch and claw to keep your position," quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said. "Graham probably doesn’t get as much respect as he deserves, but you know what? He’s got the edge right now, and I think he’s competing for his job."
While Harrell probably wouldn’t have sewn up the job with a better performance against the Cardinals, he could have put greater distance between him and his challengers. Instead, even though Young only had time to learn a sliver of the playbook (he completed one pass for 7 yards and ran twice for 12 yards) and Coleman continued his summer-long struggles (2 for 7, 15 yards), Harrell may have come back to the pack a bit.
That said, Harrell’s night wasn’t as bad as it appeared statistically. He came into the game after starter Aaron Rodgers exited following his one series, and Harrell played more series (six) and more snaps (35) than Young (two series, 12 snaps) and Coleman (two series, eight snaps) combined. On each of Harrell’s first three series, the offense converted at least one first down and ventured into Arizona territory. But his first series ended in the interception, as his intended receiver, Jeremy Ross, ran into Cardinals cornerback Jerraud Powers, allowing Patrick Peterson to pick off the pass. Harrell’s mistake wasn’t necessarily the throw, but the decision not to come off Ross and go elsewhere with the ball. On the next play, Arizona quarterback Carson Palmer threw a 38-yard touchdown to wide receiver Andre Roberts.
On Harrell’s next series, the Packers drove to the Arizona 39-yard line, where they faced third-and-6. Harrell dropped back and had no time before John Abraham had beaten starting right tackle Marshall Newhouse, sacking Harrell and causing the fumble that Sam Acho recovered. That turnover led to Arizona’s other touchdown, and while the sack wasn’t Harrell’s fault, he has to make sure the ball is secure.
Harrell’s final mistake came on his final series. On second-and-10 from the Green Bay 34, Matthieu blitzed up the middle. Coming untouched, Matthieu dove at Harrell’s feet and got just enough of him to trip him up for a 12-yard loss. Harrell then threw off-target to Tyrone Walker on third-and-22, forcing a punt.
"There were a few plays I’d definitely like to have back – the pick, and then the one sack (by Matthieu) was on me. But we moved the ball a ton. We just couldn’t finish a drive," Harrell said. "As an offense, we’ve got to move the ball better. Especially in the first half, we did actually move the ball at times, but we just couldn’t convert when we needed to."
Harrell hasn’t had especially stellar preseasons with the Packers.
In 2010, he was 16 of 31 (51.6 percent) for 166 yards with no touchdowns, interceptions, or sacks for a 67.4 passer rating. In 2011, he completed 33 of 57 passes (57.9 percent) for 287 yards with two touchdowns, one interception, and five sacks for a 75.7 rating, although he did lead a come-from-behind last-second victory at Indianapolis that year. Last year, he finished exhibition play having completed 45 of 78 passes (57.7 percent) for 484 yards with three touchdowns, two interceptions, and five sacks for a 78.1 rating. But those numbers are misleading because he was downright horrendous in the first three preseason games (32 of 63, 261 yards, one TD, two INTs, 53.7 rating) before being literally perfect (13 of 15 passes for 223 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, perfect 158.3 rating) in the preseason finale against Kansas City.
But now that he is in his fourth season in Green Bay and has had two full offseasons with the team – he signed late in the 2010 offseason and saw the 2011 offseason wiped out by the lockout – Harrell’s biggest advantage over Young and Coleman, besides being the incumbent, could be his mastery of the playbook.
"He really dedicated himself this spring to making sure he had all the answers in the meeting room. That’s the first step to really understanding how to play on the field – making sure there aren’t any doubts in the meeting room and you’re answering the questions in the right way," Rodgers said. "Graham’s done a really good job of that. I think his play has been very consistent. I think he’s in a very similar spot to what (former Packers backup) Matt Flynn was at in Year 4 – you can see the natural progression where mentally you’re figuring it out and the physical part starts to take over. I think he’s done a good job."
Until Young’s arrival, the Packers coaches were splitting the backup quarterback snaps evenly between Coleman and Harrell, and Coleman actually went into the scrimmage before Harrell did. McCarthy wouldn’t say Saturday how snaps will be divided in practice this week or in the team’s next preseason game, at St. Louis Aug. 17.
"Our job is to execute whenever we’re called upon and do our job whenever they put us out there. I think that’s what we all try to do," Harrell said. "This being my fourth year, I feel as comfortable and confident as I’ve ever felt. That just comes with reps, and I’ve got the most I’ve ever had obviously to this point, so I feel good about the way things have been going."
"My job and what I try to do is go out there and try to take care of my business every time and execute every time my number is called. That’s our job – whoever’s job it is. When they tell you to get in there, you have to do your job. As a quarterback, you have to put the offense in a position to be successful, take care of the football and execute. And that’s what I try to do every time I’m in."
And the boo-birds?
"They paid to come," Harrell said with a chuckle. "They can do what they want, I guess."