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Graham Harrell a backup failure so far for Packers

By Bob McGinn, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

GREEN BAY, Wis. — It’s difficult not to keep returning to two facts when it comes to evaluating Graham Harrell.

For three years, Harrell has been the beneficiary of being taught by possibly the finest collection of quarterback coaches that the National Football League has had to offer.

In 2009, Harrell’s rookie year, 11 quarterbacks were drafted and about 10 to 15 more were signed as free agents. It wasn’t until a full year after that before Harrell was able to attract his first NFL contract.

Quarterbacks are a lot like PGA Tour professionals. Fans naturally pull for them and feel bad when they fail, maybe because what they do for a living is almost impossibly hard.

Yes, Graham Harrell is a fine person and a terrific teammate. But really, the excuses being made for him by some of his coaches, some of his teammates and some in the television industry need to stop.

What’s that coach Mike McCarthy of the Green Bay Packers and just about every other coach in the NFL says until they’re blue in the face?

When a player gets an opportunity, he needs to make the most of it.

Harrell gets that, and he also knows that his opportunity has been one that so many quarterbacks of his humble background never received.

Two weeks from now, the Packers will have made their decision on whether Harrell has done enough with his chances. He will be their No. 2 quarterback, their No. 3 quarterback or on the waiver wire.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if the coaching staff ends up supporting Harrell because of the time invested and semi-comfort zone that he provides. There’s little doubt that Aaron Rodgers would push for him, too.

At the same time, Ted Thompson and his personnel people might very well advocate the move to a more talented passer via trade, free-agent signing or waivers. Scouts are paid to upgrade the roster.

When the internal debate is concluded, look for Harrell to survive the final cut.

The odds are he won’t have to play. If he does have to play in competitive situations, there remains serious doubt if the Packers can win with him.

Both McCarthy and Rodgers focused their remarks after the Cleveland game on Harrell’s two interceptions. Yes, those interceptions were largely the reason why Harrell’s passer rating of 26.4 was the lowest in his 10 exhibition games, but they have almost nothing to do with his mediocre performance.

Tight end Ryan Taylor fell down on the first. Tackle Andrew Datko didn’t block the backside rusher so Harrell wasn’t able to set his feet and throw the Hail Mary. Remove both plays from the judgment process.

During Harrell’s three quarters of work, there were about 10 other situations (the coaches probably could cite many more) that continued to raise red flags about his development.

Three times Harrell threw behind open receivers, and late in the game he overthrew a wide-open Andrew Brewer on what should have been a rather routine 22-yard touchdown pass.

Harrell held the ball in the end zone one time when D.J. Williams was open. Then, in the end zone once again, he took too much time, didn’t have the quickness to get outside the pocket and intentionally grounded the ball for a safety. It was a terrible mistake.

In the second quarter, Harrell’s lack of arm power was evident when he wasn’t able to throw the ball into the seats near the Green Bay bench. He was saved when the player that intercepted his floater was just out of bounds.

A short time later, he made an awful decision by throwing into a crowd of bodies on a middle screen that easily could have been picked.

McCarthy praised Harrell for dashing out of the pocket to convert a pair of third-and-mediums. On the first one, he deftly avoided a sack, sprinted right and courageously dived head-long past the first-down marker.

Left unsaid, however, was a third and 6 in the second quarter when Harrell had a big opening inside but didn’t have enough burst and was tackled a yard short.

Harrell had two passes dropped by free agents. It’s likely some assignments were blown. His protection was so-so.

OK, what else is new? Every backup quarterback in NFL history has had to deal with the chaos of exhibition play.

In order, Matt Flynn’s ratings were 100.2, 97.4, 77.7 and 86.6. Rodgers had a rough ride as a rookie, but his ratings in his second and third preseasons were 101.1 and 98.3.

Matt Hasselbeck’s ratings were 127.7 and 114 in years two and three. Mark Brunell posted 97 and 98.2 in his two summers. After putting up 62 as a rookie, Ty Detmer came through with 96.3, 85.6 and 111.4 in his final three summer campaigns.

Even Danny Wuerffel finished with a 125.2 rating in extensive action in 2000 but still didn’t make the team. Year after year, Doug Pederson always seemed to more than hold his own.

In two decades of West Coast offense, the Packers’ preseason flops have included Ken O’Brien, T.J. Rubley, David Klingler, Rick Mirer, Henry Burris, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, J.T. O’Sullivan, Ingle Martin and Brian Brohm.

Take whatever you want from Harrell’s three-year numbers.

His rating is 66.5. His completion percentage is 54.7 percent. In 46 series, he has produced seven touchdowns and four field goals.

It’s obvious that Harrell has improved substantially. He has worked hard on his body, usually gets the ball out in practice and his passes have more velocity these days.

But given the remarkable work that Tom Clements, McCarthy and others have done developing the skills and arms of Rodgers, Flynn and, to a far lesser extent, Brett Favre, it’s a given any legitimate quarterback prospect subject to their program for three years would get a whole lot better.

After reviewing my interviews with several scouts before the draft in 2009, many of the same questions that caused the entire league to stay away from Harrell after his record-setting career at Texas Tech still dog him now.

His accuracy remains up and down. He’s not a gifted athlete. His speed is marginal.

Just how would Harrell’s modest arm translate on a windy, cold day late in the season or playoffs?

McCarthy and his people probably know quarterbacks better than anyone. They have the pelts on the wall to prove it.

There also comes a time for every franchise to correct an evaluation if it is proven incorrect.

The Packers’ decision-makers must decide if Harrell still has their confidence and that of the locker room. If they decide he doesn’t, a transaction must be made.

Seattle’s Russell Wilson would have been the perfect fit. The Packers decided they needed a defensive tackle and cornerback more in the second round, and off he went to Seattle in the third round.

Competent quarterbacks, some young and some old, will be available in the next few weeks. You can rest assured that the Packers are scouting them all.

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