Just when you think the Justin Harrell Express to Bustville might be detoured to a more useful destination — such as an NFL playing field — it made another stop at the infirmary in Bustville's suburbs.
Harrell, absent from 11-on-11 drills most of the last week, wasn't even on the practice field on Tuesday morning. Afterward, coach Mike McCarthy said Harrell has been battling back spasms.
"It's a little bit of a setback for him," McCarthy said.
Yep, and Waterloo was a bit of a setback for Napoleon.
To add another chapter to Harrell's injury history just isn't fair for trees all around the world and it's not worth the hassle from Greenpeace. Suffice it to say, the combination of a torn biceps, sprained ankle, back surgery, back surgery (again) and back spasms is the antitheses of the sacks, tackles, forced fumbles and Pro Bowl berths expected from a first-round draft pick.
Whether they'd rather not beat a man when he's down or they're just overly protective, both McCarthy nor general manager Ted Thompson did their best to defend Harrell after practice.
"On a personal note, it's unfortunate," said McCarthy, who last week explained Harrell's absence as giving him a break after taking a lot of reps. "Justin, he's had a tough road dealing with his injuries, but he's doing everything and more that we're asking of him, and it's part of the game."
Stop rolling your eyes.
"It's frustrating, and it's frustrating to Justin more than anybody else," Thompson said. "I know it's easy to criticize him. It's not his fault. He's trying and trying to do the best he can and he's had some bad luck in that area."
Bad luck? Planting your leg and tearing an ACL: That's bad luck. Showing up to offseason workouts out of shape and injuring your back, leading to surgery in April and August 2008 and to these back spasms: That's not bad luck at all.
The $8.1 million question is whether the Packers can move forward with Harrell on the roster. With a contract that expires following the 2012 season and $8.1 million in guaranteed money — not to mention the time and energy spent by the team's doctors and trainers — Thompson and Co. certainly would like to see some return on their first-round investment.
But even Thompson — who was booed at the Packers' draft party after selecting Harrell — seemed to signal that tipping point was looming.
"This game is about accountability and durability and all of that, and that has to factor in," Thompson said. "Certainly we think a lot of Justin and we think he has a bright future as an NFL player. He has had his share of bad-luck injuries and he's going to battle though something now, and he has battled through. We'll see, but at the end of the day you have to be able to line up and do your part, and he's giving it a go."
What's unfortunate is somewhere within that 6-foot-4, 320-pound body is the makings of a very good football player. As Thompson said when he drafted B.J. Raji in April, the good Lord only made so many big, athletic guys. That Harrell tore a biceps during his senior season at Tennessee but put off surgery so he could face rival Florida speaks to the fire that lurks somewhere within him. That Tennessee gave him Reggie White's No. 92 speaks to what the Packers hoped they were landing in taking Harrell in 2007.
Through the first week of training camp, Harrell was one of the positive surprises. Not only was he playing well against the run, but he was picking up the slack left with Cullen Jenkins on a one-a-day schedule after offseason ankle surgery, Johnny Jolly out with a sprained ankle and Raji holding out.
"He showed when he's been in there that he can do some good things," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "It's just a matter of getting him back out there and being able to keep him out there. He obviously has some of the tools that you look for in terms of the size and strength. As you go through training camp, there's kind of ups and downs and ebb and flow. He had a couple of days (when) we went off and were positive with what we saw out there."
Even with Harrell's failure to play up to his draft status forcing Thompson to draft Raji, the Packers were hoping to salvage something by having Harrell join Jolly in providing big bodies as depth. At the same time, even if Harrell's back improves in time and he's a force during the preseason, can you count on a player with recurring back problems? Can you depend on a player to suit up in Week 4 and Week 8 and Week 17 when his cantankerous back can't last much past the first week of training camp?
The answer is no. There's a danger that releasing a big, talented player will come back to haunt this franchise. But it's much more dangerous to hope Harrell can produce at the expense of releasing someone who, if not as talented, is able to play every week.
The Harrell Express is on its way to Bustville. Drop him off, hand him an ice pack and wish him the best.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.