GREEN BAY – Afterward, Graham Harrell strolled into the Green Bay Packers locker room with a Ziploc bag – containing the remnants of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – and a guilty conscience. When his path intersected with that of Aaron Rodgers, he had a confession to make.
“Hey,” the backup QB told the MVP. “I ate your sandwich.”
As Harrell waded into the throng of reporters surrounding his locker – something that usually happens in front of the other guy’s space – Rodgers smiled. He’d been Harrell’s most vocal supporter throughout the preseason – more publicly supportive than even coach Mike McCarthy, who was still hedging even after Thursday night’s 24-3 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Lambeau Field – and seeing Harrell shine in the exhibition finale made it well worth giving up his traditional post-game PB&J and grape Crush soda.
“He can drink my drink, too, if he wants,” Rodgers said. “A perfect quarterback rating?”
It was true. Harrell had been anything but perfect in the first three preseason games – leading to rampant speculation that the team might have to trade for a competent backup behind Rodgers – but statistically speaking, he was just that on Thursday night. He achieved the maximum passer rating of 158.3 by completing 13 of 15 passes for 223 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and his two incompletions were an intentional throw-away after being flushed from the pocket, and an on-target deep pass down the left sideline that wide receiver Tori Gurley let slip through his fingers.
But it wasn’t just Harrell’s productivity that was impressive. It was the way he carried himself throughout the night – confident, in control, never panicky, even when he was forced to don an old Reebok jersey when his new Nike one was torn by a blitzing Donald Washington. Really, the only time all night when Harrell looked indecisive was after the game.
“I don’t drink grape soda,” he said, holding Rodgers’ beverage. “So I don’t know what I’m going to with this.”
The Packers, meanwhile, should now know what they’re going to do behind Rodgers. While Cleveland's Colt McCoy – the most oft-rumored trade target, even though an NFL source said Thursday night that the Packers had never approached the Browns about such a deal – was going 2 for 5 for 16 yards with an interception for a passer rating of 9.2 for the Browns, Harrell was stating his case unequivocally.
Even if McCarthy wasn’t prepared to make any pronouncements.
“I'm just going to say this: I'm very pleased with the way he played. I think he definitely grew through the preseason and topped it off with an excellent performance tonight,” McCarthy said. “But we're not going to make any roster selections here tonight.
“I don't know if we've had a backup quarterback, a non-starter, play that well (in a preseason game). 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.”
After Rodgers and the starters went three-and-out on their two possessions, Harrell entered. And after running back Alex Green was stuffed for no gain on a first-down run and dropped for a 2-yard loss on a second-down catch, Harrell faced third-and-12 from his own 18-yard line.
Given time to throw by a previously unprotective No. 2 offensive line, he zinged a laser down the left seam to tight end Jermichael Finley, who was seeing extended snaps after missing the first three preseason games.
Finley leaped high to reel it in for a 27-yard gain, and on the next play, Harrell again was well-protected on a play-action deep ball to Gurley, who came down with what would be a 54-yard gain. Two plays later, Green scored on a 2-yard run.
After Kansas City went three-and-out, Harrell engineered a 10-play, 93-yard drive that ended in a 17-yard touchdown reception by Green. On the drive, Harrell completed passes to Gurley (15 yards), Dale Moss (15 yards), Jarrett Boykin (16 yards) and Diondre Borel (17 yards) before Green’s touchdown.
“It’s like I’ve been telling you guys all along: When he’s given an opportunity to play with some guys, like he did tonight – Jermichael, Tori, Diondre, Jarrett – and get a little protection, that’s what happens,” Rodgers said. “I feel great for him. I feel great for him. I’ve just kept saying, ‘Everybody’s got confidence in him on the team.’ We knew he was capable of a performance like this. He threw the ball great. He’s just like we all are – he’s a rhythm and confidence guy. He hit some throws early, got his confidence going and made some great throws.”
For his part, Harrell didn’t act any differently than he had during or after the first three games, when he had completed just 32 of 63 passes for 261 yards with one TD and two INTs for a passer rating of 53.7.
“He was the same Graham,” Gurley said. “Even when he didn’t have the best game a couple weeks ago, he still was fired up in the huddle. This week, he really was on it. He looked at us, and he was like, ‘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. We went out there and played as hard as we could.”
Even McCarthy’s non-committal response to his job security didn’t seem to faze him.
“I’ve been blessed enough to play this game for a long time, and I love playing it. I want to play as long as they let me,” Harrell said. “It was fun tonight, and I love the game. I get to play a game as a professional right now. As long as they let me do that, I’ll do it. It’s something I love to do.
“It’s fun. Like I’ve said all along, it was just doing what we’ve done all year, just more consistently. When things are going well, I think all of the guys start to feel it – you get some momentum, you get more emotion – and I thought the tempo was up just a little bit. When things are going well, you kind of start rolling. That’s what we did tonight. We just kind of got on a roll, played well and had a lot of fun out there.”
So much so that he felt entitled to Rodgers’ sandwich?
“He didn’t burn many calories,” Harrell said with a smile. “So I felt like I earned it.”
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.