Battle of the Backups

A much younger Vince Young once led the Titans to a string of upset victories. Hopefully he'll never have to do that with the Packers.

A much younger Vince Young once led the Titans to a string of upset victories. Hopefully he’ll never have to do that with the Packers.

Since B.J. Coleman has quietly excused himself from the competition, the Packers now see two former collegiate stars battling for the right to back up Aaron Rodgers. In one corner, we have last year’s back up: a 15,000 yard passer at Texas Tech and former Saskatchewan Roughrider, Graham Harrell!

And in the other, 2006 National Champion and Heisman runner up Vince Young, who made his debut at Packers training camp Tuesday to much fanfare. Okay, some fanfare. (Was there fanfare? I really don’t know.)

Really, this is only noteworthy because it’s the first time in a few seasons there has been actual competition for the number two quarterback job. This is a competition that truly does not matter. The idea that if Aaron Rodgers goes down for any length of time, the Packers will be saved by some sort of miraculous run by a back up is silly. The best number two quarterback the Packers have had in years is Matt Flynn, and he lost both times the team needed him to come through in relief of Rodgers. (And yes, I’m well aware of the six touchdown game. Big stinkin’ deal. That was a meaningless start. There was naught to be gained in a win or a loss.)

But somebody has to be the number two guy, and it’s going to be either Vince or Graham. Let’s roll the tape back all the way to college and see who has the tools to get it done.

Harrell goes first, since as the incumbent he has the likely upper hand. A prolific collegiate passer in Texas Tech’s wide open spread offense, he had limited NFL suitors right out of the gate. He had to take a trip north of the border to the CFL before the Packers finally came calling, and even then he had to spend some time on the practice squad before getting the role of Official Understudy to Mr. Rodgers.

The reason for the delay is twofold. First, NFL franchises are notoriously wary of the gaudy stats produced by the light-em-up Air Raid offenses common in the college game. Just ask Timmy Chang or Colt Brennan (or anybody else associated with June Jones and Hawaii, for that matter). The general explanation is that spread offenses (like Hawaii’s) rely on spacing and speed and runs after the catch in such a way that doesn’t really translate to the NFL, where the athletes on defense are just as fast as the ones on offense.

Quarterbacks in spread schemes in college also don’t need the arm strength required to execute the vertical passing attack (read this for a good (if lengthy) explanation of vertical passing) common in the NFL, and that’s the second main knock against Mr. Harrell, as described in both his NFL.com and CBS Sports draft profiles. Coupled with his less than ideal (although comparable to Rodgers) size, and you’ve got basically the prototype for a career back up quarterback: a small guy with a weak arm who’s best suited to an offense that nobody in the NFL plays. (Oh, and then there’s that one guy who thinks Harrell didn’t get drafted because everyone in the NFL is a big meanie head. How’d that work out, Gregg?)

Oddly, that intersects pretty nicely with Vince Young, a guy who at 6’5″ and around 230 pounds pretty much exemplifies a prototype NFL body. That, and the rest of his physical skill set, are pretty much the highlight of what he brings to the table. He has great speed for a quarterback  (and “his change of direction agility and foot speed is outstanding for his position” says CBS) and can run well after a play breaks down, as demonstrated by his overtime win against Houston as a rookie:

Of course, that was a long time ago, and Young’s passing mechanics really haven’t improved since then. He has an unorthodox delivery. It’s almost sidearm, although not quite Philip Rivers and definitely not Tim Tebow. But it was the main gripe about him coming out of Texas, and it’s still the main concern now, as is his ability to pick up an offense quickly. He’ll have to do just that if he wants to unseat Harrell, who obviously has much more experience in the Packers’ system.

But you have to think the Packers haven’t brought Young in just for kicks and giggles. This is a real competition, and Young should get a real shot. We might not see him Friday against Arizona, but the early impressions in practice seem to be positive, if six second videos from Tyler Dunne are to be believed:

Of course, winning over a few fans by riding bikes to practice isn’t a terrible idea:

So who’s it gonna be? It’s definitely too early to tell, but in this battle of flawed backups, I think the challenger is going to get every chance the Packers can give him.

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