GREEN BAY – Watching his understudy Matt Flynn carve up the New England Patriots defense and nearly lead the Green Bay Packers to victory against the then-Super Bowl XLV favorites last December, Aaron Rodgers felt what he’d later describe as big-brotherly pride.
That would explain why Rodgers was wearing an ear-to-ear grin after Saturday night’s preseason opener at Cleveland, where the Packers lost the game but Flynn and third-stringer Graham Harrell showed that Rodgers actually has two pretty good younger brothers – and they might just make up the deepest quarterback group in the league.
“I’m proud of the two guys I get to play with everyday – Graham and Matt. I thought they played really well,” Rodgers said, unprompted, in reply to a general question about the Packers’ performance in their 27-17 loss. “Matt has shown a ton of improvement. He’s become a very solid player for us. And I think Graham did some really good things tonight. So I’m proud of those guys.”
Certainly, the performance wasn’t perfect. But with Flynn entering the final year of his contract and seemingly destined to be the starter elsewhere in 2012 – continuing the tradition of Packers backups established by Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks and Mark Brunell before him – this preseason has been about reconfirming Flynn’s status as the best quarterback insurance policy in the league and seeing if Harrell is capable of following in Flynn’s cleats.
And the early returns Saturday night were encouraging. Asked last week about the qualities he looks for in a quarterback, general manager Ted Thompson replied, “On the field, you have to be a take-charge guy. That doesn't mean that off the field, you have to be laidback but on the field you need to take charge and lead. Then, it's the obvious stuff -- throwing motion, making good decisions, have a lot of courage. It's not an easy position to play."
For Flynn, the leadership qualities came easily – he just had to wait awhile to show them off. In college at LSU, he sat behind eventual No. 1 overall pick – and bust – JaMarcus Russell until he was a fifth-year senior, then promptly led the Tigers to the BCS Championship. In Green Bay, he arrived as a seventh-round pick and thoroughly outplayed second-round pick Brian Brohm during the team’s 2008 training camp, earning the right to back up Rodgers
It wasn’t until the Packers’ Dec. 12 loss at Detroit, when Rodgers suffered his second concussion of the season, that Flynn was thrust into action with a game in the balance. While he failed to deliver – the Packers lost, 7-3, with Flynn (15 for 26, 177 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, two sacks, 62.5 rating) failing to connect on what could have been a go-ahead touchdown – he spent the following week preparing to start against the Patriots.
When Rodgers couldn’t get doctors to clear him to play, coach Mike McCarthy dialed up an aggressive game plan that wasn’t scaled back in any way for Flynn, who was terrific (24 for 37, 251 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, 100.2 rating).
“I think I’ve probably told you 100 times that I’m a very confident player; always have been,” Flynn said after he completed 11 of 18 passes for 126 yards and a touchdown (100.7 rating) and ran the 2-minute drill to near perfection en route to a touchdown just before halftime.
“But (this being my) fourth year into it, I got to play a little bit last year, and I think that’s all helped my confidence build up. I’m just very comfortable with the offense, comfortable with what we’re trying to do out there and what the defense is trying to do out there.
“I don’t think I have to prove anything. I just have to go out there, produce and put points on the board."
Harrell, meanwhile, has plenty to prove. Undrafted and unwanted coming out of college, despite a record-setting career at Texas Tech, Harrell rode the bench in the Canadian Football League before the Packers took a flier on him in May 2010. He struggled throughout training camp and the preseason, but stuck around on the practice squad as the No. 3 quarterback, with the team choosing to carry just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster.
When Rodgers suffered his second concussion, Harrell got the call to the active roster, but it wasn’t until training camp began that his improvement became evident. After the annual spring quarterback school was among the casualties of the NFL lockout, there was reason to wonder how much better Harrell could be in Year 2. The answer? Significantly better.
“This offseason would have been big for him just to learn the finer points of the offense. He kind of had to pick it up on the fly, and he missed a lot of the fundamental work, too,” quarterbacks coach Tom Clements explained. “But even last year, with his limited knowledge of our system, he has a very good feel for the passing game.”
