Graham Harrell and the Green Bay Packers Backup Plan


Remember when Graham Harrell used to wear #7? Many hope that he has improved since those days.

Raymond T. Rivard photograph

Since the early 1990s whoever dons a headset, carries a clipboard, tracks offensive play calls and occasionally holds extra points for the  Green Bay Packers almost never sees the playing field during a meaningful regular season or playoff game. Being a backup quarterback for the Packers has long been considered one of the safest jobs in professional sports.

Aaron Rodgers, and ironman Brett Favre before him, have combined to start 318 total games since 1992. It’s a record that’s been talked about often. Given the ferocity and violence of the game and the injuries that quarterbacks typically endure, that number is almost beyond comprehension. It defies logic. In comparison, according to Pro Football Reference, Chicago has had 24 quarterbacks start a game since 1992.

Green Bay general managers have taken advantage of the consistent pattern afforded them through Favre and Rodgers and have capitalized on an opportunity to groom backup signal callers which they have then parlayed, via trades, into future draft choices. This process is an integral part of Green Bay’s organizational draft and develop philosophy – the approach which has been a major catalyst for the Packers’ run of success over the last 20 years. Stability at the quarterback position (that no other team in NFL history has been able to match) has been a major cornerstone as well.

Every summer, signal callers would embark on their annual pilgrimage to Green Bay for minicamp tryouts and training camp. All knew outright what the responsibilities would be. That the most danger they’d be exposed to would likely come in the form of a rolled ankle from tripping over coiled extension cords or slipping on Gatorade cups strewn near the bench. They also knew there was exactly zero chance of ever getting playing time. Backup quarterbacks in Green Bay have logged thousands of collective snaps on the grass of Nitschke and Clark Hinkle practice fields.

They just rarely got a chance to take one on the turf of Lambeau Field.

That is, until they were traded or signed by another team. Despite employing Favre and Rodgers, Green Bay has often taken the initiative to draft quarterbacks over the course of time with the intent of developing them. Passers such as Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks, Matt Hasslebeck and recently Matt Flynn were all chosen despite the logjam ahead of them on the depth chart.

Critics opined they would ultimately become wasted choices by the Packers. However, considering how many went on to become full-time starters while enjoying success at some level in the NFL, that sentiment is simply not true.

Detmer, a Heisman Trophy winner from Brigham Young University, was selected in the ninth round of the 1992 draft. He would go on to start a handful of games in Philadelphia and bounce from San Francisco to Cleveland and Detroit to Atlanta before calling it a career.

Brunell, originally a fifth round choice in 1993 out of the University of Washington, was traded to Jacksonville where he became their franchise player, leading the Jaguars to the AFC title game twice (1996 and 1999) while being named to the Pro Bowl three times.

He later enjoyed success starting at quarterback for Washington and also was a backup for New Orleans (winning a ring as a holder in Super Bowl XLIV) and the New York Jets.

Matt Hasselbeck was taken in the sixth round of the 1998 NFL draft out of Boston College. He was eventually traded to Seattle, becoming a three-time Pro Bowl selection while leading the Seahawks to Super Bowl XL. Aaron Brooks, drafted in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL draft out of Virginia, went on to start for New Orleans while setting several franchise passing marks.

Matt Flynn, a seventh round pick out of LSU in 2008, would log time on the practice squad before earning a backup role for Green Bay, ultimately throwing a record-tying six touchdowns in the 2011 regular season finale against Detroit. He parlayed that performance into a lucrative contract with the Seahawks in 2012. He was traded to the Oakland Raiders earlier this spring.

A major factor in the development of the Packers signal callers who’ve gone from the practice squad to backup job to starter were the assistants that worked under the scrutiny of head coach Mike Holmgren and now Mike McCarthy. Offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches such as Jon Gruden, Steve Mariucci, Andy Reid and Joe Philbin all went on to establish their own quarterback expertise and development programs while acting as NFL head coaches for Tampa Bay, San Francisco and Detroit, Philadelphia and Kansas City and Miami, respectively.

