He’s more important than you think.
As the NFL evolves into an increasingly pass-heavy league, more teams are treating the position of quarterback as one that merits deeper consideration in the depth chart.
There’s a growing recognition around the league that having a starter and a backup quarterback may not cut it any longer. Many starting quarterbacks were benched for entire games last season—Aaron Rodgers, Michael Vick and Shaun Hill all sat out due to injury. Others missed parts of games due to injury on the field.
If a second-string quarterback plays, then who backs him up if he is injured or plays poorly? That concern was formerly addressed by the third quarterback rule: A third quarterback could dress for the game without counting against the 45-man roster, but if he played before the fourth quarter then the first- and second-string quarterbacks could not return.
That rule may sound familiar to Chicago Bears fans who saw third-string QB Caleb Hanie take the field late in the third quarter of the NFC Championship game, rendering Jay Cutler and Todd Collins ineligible to return to the field.
This year, the NFL has scrapped that rule. In return, it added another roster spot meant for a third quarterback. Some teams will exercise that option, while others will take advantage of that roster spot to build more depth at some other position.
The Packers must give that spot to Graham Harrell.
It would be lovely to have more depth at some of the injury-prone defensive positions or to keep one more wide receiver for quarterback Aaron Rodgers to play with. Neither one of those options would be a responsible use of the slot, though.
Consider for a moment that after suffering two concussions in the 2010 season, there is now legitimate concern that Rodgers is prone to an injury that the NFL has cracked down on, hard. Rodgers would play through any injury if he could, but with the new league restrictions on concussions the fact is that he cannot choose to play without clearance from an independent neurologist. He will likely be benched if he takes a hard hit to the head, and with the still-weak offensive line that possibility is only a matter of time.
That’s where backup quarterback Matt Flynn comes in. When Rodgers cannot play, Flynn is the go-to man. He has shown himself to be an outstanding quarterback. In fact, he’s so good that if the Packers don’t trade him during the season he will likely be lured away as a starter when his contract with Green Bay expires next year.
By signing Harrell to the practice squad and giving the 46th roster slot to another position, the Packers would weaken their depth at the most important position on their team. They would also face both short- and long-term consequences.
In the short term, consider the (admittedly unlikely) chance of something happening to both Rodgers and Flynn that renders them both unable to complete a game. It’s not an impossible scenario—last year has demonstrated that no player is injury-proof.
This year, there is no longer a third-string quarterback suited up and waiting in the wings just in case. Instead, Harrell would sit with the rest of the practice squad in a different part of the stadium at game time, unavailable on the off-chance he’s needed. For a pass-dependent team like the Packers, losing both quarterbacks would be instant chaos and all but a guaranteed loss.
Placing Harrell on the practice squad doesn’t make sense in the long term, either. It’s no secret that he is being groomed to take Flynn’s place as the backup quarterback. Separating Harrell from Rodgers and Flynn during games robs him of the opportunity to become accustomed to the total NFL experience. No amount of practice time can replace that.
There is also the complication of practice squad players being fair game to other teams. Harrell has demonstrated that he has the makings of a good quarterback. Other teams who lack depth at that position can sign him to a contract elsewhere. It seems unlikely that is a risk Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson will be willing to take.
It seems a fair bet that Harrell will make the team as a third quarterback, and that a little bit of depth will be sacrificed elsewhere to accommodate him. When you consider that the 46th roster slot was opened up for this very purpose, the Packers aren’t really losing anything by keeping him. They’re simply covering their bases, as any well-run team should.