Green Bay Packers quarterback Graham Harrell looks to throw against the Kansas City Chiefs at Lambeau Field Thursday, August 30, 2012. / Megan McCormick/Press-Gazette
This was the Graham Harrell the Green Bay Packers were waiting to see on a game day all preseason.
The team’s presumptive No. 2 quarterback going into training camp was playing for his job Thursday night, and after struggling in the first three preseason games broke out against the Kansas City Chiefs in his final showing before final cuts today in the Packers’ 24-3 win in the Bishop’s Charities Game at Lambeau Field.
Harrell, who came into the game with a 53.7 passer rating this preseason, led touchdown drives on all three of his possessions, hit on several big plays, converted a couple of key third downs and finished the game with a maximum 158.3 passer rating. After that sharp performance, it’s all but a given Harrell has sewn up the job backing up Aaron Rodgers, especially considering that coach Mike McCarthy had seen enough to get Harrell out of the game barely more than five minutes into the third quarter. A longer look wasn’t necessary.
In practice during camp, Harrell more often than not looked like he was ready for the No. 2 job after two seasons as the Packers’ No. 3, but his play in the first three preseason games landed him squarely on the bubble because of a combination of poor pass blocking by the No. 2 offensive line, a few dropped passes and his own occasional misfires and shaky decisions.
He went a long way to wiping those games off the books on Thursday night with by far his best preseason performance since joining the team in 2010. His line at the end of the night: 13 of 15 passing for 223 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks.
It all started with an early 22-yard completion on a difficult catch by starting tight end Jermichael Finley that converted a third down – a play that showed the benefit of playing with at least one playmaker rather than all backups. After that, Harrell’s confidence and poise visibly grew with each completion.
Among Harrell’s brightest moments was a 54-yard completion to Tori Gurley on a post pattern the play after Finley’s catch that moved the ball to the Chiefs’ 1. Gurley beat cornerback Jacques Reeves on the play, and when safety Tysyn Hartman blew the help coverage over the top, Gurley ran free and nearly scored. That set up Alex Green’s two-yard touchdown run two plays later.
The next series, there was a back-shoulder throw to Gurley that drew a 16-yard pass interference penalty on cornerback Chandler Fenner; a 15-yard slant to Gurley; a 15-yard completion on a deep in pattern to Dale Moss; a converted third-and-14 when Harrell scrambled to his left and threw back across his body to Jarrett Boykin for a 16-yard gain; a 17-yard completion to receiver Diondre Borel; and a 20-yard screen to Green for a touchdown.
On his third and final series, on the Packers’ first possession of the third quarter, Harrell completed all five of his passes for 64 yards – his one incompletion was negated by a facemask penalty against the Chiefs. Boykin had two of the catches for 33 yards, including a 12-yarder for a touchdown that put the Packers ahead 21-3 and ended Harrell’s night.
But if Harrell’s night was more than the Packers could have hoped for, their starting offense’s play was a big disappointment. It started with a three-and-out that included a fumble by halfback Cedric Benson on the team’s first possession. Even though Finley’s recovery kept Benson’s fumble from being a turnover, the play raises a red flag because of Benson’s fumbling history. Benson, who appears to be the Packers’ new starting halfback, fumbled 12 times in the last two seasons combined.
McCarthy then made a surprise move when he brought out quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the No. 1s for a second series. In the preseason finale he and most NFL coaches usually get their starters off the field quickly to limit the injury risk with the regular-season opener barely more than a week away. In fact, McCarthy didn’t even suit ups older veterans Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett and Jeff Saturday for just that reason.
But on that second series, McCarthy chose not even to risk having Rodgers throw a pass, and after three Benson runs failed to generate a first down, all the starters on offense except for Finley were finished for the night.