Since 1992 the Packers have won nine NFC Central or North Division titles. They’ve won 17 total playoff games and appeared in three Super Bowls (XXXI, XXXII, XLV) while winning two world championships (XXXI, XLV). It’s that kind of organizational success which has transformed the second string quarterback job in Green Bay into a highly desired commodity around the league.

Other teams have begun to see the value of a young passer having had the chance to study and learn under the guidance of arguably two of the best to ever play the position in the history of the league. That’s on the job training that most colleges simply don’t offer via the draft.

The Packers, according to plan, have procured multiple draft choices in exchange for their groomed backup quarterbacks over the years. That’s a pretty decent return on a reasonably cheap initial investment. Green Bay has set the market when it comes to the worth of backup quarterbacks. They add value in the film rooms and practice fields at 1265 Lambeau. They’ve consistently gotten something out of nothing while turning scouting into an organizational art form. Simply put, the more draft choices the Packers have each spring the the better Ted Thompson’s chances of finding a player who will help him win. It’s a pretty simple yet critical component of his draft and develop philosophy. More ammunition equals more competition. That’s been a major reason for Green Bay’s exceptional success for over the last two decades.

And in 2014 if Thompson and the Packers have it their way that scenario won’t be any different.

As training camp approaches later this month it’s officially crunch time for current second string quarterback Graham Harrell. He’s 28 and entering his final season under contract with Green Bay, becoming a restricted free agent after 2013. He has slowly ascended from the practice squad while being patiently groomed for the primary backup role.

Harrell, originally went undrafted out of Texas Tech in 2009, was signed by Green Bay in the spring of 2010. He spent a season learning on the practice squad before he was promoted to backup following Flynn’s departure to Seattle in 2012. In his only action of the season, against New Orleans, he fumbled at the goal line.

Harrell recently spoke with Weston Hodkiewicz of the Green Bay Press-Gazette about his level of comfort so far saying, “I feel more comfortable now than I’ve ever felt, knowing the protection, pretty much the O-line and feeling good with protections, because routes when you play quarterback at some point you check defenses similar ways no matter what system you’re in.”

Harrell needs to become more fluid while making his progressions at the line during the pre-snap reads of the defense. He needs to understand the playbook inside and out and be able to interpret his receivers’ motions and ultimately where they would move on the route tree and depending on the spaces in the defensive coverages. And most importantly he needs to avoid turnovers.

Rodgers also spoke with the Hodkiewicz and had praise for Harrell’s progress so far this offseason saying, “I think he’s really improved. I think you saw it last year throughout the season as he became more comfortable. I look at him as being in the same spot that Flynn was when Flynn was in his last year with us. We’re very confident in the offense and it means more to him to be successful every day in practice like you saw just a slight shift with Matt, and it was no surprise when Matt got a chance to play how well he played.”

However, Harrell already has thrown several drive-killing and practice-ending interceptions this spring. Earlier in June he succumbed to current practice squad quarterback (and roster hopeful) B.J. Coleman and watched him lead a nifty, precise 4-play, 60-yard scoring drive. Harrell’s result from that same two-minute sequence with the third team to which he was demoted? An interception by undrafted free agent cornerback Loyce Means.

Ultimately, Harrell needs to button up his approach and protect the football. He understands why he’s made mistakes off of rushed throws. But he also knows that another year in the system won’t count for much if he doesn’t show results on the field in practice. As such, he approached the offseason with the goal of becoming stronger, quicker and more decisive – which will theoretically help him make better reads and cut down on costly turnovers when it counts.

Harrell has exactly one training camp, one family night Packer scrimmage and four preseason games to clean up his game, take control of the offense, show the coaches he can be consistent and fend off a push from budding passer Coleman if he hopes to stay in the primary backup role again in 2013. And as a backup quarterback who rarely sees the field during the regular season, Harrell must capitalize on this opportunity with a strong showing if the hopes to follow in the same footsteps of his Green Bay backup brethren that have gone on to bigger, brighter things in their careers.