First-year quarterback Graham Harrell, who has seen limited action during the first three preseason contests, has shown noticeable improvement of late, leading the No. 3 offense on scoring drives each of the last two games. At Seattle on Aug. 21, he entered the game with the Packers trailing 24-20 with just over seven minutes remaining, and guided the offense on an 80-yard drive that was capped off with a game-winning 12-yard Brandon Jackson touchdown run. Harrell completed his only pass on the possession, a 23-yarder to wide receiver Chastin West to quickly put the Packers in Seattle territory.
Last Thursday night against Indianapolis, Harrell again led the third offense on a long scoring drive, this time a 90-yarder that was capped off with a Kregg Lumpkin 1-yard run. Harrell completed 4-of-5 passes for 62 yards on the drive, his only attempts of the game, including a 15-yard pass over the middle to West to convert a third down.
"He is getting better," Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. "There is another young player that has been given some opportunities and has moved the offense down the field. He has really improved since he has been here.
"That's what you look for, particularly in younger players, an ascending player, especially at the quarterback position to come in as late as he did. You are starting to see him be more and more comfortable each week that he gets his opportunities, so I like the progress that he has made."
Harrell didn't have the benefit of being with the team for the entire offseason program, signing with the Packers on May 20 during OTAs. Trying to play catch-up with the rest of the offense as he learned the playbook, Harrell attributed his improved play of late to his increased comfort with the offensive system.
Early on in camp, Harrell appeared to be making the safe throw as he looked to his check-downs, but over the past two weeks, he started looking down the field more and throwing with greater velocity, which he also credited to his knowledge of the scheme more than anything.
"I was thinking that (about increased velocity) as I was sitting out on the field today watching him throw," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "He kind of throws it like you are supposed to throw a football. He looks natural throwing the ball. I think that is maybe a function of knowing the offense better, but it could be that he is just coming around and getting that arm into shape.
"He just moves naturally, throws the ball naturally. It looks like a real catchable ball, I like to say. I think receivers probably like catching his ball, and he has got pretty good velocity. I have been impressed. I think he has come a long way."
Harrell said most of his nights early on in camp included studying the playbook as he tried to get the terminology down, before things clicked for him recently. He added that having gameplans for a specific opponent each week also made life easier a well, allowing him to focus on specific plays the offense would be running out of certain formations.
"It was a weird deal because it was almost like an overnight thing where one day I am struggling to call the play in the huddle just because there are so many words and you are trying to get the terminology down and really understand what all of the words mean, and then for some reason about three weeks ago it seemed like the terminology started coming natural to me," Harrell said. "Once you are able to call it and feel comfortable calling the play, then everything else starts slowing down because you actually know where everybody is going. You have a grasp of the offense and now you can look at the defense and try to attack the defense instead of trying to figure out where all of your guys are going. That's huge for a quarterback.
"In college it was three or four words is your play, and here I feel it's about a 25-word play call, so it's a lot different. The terminology is nothing the same. We have a lot of similar concepts as far as what we are doing offensively and pass patterns and how we are attacking defenses, but as far as calling the play, formation, protection, all of that, there is no terminology crossover from where I came."
Harrell had one of the more productive careers in college football history at Texas Tech, where he ran head coach Mike Leach's spread offense. Harrell ranks first in NCAA history with 134 touchdowns and 1,403 completions, and his 15,793 career passing yards rank second to only Hawaii's Timmy Chang (17,072, 2000-04). Despite those gaudy numbers, Harrell went undrafted in 2009.
Harrell did participate in mini-camp on a tryout basis with the Cleveland Browns each of the last two years, but his only pro experience came with the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League in 2009. He spent the season on the injured list, which was more so the team could keep his rights than it was due to a significant injury, but was able to practice and attend meetings despite not seeing any game action.
"There is only a 20-second play clock (in the CFL) so you are not allowed to do as much at the line of scrimmage, so it is a little different but it did help," Harrell said. "It's a bigger field. It forces you to make bigger throws, and my time in the CFL was great. It was a great experience and it helped me grow as a quarterback."
When the opportunity in Green Bay presented itself this spring, Harrell jumped at the chance, especially because of what he had heard from another former Texas Tech quarterback.
"Coach McCarthy has been around so many great quarterbacks, and he has always had a reputation of actually developing quarterbacks and taking quarterbacks that people think need some work and stuff and turn them into great ones," Harrell said. "A former quarterback from Tech, Cliff Kingsbury, was with him down in New Orleans, and he told me a lot about him and how much he liked him and how good of a coach he was as far as quarterbacks. I was excited that they signed me because I knew I would get to learn under him for a little bit and it would be a great opportunity to develop as a quarterback."
Harrell is hoping that chance to develop in Green Bay will continue beyond this weekend when the team makes its final cuts. The Packers have carried just two quarterbacks on the active roster coming out of training camp two of the past three seasons, with a third signal-caller on the practice squad. While Harrell would love to be on the 53-man roster, staying around in some capacity would suit him just fine.
"Any chance to learn, not only under Coach McCarthy, but Philbin and (quarterbacks coach) Tom Clements have been great to me, and Aaron (Rodgers) as much as anybody," Harrell said. "I think being able to watch him in practice every day, watching him in the games, how he prepares, and just the little things that he can tell me and kind of help me with day-to-day when we watch practice film or actually on the field whenever I do something.
"A lot of times he calls me over and he is like, 'Hey, change your footwork, do this on this play and it will really help you.' Just being able to learn under him for a year, no matter where you are, is a great opportunity. I'm excited to be here and want to help the team however they ask me to do it." Additional coverage – Aug. 31