With Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) firmly entrenched as the team's starter, Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman will vie for the backup job. / H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media
For NFL teams with a top-10 quarterback, there are a couple schools of thought for backing him up.
One is to put essentially all resources into other positions, thinking if you lose your quarterback for the season, the Super Bowl is out of reach no matter who replaces him. The 2011 Indianapolis Colts, for instance, dropped from a likely playoff team with Peyton Manning to the NFL’s worst team without him, and were rewarded with probably another decade-plus of success when they used the first pick overall in last year’s draft on Andrew Luck.
The other option is to put decent money or significant draft resources into the backup job, hoping to ensure at least being competitive for the playoffs if you lose your starter.
Ted Thompson, the Green Bay Packers’ general manager, has opted for the former behind Aaron Rodgers. Before he knew what he had in Rodgers as his starter, Thompson selected Brian Brohm in the second round and Matt Flynn in the seventh round in the 2008 draft. Since then Thompson has drafted only one quarterback, B.J. Coleman, with a seventh-round pick last year, and never spent more than the minimum salary on a veteran.
Flynn’s growth left the Packers’ backup job in good hands in 2010 and ’11. But it was shaky last year – Pro Football Weekly ranked Graham Harrell last in the league in 2012 – and will be better this season only by improvement from within.
The Packers are hoping Coleman’s year in their program will have him ready to challenge Harrell. At the rookie minicamp, in which Coleman was allowed to participate after spending last season on the practice squad, the signs looked promising. But after the full squad practices later in the offseason, it appears going into camp the job remains Harrell’s to lose.
“They will compete in camp,” quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo assured in June.
Though Coleman is bigger (6-feet-3 and 231 pounds, to Harrell’s 6-2 and 215), has a stronger throwing arm and probably is more athletic, Harrell still appears to play the game a little quicker and with more awareness. Whether Harrell is noticeably better after his first season as the No. 2 will come down to preseason performance, where last year he played poorly the first three games before securing the backup job with a strong game against Kansas City in the preseason finale.
In those first three preseason games, Harrell produced only 13 points (one touchdown, two field goals) and a 53.7 passer rating in 24 series. Then against Kansas City he led touchdown drives on all three of his series and put up a 158.3 rating, which is the maximum.
This offseason Harrell said he’s added about 10 pounds working with a personal trainer, though his listed weight (215 pounds) is the same as last year. At age 28 he’s probably hit his physical peak.
“Yeah I can (see improvement from last year),” McAdoo said. “(Harrell) is really efficient running the offense. He has a good understanding of what we’re looking to do whether it’s in the run game, whether it’s in protection adjustments, or whether it’s reads in the passing game.”
Last year Coleman wasn’t ready to compete with Harrell for the backup job after playing at the Football Championship Series level in college at Tennessee-Chattanooga. But this year he took his first turn through coach Mike McCarthy’s quarterbacks school, where Rodgers, Flynn and Harrell made substantial improvement earlier in their careers.
Though Coleman was a pocket passer in college, the Packers thought he was athletic enough to make plays outside the pocket in their offense. He showed notable improvement in that ability and in command of the offense during the rookie minicamp in early May.
But to push Harrell in training camp, Coleman will have to make reads and decisions faster than he did in the full-squad practices in May and June.
“B.J. has come a long way fundamentally, that’s been a real big emphasis for him,” McAdoo said. “He’s buying in, he’s playing with some more rhythm in his body and his feet, and he’s better on the move. We’re working on getting him to be a master of this offense and a master of this system. He’s made some progress.”
McCarthy appears ready to have a fourth quarterback in training camp this year, undrafted rookie Matt Brown of Illinois State. Brown has good size (6-3, 225) and was a four-year starter in college that included a 94.8 NFL passer rating as a senior. He took minimal snaps in offseason practices, so he looks like a practice-squad prospect at best.
“He comes from a pro-type system in college,” McAdoo said, “but we’re throwing a lot at him, and we’re throwing it at him in a hurry. He’s a young guy that has a long way to go.”
Then there’s Rodgers, who this offseason signed a seven-year, $130.7 million contract. That included a $35 million signing bonus and puts his average at $18.7 million a year. The $62.5 million he’ll make in the first three years is the most of any player ever in the first three years of a deal.
Determining the best quarterback in the NFL at any particular time will always spur vigorous argument, but Rodgers’ case is as good as any. Last season he led the NFL in passer rating (108.0) for the second straight season, was second in touchdown passes (39) and threw only eight interceptions.
In five years as a starter, the 29-year old has a 52-26 record and 105.6 passer rating. Since 2009 he has the NFL’s highest passer rating (108.6), well ahead of No. 2 Tom Brady (102.5). Rodgers’ only issue of note has been occasionally holding the ball too long. In 2009 he was sacked 40 times in the first nine games and 50 for the year, and then last season his 51 sacks were most of any quarterback in the league.
Whether Rodgers’ new contract changes him will play out over the next few seasons, but motivation never has been a problem. His relatively modest background included not being recruited by Division I colleges out of high school, then slipping to No. 24 in the NFL draft when he was expecting to be a top-10 pick. He also has the prospect of winning multiple Super Bowls and eventually going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“A lot has been written about the chip on his shoulder and the things that motivate him,” McAdoo said. “From what I’ve seen, he seems to be an intrinsically motivated guy, someone who doesn’t rely on a lot of motivation from outside sources. The game is important to him, his teammates are important to him and his legacy is important to him. “
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.