INDIANAPOLIS - When Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson submitted the initial version of his 53-man roster last September, the list of players included three quarterbacks.
The first two, Aaron Rodgers and Brett Hundley, were obvious locks long before training camp even started. The third, Joe Callahan, constituted a legitimate surprise, especially when the Packers re-signed him late in the year as their cornerbacks and receivers were bludgeoned by injuries.
Coach Mike McCarthy explained the decision to keep Callahan on the active roster during a time when the Packers were shorthanded at other positions.
“I don’t think you can go about it that way,” McCarthy said during a media session at the NFL scouting combine Wednesday. “You have to look at the 63-man roster (counting practice squad). This isn’t just chess or checkers. I mean, Joe Callahan earned that spot, and quarterback is an important position. If you think a guy can play quarterback in this league, you want to keep him in your program.”
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Callahan signed with the Packers in May 2016 as an undrafted free agent from Wesley College, a Division III school in Dover, Del. He became the first quarterback in Division III history to throw for 5,000 yards in a single season and won the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy for his level of competition.
Still, Callahan oozed rawness from the moment he arrived in Green Bay, and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt worked diligently to overhaul his footwork and fine-tune his mechanics in order to match the standards preferred by the Packers. There are first-round picks who feel overwhelmed by jumping from Division I to the National Football League, so you can imagine the information overload Callahan experienced during his first few weeks as a pro.
He made the team in part because of an injury to Hundley, who missed the majority of training camp after expecting heavy reps in his second season in the league. Instead, Callahan threw more passes than any other quarterback on the roster — 54 of 88 for 499 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions — and flashed noticeable improvement as he went.
“We always talk about earning it, as far as making the roster,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said at the end of training camp. “You earn your spot, you earn the right to be in that room and that's a great example of that. You talk about making the most of your opportunity by earning it each and every day, it brings a smile to your face when you see a guy truly go out and accomplish that and doing it the right way.”
But carrying three quarterbacks is a luxury when your starter is Aaron Rodgers. Barring injury, no one else is going to play unless the game is wildly lopsided in one direction or the other.
Which is why Thompson made the choice to release Callahan in mid-October. Cornerback Demetri Goodson and nose tackle Mike Pennel were coming back from suspension, and when roster spots are needed it’s the luxuries that vanish first.
From there Callahan experienced life on the fringes of the NFL. He was claimed on waivers by the New Orleans Saints and cut one week later. Then he was claimed by the Cleveland Browns and cut four weeks later.
At that point, the Packers decided to bring him back because they never wanted to lose him in the first place. They assumed, not unreasonably, that releasing Callahan in October would allow them to re-sign him to the practice squad once he cleared waivers. That New Orleans pounced was a frustrating surprise.
So Callahan joined the practice squad on Dec. 2, and two weeks later Thompson promoted him after releasing inside linebacker Carl Bradford.
“Now, could we have put Joe on the practice squad?” McCarthy said Wednesday. “No. I mean hell, we tried that and he got picked up. The corner position, the inexperience there and the injuries were a challenge. I thought (cornerbacks coach) Joe Whitt fought like hell. I thought the young guys fought like hell. But we need to learn from it. We didn’t handle it. It was tough.”