GREEN BAY—It was the game last summer that eased Packers fans’ concerns, at least for the moment.
In the preseason finale against Kansas City, backup quarterback Graham Harrell completed 13 of 15 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns for a maximum 158.3 passer rating.
That concluded a summer of angst during which Packers fans questioned whether the offense had a signal caller who could step in if needed for Aaron Rodgers and effectively run the show.
Statistically, the concern was understandable, given Harrell’s 2012 preseason numbers (32 of 63, 261 yards, one TD, two INT, 53.7 rating) prior to that fourth and final game. But all along, Head Coach Mike McCarthy and his coaching staff stood behind Harrell, and their support was validated by Harrell’s superb outing.
One year later, the angst has returned outside the walls of Lambeau Field. Harrell never had his Matt Flynn moment, when Rodgers’ former backup in 2010 started a December, prime-time road game against New England’s Tom Brady and nearly led the Packers to victory.
Instead, Harrell had a T.J. Rubley-like gaffe, stumbling to execute a handoff near the goal line when he had to substitute for Rodgers for one play, with the resulting fumble nearly costing the Packers a win over New Orleans. Two additional mop-up appearances, with two completions in four attempts, weren’t notable.
Fair or unfair, with the 2013 preseason opener roughly a month away, Harrell is right back to where he was last summer. He has worries to calm and a lot to prove.
He’ll have a more legitimate challenge from B.J. Coleman to deal with, too. Last year’s seventh-round pick has spent a full year learning the system, and his growth is being monitored just as closely.
Throughout the spring, Harrell’s coaches continued to express their belief in his development, but it’s clear a more efficient, productive start to the preseason is expected this time around. McCarthy said as much during his final press conference during OTAs. Progress will need to be evident much sooner, even if another 158.3 rating is way too much to ask while conducting a No. 2 unit.
“You always want to look like that, but in preseason football there’s a lot of moving parts,” Harrell said. “For a lot of guys it’s their first shot out there. But coming off a game like that, I’m extremely confident and I look forward to the preseason.”
Harrell believes he’ll have a better handle on all of those moving parts this year. Physically, he and Quarterbacks Coach Ben McAdoo went back to doing “old-school” fundamental drills during offseason workouts, and mentally he says he feels more comfortable now than he ever has running McCarthy’s offense. He knows the protection schemes better, and he’s had more practice making calls and adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
Spending a second straight offseason in the meeting room with McCarthy, Offensive Coordinator Tom Clements and McAdoo has helped, after Harrell’s first true offseason was nixed by the lockout two years ago.
“You get to bounce questions off three different guys and get three different sides of the game,” Harrell said. “So it’s a great system right now and a great place to be.”
Regular grillings from Rodgers during film sessions don’t hurt, either.
“If you didn’t know any better, you’d think he was a coach, too, sometimes in there,” Harrell said. “I think he asks more questions than the coaches ask to the younger guys.
“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. So, I guess if you add him, we’ve got four coaches.”
Harrell also has four preseason games coming up that, barring the unforeseen, will constitute the bulk if not all of his live action for 2013.
It would be nice for him, and a better gauge of his regular-season potential in case of emergency, if he got to play with the No. 1 offense, but that’s generally not how the preseason works. As a backup, he’ll lead a reserve unit, and he proved he could do so successfully in that Kansas City game.
The Chiefs are the fourth opponent on the preseason schedule once again. The goal is for that game not to be the highlight of Harrell’s summer, but one of many.
“It’s a fun time for backups and it’s your chance to really get to play,” Harrell said. “It’s a chance to grow and learn, and as a group you kind of grow together. I think the later we went in the preseason, the sharper we got.
“Hopefully, we can start a little further along than we did last season.”