With each preseason game that Graham Harrell struggles through, questions mount about whether he’s a legitimate backup to Green Bay Packers starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Each week that follows, the Packers coaching staff defends him.
Perhaps this process could be solved and the questions be answered once and for all if coach Mike McCarthy gave Harrell a few series with the number one offense. Maybe only then would it become apparent whether Harrell’s struggles are his own or the result of an offensive line group that might still be missing capable backups.
“We’ve never taken a backup and put him with the number ones,” McCarthy said Tuesday. “You’re evaluating the whole football team. It doesn’t just happen during preseason games. There’s a lot that goes into evaluating players and the quarterback position. I’m more interested in seeing Graham improve in the areas that we feel he needs to improve on, and I’m seeing it.”
Which is to say Harrell won’t get the luxury of playing behind the starting offensive line in Thursday’s preseason finale against Kansas City at Lambeau Field. He will, however, see plenty of action. Rodgers and the starters have typically played only a series or two if they play at all in the last preseason game, and their practice reps this week have indicated that will be the case again.
So it means Harrell will have to make do with a make-shift backup offensive line group that has changed throughout camp and this week has featured a pair of undrafted rookies — Shea Allard and Don Barclay — at the two tackle spots and another undrafted rookie, Greg Van Roten, at left guard. Only center Evan Dietrich-Smith and right guard Reggie Wells have any NFL regular-season experience, and only Dietrich-Smith is a lock to make the team.
“Maybe it’s a little more magnified this year for whatever reason, maybe because of all the injuries, but in preseason football when you’re playing with new guys or rookies or guys new to the system, it’s often the case that things kind of look bad at times,” offensive coordinator Tom Clements said. “You have to play through that, and he’s done that. He’s poised and has an even keel during the game. As long as he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing during the game, we evaluate him on that. You can’t evaluate him on a play where someone might not do the correct assignment, so that’s how it goes.”
In 24 preseason series over the first three games, Harrell has led one touchdown drive and a pair of field goal drives. There was one other drive that ended with a missed field goal. Ten times, he has failed to pick up a first down and has gone three and out. In last week’s game at Cincinnati, he was sacked on third down on the first of two three and outs. He has been sacked five times and flushed out of the pocket many more.
“Certainly, we’d like to protect Graham a little bit,” offensive line coach James Campen said. “They know that. The one thing about this group, these guys work hard. There’s no dogs in that room. ... They’re very accountable and get upset when those things happen. We’d certainly love to be able to perform better for him, absolutely.”
Harrell has been careful not to criticize the offensive linemen he has played behind, but Rodgers hasn’t been shy about calling them out. He did it for the second time after the game at Cincinnati, when he said: “Hopefully those guys will figure it out and give him some time because he’s going to get an opportunity to play a lot.”
Much of his playing time could come against the Chiefs’ starters. Last year in the preseason finale, they played many of their top players into the second half against the Packers.
Harrell has gotten an opportunity to practice with some starters. In the Aug. 5 training camp practice, McCarthy gave selected veterans the night off. Rodgers was included in that group, so Harrell had a chance to lead the number one offense, and he had one of his best practices of the summer.
“No doubt,” McCarthy said. “But (all the starters) weren’t there, either.”
Harrell hasn’t shown the same accuracy in the first three preseason game that he displayed in that and some other practices. He has completed just 50.8 percent of his 63 preseason game passes for 261 yards. He has one touchdown pass, a 3-yarder to Randall Cobb to cap a two-minute drive at the end of the first half.
“Take the number and the name off the jersey; this isn’t about Graham,” McCarthy said. “It’s about the quarterback position that’s a little bit of a rougher go than normal. If he was sitting right there, I would hope he’d say coach McCarthy tells me all the time that preseason football, we coach it. It starts in the offseason, and you get all these new guys in here who don’t really know the routes, and there’s busted plays and (missed assignments). I always make a point, that’s preseason football. You’ve got to get on to the next guy. It can’t be, ‘Oh no, he ran the wrong route.’”
That’s why McCarthy refuses to stop a practice play when things break down and the quarterback scrambles. He wants to see how his quarterbacks will react.
“It’s part of the training,” McCarthy said. “That’s an area that wasn’t a strength of his, and now he’s scrambling and moving out of the pocket. He’s doing things he’s never done. Go watch last year’s film. He’s made a big improvement. I’m very pleased with him.”
The coaches have supported Harrell ever since they lost Matt Flynn to Seattle in free agency, but the proof will come Friday, when McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson have to trim the roster to 53. Thursday is Harrell’s last chance to make an impression.
“I want him to be productive,” McCarthy said. “Not just him, the whole second offense. They’ve slowly gotten better, and I’d like to see those guys have some success. They’ve worked their butts off. The offensive line has been up and down. We’ve moved some guys in and out of there, and hopefully they’ve got some continuity and have some success.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @RobDemovsky.