GREEN BAY – Graham Harrell did not accept the premise. In fact, the Green Bay Packers’ new-fangled 2.5 second clock would have burned only a few tenths of a second before he rejected it.
No, Thursday night’s preseason opener against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium is not his Super Bowl. The four-game exhibition season is not his regular season. The Packers new backup quarterback fully understands his role behind reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, but he also has no idea how the 2012 season will unfold, so he’s not looking at the preseason as his only playing time – even if no one, including Packers general manager Ted Thompson, wants to see him play a single minute once the games start to count.
“Actually, (he) can play late in the game,” Thompson deadpanned.
This, however, is no joke: As the only backup quarterback in the 32-team NFL to enter training camp at No. 2 on the depth chart and never to have thrown a pass in NFL regular-season play, Harrell enters Thursday night’s game against the Chargers with plenty to prove, having been elevated to the primary backup job after Matt Flynn departed for Seattle in free agency.
“I’m extremely excited. It’s a great opportunity for me,” said Harrell, who went undrafted and spent a wasted year in the Canadian Football League before the Packers picked him up prior to the 2010 season. “Anytime you get a chance to go out and play, it’s important, whether it’s practice or games or whatever. This is the closest we’re going to get to game action unless someone goes down, so we have to be ready to play and try to do our best. But we do that anyway. It’ll be big for us, (but) it’ll (also) be fun, and I look forward to it.”
While it might be a stretch to say that Harrell has looked like a different player so far in training camp, there’s no denying that even to the untrained eye his arm strength looks stronger, he’s more decisive with where he goes with the football and he’s moving out of the pocket with more of a plan and less confusion than the past two years. Now, he must show that he can carry over solid practice work into the game environment.
“The games are very important, but so are all the things in the offseason, the training camp practices,” said offensive coordinator Tom Clements, Harrell’s quarterbacks coach the past two years. “He’s done well in practice. Based on what he’s shown in practice, we anticipate he’ll do well in the games. Obviously, the games are the best preparation for him.”
While Harrell graduated from Texas Tech with some gaudy statistics – he finished his college career as the NCAA’s all-time leader in touchdown passes (134) and completions (1,403) and second in passing yards (15,793) – questions about his arm strength and the Red Raiders’ shotgun-formation spread offense dogged him, and no team would even take a seventh-round flyer on him during the 2009 draft – not even Thompson, who did so in 2008 (on Flynn) and this year (on third-stringer B.J. Coleman).
Asked why so many teams passed on Harrell, Thompson replied: “I don’t know. I will say this: He carries himself like a quarterback, and he acts like a quarterback. And I think he thinks he’s a quarterback. And he was pretty good in college. So far, he’s doing well. I don’t know how to answer you. It just works that way sometimes. How was (Pro Bowl cornerback) Tramon Williams not on someone else’s team before we got him? Sometimes you have to be lucky.”
Of course, it’s still not clear just how lucky the Packers are to have Harrell. In the preseason last year, Harrell completed 33 of 57 passes (57.9 percent) for 287 yards with two touchdowns and one interception (75.7 rating), with his finest moment coming when he rallied the team to an exhibition victory in Indianapolis. He needs to do better this time around, even if the durable Rodgers stays healthy, as he did last season.
In 2010, Rodgers suffered two concussions, forcing Flynn into action halfway through a loss at Detroit and forcing him to start a crucial late-season game at New England. The Packers lost both of those games, which could have been the difference in the eventual Super Bowl XLV champions making the playoffs. (They did, as the sixth and final seed in the NFC, when Rodgers returned and directed them to victories over the New York Giants and Chicago Bears in the final two weeks of the regular season.)
Last year, Flynn’s shining moment came in the meaningless regular-season finale, when the inactive Rodgers was deputized as the first-half offensive coordinator and Flynn set franchise records for passing yards (480) and touchdown passes (six) in a single game.
No one is expecting that of Harrell, but after two less-than-ideal years – he signed after the offseason program had begun in 2010, and the offseason was wiped out by the lockout last year – Harrell has benefitted greatly from a full offseason in the system and two years of toggling between the practice squad and the 53-man roster as the third quarterback behind Rodgers and Flynn.
“I’ll say this: He knows what we’re trying to do, how to do it and why we’re doing it. So if you know those things, it’s going to help you athletically,” new quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo said. “I’m pretty happy with where he is in his development, and I think he’s only going to get better.”
While playing under center had long been a question mark with Harrell because of his time in Tech’s “Red Gun” offense, McAdoo said the greater issue for Harrell had been his inability to create plays when the protection broke down or things didn’t unfold according to plan. While athletic enough to scramble, he didn’t always know where to go or what to do.
“There was a couple times on tape (from practice this week) where things broke down, he took off and got out of the pocket quickly and either threw the ball away or made a play scrambling. That’s new for him. He hasn’t had to do that much in the past,” McAdoo said. “He’s working hard at it and he’s getting better at it. And he’s going to continue to get better at it.
"In the offense he’s used to (at Texas Tech), he’s used to the tackles having 4-yard splits from the guard, the linemen are spread out so far that he catches the ball, if something happens pressure-wise, he has time to just get the ball to where he needs it without moving much. Well, just sitting back in the pocket, taking a quick drop and getting the ball where it needs to go – that’s his background. But that’s not who he is now.
“In this league, the defenses are pretty good, and they can rush the passer, so there are times when things are going to break down, and it’s encouraging to see him able to make plays, breaking contain. He’s improving doing it.
“He’s going to go out and play well. I look forward to watching him. I’m excited.”
For his part, Harrell grasps the importance of his opportunity, but he doesn’t seem consumed by it. His personality is laid-back Texas, and while he might be as competitive as all get-out, the moment shouldn’t be too big for him.
Still, he knows he has a lot to prove.
“Anytime you go out there, you want to do well,” Harrell said. “The preseason is big for me and for guys who don’t get to play as much in-season – game reps are important, experience is very important and this is a chance to get some. We look forward to it. Hopefully I’ll go out and play well and do some good things.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.