The Graham Harrell that played Thursday night at Lambeau Field could not have been the same one who played the first three preseason games, right?
No way he posted a perfect passer rating after coming into the game with a 53.7 mark.
No way he led the Packers’ second-unit offense to more touchdowns in one game than he did all preseason.
In one of the more dramatic turnarounds for a Green Bay Packers quarterback in recent memory, Harrell capped an otherwise forgettable preseason with a bang in the 24-3 win against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“I don’t know if we’ve had a backup quarterback, a nonstarter, play that well,” said head coach Mike McCarthy. “So, it’s a credit to him. I think he’s handled this path through the preseason. And I’ve been more impressed with what he’s done off the field than on the field. So, yes, I was very pleased with Graham Harrell tonight.”
Harrell’s big performance, which included just two incompletions over three long scoring drives, may go a long way in easing some of the concern about whether the Packers are prepared at the No. 2 quarterback spot behind starter Aaron Rodgers. With Matt Flynn gone, the Packers were hoping and preaching that Harrell was ready, and until Thursday night, he had shown just the opposite.
With just four scoring drives in 24 possessions in the previous three preseason games, Harrell and the backups on offense were dreadful. There were dropped passes, sacks and failed third-down conversions along the way, and Harrell wanted to change that in his last chance.
“Even when he didn’t have the best game a couple weeks ago, he was still fired up in the huddle,” said backup wide receiver Tori Gurley. “And this week, he was just, he was on. He looked at us and he said, ‘Hey, we haven’t played the best, but now it’s time to pick it up because it’s our last time.’ As an offense, we took that to heart.”
It all started with one play. Harrell took over for Rodgers on the third series of the game and things started eerily similar. On first down, Alex Green carried for no gain. Then, Harrell threw a screen pass to Green for a loss of 2 yards. But on third-and-12, Harrell may have made his best throw of the preseason. With a streaking Jermichael Finley running down the middle of the field, he delivered a pass in traffic to Finley’s back shoulder, which the tight end caught for a 27-yard gain.
“When Jermichael made the nice catch on the third down and kept the drive alive, we just got rolling after that,” said Harrell.
On the next play, Harrell hit Gurley for a 54-yard gain off a play-action fake that allowed the 6-4 receiver to get behind cornerback Jacque Reeves. Green scored from 2 yards out two plays later to put the Packers up 7-3 in the second quarter.
It was the type of start quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo wanted to see in Harrell. And it appeared to make all the difference.
“We got some momentum and, like I said, this offense is all about moving the ball and scoring points and that didn’t change from last week to this week,” said Harrell. “We just went out there and executed a little better and more consistently.”
The momentum from Harrell’s first drive carried the Packers to two more touchdown drives – of 93 and 77 yards -- before Harrell departed late in the third quarter. His touchdown passes went 17 yards to Green on a well set-up screen and 12 yards to Jarrett Boykin, a backup receiver who has made a late push for a roster spot. Boykin, a rookie free agent, led the Packers with 82 yards on five catches.
“It wasn’t just me. I think the whole second unit improved this preseason,” said Harrell. “I think that showed tonight. … If you think back to the Cleveland game, they played us a lot of man (coverage) out here and gave us a lot of trouble doing it, and tonight Kansas City did the same thing, played us a lot of man and we handled it so much better. We protected, the receivers ran great routes and I threw the ball better. I felt more comfortable out there. I think that has a lot to do with us growing as a unit, guys getting better and improving together, and getting more comfortable together and making some plays.”
After being sacked five times in the preseason, Harrell was not sacked against the Chiefs. He did a better job moving in and out of the pocket and got much better protection from his offensive line.
“He showed me if you can keep him upright, he can throw the ball,” said Finley. “The Graham I know, he can sling it. I think he got some great opportunities tonight to show what he can do and he did that.”
Harrell finished 13-of-15 for 223 yards and two touchdowns to calculate the maximum 158.3 passer rating. And his night could have been even better if Gurley could have hauled in a well-thrown long pass down the left sideline in the second quarter.
Coming into the game, Harrell had completed just 50.8 percent of his passes (32-of-63) with one touchdown and two interceptions.
With the final roster reduction looming tomorrow at 8 p.m., he has to feel better about himself.
“I’ve been blessed enough to play this game for a long time and I love playing it and I’m going to play as long as they let me,” said Harrell. “It was fun tonight and I love the game and I get to play the game as a professional right now. As long as they’ll let me do that, I’ll do it and it’s something I love to do.
“I don’t think I ever got down on myself or doubted myself. I think other people doubted me or doubted ourselves, but we feel confident that we can do this thing and we just went out there and put it together, like I said, consistently, and when you go one play after the next, it just looks a lot better.”
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org