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Harrell readies for crucial finale

By JASON WILDE

GREEN BAY – Graham Harrell doesn’t have a Twitter account. His car stereo is tuned to what he calls “soft, easy music,” not sports talk. He’s barely even online.

“I really don’t get on the Internet at all. I go home, I watch FOX News. The only newspaper I pick up is the USA Today (for the) crossword,” the Green Bay Packers’ oft-criticized backup quarterback said this week, in advance of Thursday night’s preseason finale against the Kansas City Chiefs at Lambeau Field.

“I mean, I don’t really listen or read or follow much media. I don’t know why, I just don’t.”

That’s probably a good thing. The Packers are 18 months removed from winning Super Bowl XLV and won a franchise-record 15 regular-season games last year, but despite a fundamentally flawed defense that the team is hoping is fixed, most of the summer hand-wringing among the team’s passionate fan base has been about the guy behind the reigning NFL MVP, Aaron Rodgers.

That guy used to be Matt Flynn, who departed as an unrestricted free agent in March for a three-year, $19.5 million deal with the Seattle Seahawks – and despite that deal, oddly enough, is doing the same job in the Pacific Northwest that he did the past four years in Green Bay.

Flynn was viewed by several NFL scouts as the league’s best backup quarterback last year – even before he set Packers franchise records with 480 yards and six touchdowns with Rodgers sitting out the meaningless regular-season finale – and when he flew to Seattle, the Packers essentially handed the job to Harrell, who’d served as the team’s No. 3 quarterback the past two seasons while splitting time between the practice squad and 53-man roster.

While he looked good during the offseason organized team activity practices and minicamp – and even early in training camp in practice – Harrell’s preseason play has been cause for concern. Well, for seemingly everyone but the coaching staff.

“No doubt in my mind,” first-year quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo replied when asked if he believed Harrell could get the Packers through a game if Rodgers went down. “I have 100 percent confidence in him. He knows it. He’s shown the ability to lead, he can be a consistent player and I feel like he can make all the throws.”

Nonetheless, Harrell enters the finale having completed just 32 of 63 passes for 261 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 53.7. His compatriots on the No. 2 offense haven’t helped his cause, as the offensive line has been shaky in protection (five sacks), the young wide receivers who were supposed to rise up have been inconsistent and the operation as a whole has been ineffective. That was the case again last week, when Harrell completed just 5 of 12 passes for 26 yards (49.3 rating) in the Packers’ 27-13 victory at Cincinnati.

“Who are the other guys (Harrell is) playing with? You have to have 11 guys on the same page, and if you don’t, it makes it tough,” said offensive coordinator Tom Clements, who had been the Packers’ quarterbacks coach the past six years and remains heavily involved with the position.

“The games are important, but you’re not just evaluating on the game. You’re evaluating him in the classroom sessions, practice, and how he handles the games. Maybe (it’s) a little more magnified this year because of the injuries, but in preseason football when you’re playing with new guys or rookies or guys new to the system, it’s often the case that things look bad at times. You have to play through that, and he’s done that.

“He’s poised, he has an even keel during the game, As long as he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing during the game, then we evaluate him on that.”

Despite Harrell’s struggles with the No. 2 unit, Clements said he and coach Mike McCarthy have not discussed the idea of having Rodgers sit out the preseason finale and give Harrell some work behind the starting offensive line. Rodgers is expected to play only one series against the Chiefs, although it wouldn’t be unprecedented for him not to play at all – in 2010, Flynn started the finale at Kansas City.

A strong performance against the Chiefs on Thursday night would go a long way toward allaying outsiders’ concerns about Harrell. Then again, despite their public support, the Packers might have the same concerns. The team has reportedly shown interest in former Seahawks starter Tarvaris Jackson, who was traded to Buffalo this week, and former Cleveland Browns starter Colt McCoy, who’s lost his starting job to rookie first-round pick Brandon Weeden,

Even with his media blackout, Harrell isn’t oblivious to such talk. But it doesn’t appear to have affected his attitude. If he is frustrated by the criticism or the less-than-stellar play of his fellow backups, he doesn’t show it.

“No question, you always want to play well and you always want to be productive,” Harrell said. “Thursday night will be fun. I think it’ll be another great opportunity for our second unit. We’ll get a lot of playing time during that … it’s another opportunity to go out and perform well and hopefully score more points. That’s always the offense’s goal, to go out and play well and score points.”

If he doesn’t deliver against the Chiefs, Harrell realizes the criticism will only get louder. And he acknowledges he could wind up out of a job, which would be tough to take given his understanding of the offense, the relationship he’s built with Rodgers and the fact that he genuinely likes being in Green Bay.

“No doubt. I love it here,” Harrell said. “Green Bay’s been awesome to me, and this is an unbelievable place to play football. Just the way this organization is set up and run, the talented in this place, this is an awesome place to play football. I’ve become really close with Aaron over the past three years. I love it here, I love playing here, and hopefully I get to stay here for a long time.”

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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