According to Clements, Harrell’s biggest challenge after playing in Texas Tech’s gimmicky offense was moving from the shotgun, where he lined up almost exclusively in college, to under center, where pro quarterbacks generally are on first and second downs. The Packers’ extensive use of the shotgun does play to Harrell’s strength, but Clements said getting Harrell to be just as comfortable at the line of scrimmage has been a point of emphasis.
“He just hasn't played under center a lot,” Clements explained. “The biggest thing is just the drop-step footwork and getting comfortable with that, and he's gotten better and better. Everyone has their own unique throwing motion and throwing mechanics, and he's an accurate passer. He has a good feel for where the ball should go. He's usually going to find a completion out there."
Mentally, Harrell is light-years ahead of where he was last season, which would explain why he looked like a different player against the Browns. His lack of pocket awareness and inability to hold onto the football when hit – he was sacked three times, fumbled all three times and saw one of the fumbles returned for the go-ahead touchdown – was an issue, but his throws were mostly on target and thrown with greater velocity that he’d shown last year in camp.
“I think last year a lot of the time I was just wondering who was where and what they were going to run. So you’re just guessing,” said Harrell, who finished Saturday night having gone 11 for 22 for 100 yards with no TDs and no INTs for a rating of 62.7. “You get to the line of scrimmage, you’re not sure, and you’re doing more thinking than anything else. Calling a play here is pretty wordy, and that was one thing last year that I struggled with. I was just trying to get the right play out and then trying to figure out where they were going to be. So that’s what I did.
“Now, I know where guys are going to be lining up, where guys are running routes, and so the comfort level and the confidence is so much better in that aspect. It’s just with new guys, getting them on that game thing. Because they’re going through the same thing I did last year – trying to figure out where to line up, where to run. It’s just all of us getting on the same page and getting more polished.”
With the offseason canceled, Harrell relied on old practice and game scripts to further his knowledge of the offense. He also got together with Rodgers on the Abilene Christian campus for throwing sessions.
“Graham’s a smart guy, a talented guy. He just needs the opportunity,” Rodgers said. “I think this preseason is important, obviously. I've told Matt, this is an important preseason for him, when you think about his situation, but Graham as well. He's got a great opportunity to make himself one of the 53. I think if he plays the way we all know he's capable of playing, he should be right in the mix."
The only question with Flynn – like Hasselbeck behind Brett Favre before him – is whether he’s more valuable to the Packers on their roster or in trade value. With McCarthy’s belief that you need two good quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl in this age of post-concussion caution, Flynn’s unlikely to depart via trade before the Sept. 8 opener, even if Harrell continues to improve and looks like No. 2 material.
“I’ve got to show that I’m continually growing as a quarterback, improving, showing I’m playing better than I did last preseason, better than I did against New England last year,” Flynn said. “I don’t look at it like (I’m auditioning). Once you get in the game situation, I look at it as trying to win the game, trying to do the best you can and trying to get the ball in the end zone. I don’t look at it that way at all.
“That’s my eventual goal, to someday be a starter. Right now, I’m trying to soak everything in from the coaches, pick up as much as I can and try to be the best quarterback I can.”
Whenever Flynn does go elsewhere – to Rodgers, it’s a matter of when, not if – Rodgers is confident that his “little brother” will have success.
"There's not a lot of conversation about it, but you kind of know what's going on. He's going into the last year of his contract, he got a chance to play last year and played excellent. He's a very trusted backup and a guy who the organization has a lot of faith in,” Rodgers said. “That being said, there's been a history of backup quarterbacks in Green Bay going on and getting opportunities other places, and doing very well. I think if that's the case for Matt, he's going to follow right in that line of Hasselbecks and Brunells and guys like that that went on to other places and played well.
“When Matt first came in, you tell he had that extra quality that a quarterback needs, that huddle presence, the leadership abilities. I was so proud of him last year, I felt like a big brother watching him in that New England game as they went up and down the field and he threw three touchdowns against a team that went 14-2. I think the next stop for him is definitely NFL starter. I don’t see why not. There’s a lot of teams that need quarterbacks. At the end of the season, if that’s the course Matt wants to go and the team wants to go, I’m sure there’ll be a place for him to play.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.