Packers QB Graham Harrell solidifies roster spot
By Lori Nickel, Journal-Sentinel
~Green Bay – James Jones took the two-second tour of Graham Harrell’s place.
One big screen TV, hooked up to a video game. One floor-level rocking chair for gamers. Clothes hung on doorknobs.
An air mattress.
“Yeah, but it’s a top-of-the-line air mattress,” said Harrell, citing the $200 cost.
That’s your third-string Green Bay Packers quarterback living large, rolling to work in his 2003 Nissan Altima and coming home to a sparsely furnished basement apartment.
“He needs a good girl to come around,” Jones, a veteran receiver, said with a laugh.
Or maybe an indication that he’s going to stick around.
With his performance so far, it is possible that Harrell might have a reason to hang up a Home Sweet Home sign in Green Bay.
In limited, late action against Cleveland and Arizona in preseason games, Harrell played very well. He completed 18 of 31 passes for 181 yards and one touchdown.
He looked comfortable rolling out in the bootleg or picking up a first down on the run. In a recent practice he wowed everyone with a 50-yard post throw to Tori Gurley.
“He’s always thrown a good ball, but he’s starting to understand the offense a lot more,” said Jones. “It’s a 360-degree change from last year to this year, especially when he gets in the shotgun; it’s like being back at Texas Tech.”
Harrell’s teammates say he’s at his best when he’s in the shotgun, the formation that helped him accrue 134 passing touchdowns and 1,403 completions at Texas Tech – the best in NCAA history – and 15,793 career passing yards, second best in NCAA history. Even behind Aaron Rodgers and Matt Flynn, Harrell’s ability is starting to stand out.
“The third team can be hectic, but when we go in the gun in two-minute, that’s how he played at Texas Tech,” said rookie receiver Randall Cobb. “That’s his bread and butter.”
Harrell looked even better against Arizona than he did in Cleveland, where he lost possession a couple of times. Getting sacked three times didn’t help – one hit came from Harrell’s blind side. Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements said Harrell just needed to be more conscious of ball security and that comes with experience.
“We had four balls on the ground when he was in there and I think two were his fault and two were not,” said Clements.
Against the Cardinals, the protection was better and so was Harrell. He led a drive that resulted in a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ryan Taylor, sealing a victory.
It’s a thrill for him, especially since Harrell might not be here if it weren’t for another NFL coach.
Even with 20 games passing for more than 400 yards with Texas Tech, Harrell wasn’t drafted. Just as Rodgers had to debunk some theories about Jeff Tedford-coached quarterbacks, Harrell may have to bypass a stereotype of quarterbacks who thrived in a Mike Leach spread offense.
“So many quarterbacks have come out of that kind of system, Leach’s offense in particular at Texas Tech, and all had great numbers,” said Harrell. “For one reason or another, they didn’t catch on in the league and they were all good quarterbacks.”
At the combine, Harrell struck up a conversation with Carl Smith, then the quarterbacks coach in Cleveland who has since moved on to Seattle. Smith brought Harrell to the Browns as a free agent for a minicamp in 2009, but they already had a Brady Quinn-Derek Anderson quarterback battle.
So Harrell headed to the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Roughriders. He was on their injured list, the CFL’s weird way of keeping players, especially American players, on the payroll so they aren’t claimed elsewhere. But he was healthy and practiced all season and said the bigger field helped expand his range.
“It forced you to make bigger throws,” said Harrell. “One of the knocks of Texas Tech quarterbacks – me or anyone out of there – is that we don’t make big throws, don’t want to go deep. You go to Canada with a 65-yard wide field, you have to make the big throw.”
The Browns called him back for a minicamp in 2010 again, but the numbers were against Harrell. He was let go. And then an unusual thing happened.
“Carl Smith said, ‘I’m going to get you somewhere,’ and he called six teams to get tryouts lined up,” said Harrell. “One of the teams he called was Green Bay. He knows Dom Capers pretty well and he called Dom. In this business, you don’t get people to do that for you too much.”
Capers is the defensive coordinator in Green Bay, and Harrell landed in Green Bay in May 2010. He spent most of last season on the practice squad until he was called up in mid-December to the active roster when Rodgers suffered his concussions. He didn’t play in any game.
Then the lockout offered a potential setback. Harrell missed all of coach Mike McCarthy and Clements’ quarterback school, instruction that Rodgers and Flynn found valuable in their development.
“The lack of the off-season probably did hurt him the most. Matt and Aaron had been through our off-season,” said Clements. “It’s a tough thing to refine the offense. It was hardest on Graham. The off-season would have been important for him.”
In quarterback school, the Packers go over the offense slowly, reviewing basics and instilling philosophies. They may work on a single drill in a 50-minute session.
There’s no time for that now in training camp, said Clements, so they’ve taken an abbreviated version, going over a drill or two a day and getting in a little extra meeting time.
Harrell seems to have responded. His off-season mostly consisted of running around with younger brother Clark. They’d lift in the morning and play tennis in the afternoon and basketball at night before Harrell would crash on Clark’s couch in Abilene, Texas.
“Every now and then I think Clark’s wife would get tired of me, but she’s a good sport,” said Harrell.
But Harrell is always around football-thinking family members. His father, Sam, was a high school coach, so dedicated to the game that even after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis he coached his kids from a golf cart. Harrell’s older brother Zac is also a coach.
Football is in Graham’s blood and that explains why the no-huddle shotgun remains an asset, because Harrell can fall back on his instincts and attack, keeping a watchful eye for a blitz to get him off his rhythm.
“It’s a lot of fun going no-huddle. You get the tempo up and the defense on their heels,” said Harrell. “Other guys can feel that too. Last year I was just trying to repeat what the coach told me and think, where is everyone going to be. Now, as soon as I hear it, I know what I’m doing.”
And where he’s staying.
Full story here