NFL head coaches walk a fine line between confidence and hubris. They have to because the position demands it. Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy has plenty to be optimistic about considering just how good his team is, in no small part thanks to his own hand. McCarthy is such an optimistic guy, in fact, that he had this say about backup quarterback Graham Harrell last month.
"I'll say this about Graham: I've always been impressed with the progress he's made with every opportunity he's been given," McCarthy told the newspaper. "This is clearly his best opportunity of his professional career. He's getting better. It's right there for him as far as being the No. 2."
Classic coach speak. McCarthy, who knows a thing or two about quarterbacks, is talking up one of his players. With three sentences worth of talking points, the Packers' head coach is both challenging and encouraging in Aaron Rodgers' backup.
I wonder how McCarthy feels on Friday morning after watching Harrell noodle-arm his way through a 12-for-24 performance with 100 passing yards and a pair of interceptions.
At halftime, McCarthy was still in character, citing a need for improvement but not publicly admonishing his player or pulling his hair out thinking about just how bad things could get if his team lost Aaron Rodgers for any stretch of time.
This is what McCarthy had to say about Harrell at the half, via Adam Caplan:
"He's got to get into a rhythm. We've run a lot of three-step drops so as far as ball placement and catching the ball, we need to improve that in the second half."
Talk about a velvet glove. Harrell entered the locker room after going 3-for-11 for 10 yards and an interception at the half. He had a quarterback rating of 1.7, and, no, I did not leave off a number or misplace my decimal point. For all the confusion about the NFL's quarterback rating system, it does not require a Ph.D in statistics from MIT to know that number is not a very good one. Even McCarthy knew he had trouble on his hands; you could hear it in the undertone of his remarks.
The scouting reports on Harrell coming out of Texas Tech were not positive. Experience usually topped the list of positives. When the notoriously fickle "scouting community" cites fifth-year senior on a player's vitae, that player may have some troubles in the NFL. Harrell's arm and accuracy were the main criticisms leveled against him, and both charges made themselves apparent Thursday night.
Harrell's arm issue was evident at the end of the second quarter. With two seconds left on the clock and the Packers trailing 16-7, McCarthy gave his backup a shot to test the deep ball. Harrell called up every last drop of torque he had attempting a deep pass on the run to Randall Cobb.
Defensive end Auston English chased Harrell out of the pocket on the play, reminding viewers of another ding against the quarterback for his inability to make throws under pressure. He threw an ugly ball that was easily intercepted by the Browns. It was so bad that a pair of Browns actually came down with the ball. Rookie linebacker James-Michael Johnson got credit.
There is only one way to follow up a 15-1 season that ended with a playoff disappointment. Losing a player like Aaron Rodgers spells trouble no matter who sits behind him on the depth chart. There is a natural, steep dropoff behind any reigning MVP.
Harrell's struggles were not limited to the deep ball, and a quarterback who struggles with pressure could face some real trouble behind Green Bay's so-so offensive line, another unit whose depth was exposed Thursday night.
For all his confidence, there is only so much Mike McCarthy could do to change the game plan for Harrell should Rodgers miss time. Green Bay added Cedric Benson to help out in the running game, but the aging, one-dimensional back would not be enough for a backup quarterback to count on. McCarthy also has too many question marks on his defense after last season to count on that unit keeping games close.
Calls for Colt McCoy and Harrell to walk across sidelines like a Cold War prisoner exchange bubbled up on Twitter as soon as the backups got into the game. McCoy, despite his own limitations, would clearly be a better alternative. At this point, Tarvaris Jackson would give the Packers more of a fighting chance without Rodgers.
After the game, McCarthy had little to say about Harrell. The first thing he cited was Harrell's three runs for 23 yards, tacking on a sentence at the very end about the backup quarterback needing to make better throws.
"Graham did very well. I was pleased with his scramble ability. Quarterback runs for a first down, that's something that I would say was not part of his game last year. I think he's really improved in that part of the pocket awareness. He was put in some tough spots. On the negative side, he missed some throws."
A coach can only say so much about a player that just can't perform at the needed level, despite his best effort. Optimism can be wonderful thing, but it cannot change reality. Unlike McCarthy, we can say it: the Packers cannot go into the season with Graham Harrell behind Rodgers.