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Jury’s still out on Graham Harrell as Packers backup quarterback

By Tom Silverstein, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

GREEN BAY, Wis. — The hardest decision general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy will have when rosters are trimmed to the final 53 will be whether to pick Graham Harrell as the backup behind Aaron Rodgers.

The Green Bay Packers’ backup position didn’t require any skill other than holding a clipboard for a 16-year period spanning the 1990s and 2000s, and it may very well require nothing more this season.

But just as Ron Wolf and Mike Holmgren never took for granted Brett Favre’s ironman streak, Thompson and McCarthy can’t assume that Rodgers will replicate his unscathed 2011 season. They need to know if Harrell can win them a game or two if something were to happen to Rodgers.

There were no clear-cut answers Thursday night in the Packers’ lackluster 35-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field, although to the 68,021 who attended it certainly seemed like the verdict was in. Few left thinking Harrell was capable of the job.

“I don’t think about that kind of stuff,” Harrell said after completing 12 of 24 passes for 100 yards with two interceptions, leading the offense to a single field goal in eight series. “I’m just trying to play and have fun and play to the best of my ability.

“I’m trying to play football. I don’t worry about the rest of that. I’m just trying to get better and improve every day.”

McCarthy and his staff are going to have to spend a lot of time evaluating Harrell’s performance this week because time is running out on deciding whether he’s worthy of being the backup. If not, Thompson is going to have to comb through NFL rosters and figure out if there’s a veteran he can acquire through trade or off the street.

There will be some veterans on the trading block and some who are cut.

Factoring into the decision will be the circumstances Harrell had to face during the game. Throughout the entire first half, the Browns kept their No. 1 defense in the game while McCarthy took his No. 1 offense out after the first quarter.

As a result, some of the matchups weren’t what Harrell would face in a normal situation. Still, he was behind in a number of throws that looked like they could be completed, continuing a trend of inaccuracy that began with the San Diego game last week.

“He was put in some tough spots,” McCarthy said. “On the negative side, he missed some throws. We’ll take a close look at it. I can promise you that no one can coach or detail a quarterback or the play of a quarterback better than our coaches.”

Harrell said the Browns were playing press coverage in the first half and it might have affected some of the timing between quarterback and receiver. On his first three series, Harrell threw errant passes on third and 15, third and 8 and third and 10.

His first interception came on a Hail Mary at the end of the half that was thrown woefully short of the end zone.

In the second half, McCarthy tried to get Harrell in a rhythm with some short, timing throws, and with the Browns easing off their press coverage the backup began to complete passes. But on second and 5 at the Packers 31, he was pressured heavily on a bootleg to the right and his throw, which appeared to be on target, was picked off by safety David Sims and returned 38 yards for a touchdown.

The intended receiver, tight end Ryan Taylor, fell down on the route.

“That was the primary receiver,” McCarthy said, exonerating his quarterback.

Harrell got himself out of trouble with a couple of nice scrambles, rushing three times for 23 yards, which is something McCarthy noted as a positive.

“We’re pleased with his scrambling ability and his quarterback runs for first downs,” he said. “That’s something that wasn’t part of his game last year. He’s really improved in his pocket awareness.”

Harrell’s inability to finish drives, however, came into view after he stuck a couple of nice throws down the middle to receiver Jarrett Boykin for gains of 25 and 24 yards on consecutive throws.

But on second and 4 at the 22, receiver Andrew Brewer executed a perfect double-move and was open down the right sideline. Earlier, Rodgers had hit Jordy Nelson for a touchdown on a similar route, but Harrell sailed the ball over Brewer’s head.

“I definitely wanted that one,” Harrell said. “He ran a great route. When it came out of my hand I thought it was right there. I don’t know what happened. I just missed it. Maybe I was so surprised he was that open. For whatever reason, I missed it.”

As for his first half, Harrell said he would have to go back and see what happened with some of his throws.

Harrell won’t get as much time next week against Cincinnati because typically the third game is when Rodgers plays the most. In the fourth game, McCarthy will have to decide how much time to give to Harrell and how much to give to No. 3 B.J. Coleman, who played exactly one snap against the Browns, throwing an interception on his only pass.

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