Backup QB battle shows some sizzle

Aug. 2, 2013

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Green Bay Packers quarterbacks Graham Harrell, left, and B. J. Coleman during training camp practice Saturday at Ray Nitschke Field. H. Marc Larson/Press-Gazette Media


A year ago, the backup quarterback competition never seemed to get off the ground.

With Matt Flynn leaving for a multimillion-dollar deal with Seattle, the Green Bay Packers opened training camp with seventh-round rookie B.J. Coleman and returning third-stringer Graham Harrell vying for the opportunity to spell reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers.

Coleman, a former Tennessee recruit who later transferred to Tennessee-Chattanooga, brought a prototypical 6-foot-3 frame and a cannon for a right arm with him to the NFL.

Early in camp, however, that cannon was used to rocket a ball four rows deep into the stands at Ray Nitschke Field off a misguided throw. On another occasion, the rookie quarterback purposely threw the ball away during a two-minute drill — the only problem was it was fourth down.

Things didn’t go much smoother for Harrell, who struggled behind a makeshift second-team offensive line through the team’s first three preseason games before pulling it together in the finale against Kansas City to win the No. 2 job and send Coleman to the practice squad.

The ups and downs are still measurable through the first week of this year’s training camp, but Coleman has returned a more polished product than he was a year ago with intangibles that make the competition behind Rodgers much more interesting.

“This year, it is 50-50. It’s right down the middle as opposed to last year when I got to clean up a rep or two at the end of each period,” Coleman said. “This year, I’m getting five reps a period and get a chance to get comfortable in there and get a little bit of a rhythm. That’s what it’s all about.”

Through the first week of camp, reps have been split nearly equally between Harrell and Coleman. Last year, Rodgers would take the first four or five snaps in team drills, Harrell would get a few throws and one or two would trickle down to Coleman.

Like the Packers did with Brett Favre when he reached the midway point of his career, this camp appears to be the turning point for reducing the workload for Rodgers, who’ll turn 30 in December and signed a five-year, $110 million extension in April.

Behind Rodgers, the 6-foot-2, 223-pound Harrell doesn’t possess the same build or arm strength as Coleman, but experience is on his side as he enters his fourth camp with the Packers since signing as a street free agent in 2010.

Although he’s often been the target for national pundits’ criticism — Pro Football Weekly tabbed him as the worst No. 2 quarterback in the league in 2012 — coaches say he’s developed steadily in Mike McCarthy’s quarterback cradle.

An unrelenting gym rat, the work Harrell put in to improve his arm strength over the past two years was on display this week in practice when he aired a deep ball perfectly to James Jones over rookie Micah Hyde in single coverage, which would’ve been good for a 75-yard touchdown had it been executed in a game.

“He has really grasped the system now whereas before sometimes it was hit or miss as to whether he’d make the adjustment,” said Packers offensive coordinator Tom Clements, who served as Harrell’s quarterbacks coach in 2010 and 2011. “He maybe knew what the adjustment was, but he wasn’t quite confident making it in a practice setting. He’s very comfortable with the system. He’s gotten physically stronger and a little bigger. He always has knack for finding the right guy with the ball.”

As was the case with Harrell, Coleman made a few modifications to be better positioned to battle for the backup spot. He changed his diet, dropping from 236 pounds to less than 230 in an attempt to be more mobile in pocket.

Since May’s rookie orientation — which he was eligible for by being on the practice squad all of last season — Coleman has exuded more confidence in the pocket with cleaner footwork and a release that’s far less erratic.

However, Coleman still possesses the same slight gunslinger mentality he had at Chattanooga, where he was picked off 31 times in 29 career starts. During Wednesday’s practice, Coleman had passes plucked away by A.J. Hawk and Morgan Burnett in team periods.

On Thursday, he flubbed on a pitch out to running back James Starks, an error he and quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo chalked up to a mixable deviation from technique.

Like another famous gunslinger in Packers lore, Coleman has a short memory and doesn’t often compound mistakes. Amidst the interceptions on Wednesday, he showed perfect form on a bullet through traffic to Andrew Quarless.

“You have to learn from history not to make the same mistake twice,” McAdoo said. “You always have to move onto the next play. He’s always moving forward.”

The burden of proof remains on Coleman to unseat Harrell. It’s hard to imagine the Packers would carry three quarterbacks on their active roster to start the season, making it easier to keep the 28-year-old Harrell on the 53 and stash Coleman on the practice squad for another year of seasoning.

If Coleman wins the job, the Packers likely would sign an eligible street free agent to the practice squad with a lot of catching up to do with the team playbook.

With the team’s first preseason game less than a week away, Harrell and Coleman will have plenty of opportunities to state their case for the job.

The one certainty for the Packers is that it will be a much more difficult decision than in 2012.

“Our job is to be ready whenever we go in there,” Harrell said. “Know what you’re supposed to know, know the play that’s called, know your checks and do your job. That’s what I try to do everything I go out there. Just go out there, do my job and put our offense in a position to be successful.” and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.

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