CINCINNATI – Chandler Harnish took a beating, no doubt about it. His first NFL start included everything that makes playing quarterback at the professional level so overwhelming.
He was sacked five times, his body slammed, twisted and pulled in a half dozen different directions.
“I kind of like getting roughed up a little bit,” Harnish said, good-naturedly, afterward. “It gets you in the feel of the game.”
He threw a pick-six on a hurried, not-quite-enough zest pass he wished he could have back. Some of his throws sailed too far, some too wide. It took until the fourth quarter for Harnish to direct the sole scoring drive in the Indianapolis Colts' 35-7 preseason loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium.
Yet through the beating, Harnish remained upbeat. This is no easy task, given the fact that cuts come this weekend, cuts that will trim the Colts' 75-man preseason roster to 53 players. Chances are, Harnish will be among the players who ends up waived. Teams don't keep three quarterbacks these days and Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck have the top two spots nailed.
Harnish stood in front of his locker afterward and was offered the chance to complain a bit. He's a mobile quarterback and mobile quarterbacks don't get sacked five times unless there are some protection problems.
But if Harnish has learned anything – and he'll tell you he's learned volumes – it's that the quarterback must be a stand-up guy, even after being knocked down. He singled out one mistake: His own.
“I would be going down a slippery slope if I started pointing the blame (at others),” Harnish said. “We just didn't execute on offense. The communication wasn't there. We didn't make the plays when we had to and we made a big mistake on my interception.”
Harnish has learned the ins and outs of playing quarterback for years, starting with the baby steps at Norwell High School to the next level at Northern Illinois University to the Colts. Although he hasn't played in a regular-season game for the Colts and has spent most of his time on the practice squad, Harnish has been a fixture in the Indianapolis quarterback room. He's helped the team behind the scenes.
Harnish will most likely end up on the practice squad again this season, but there are not guarantees on the NFL bubble.
“For me, I feel more and more a part of the team every single day,” Harnish said. “But the harsh reality, you hope it doesn't end anytime soon, but you just never know.”
Harnish started the game, along with a group filled primarily with backups. Rookie Jack Mewhort started at center, moving over from his likely spot at guard. Until an 11-play, 77-yard drive in the fourth quarter, capped by a seven-yard touchdown pass to Da'Rick Rogers, Harnish and the offense came up empty. In all, the Colts punted eight times. One series came up short a fourth-down try. One series ended the half. And one was Harnish's interception.
Harnish finished 13-of-24 passing for 102 yards and a 61.5 quarterback rating.
Now he waits. It's a weird situation to be in, holding that third quarterback spot. If you're a receiver, defensive back or linemen, there's always a chance that injuries will hit and your time will come. There could be openings and if you play well enough, they'll call your name. Harnish's situation is so different. Luck isn't going anywhere. Hasselbeck seems entrenched until he decides to call it a career.
So Harnish will keep his phone handy and roll with the punches.
“Last year, I was very stressed and nervous; I didn't see any clarity in my future,” Harnish said. “Now I have another year of experience and a little more peace. Whatever happens, I'll be ready. You have your assumptions. You look at the roster and this business and I really wish I could tell you I'll be on the roster or the practice squad. But you just don't know.”
Harnish took a beating Thursday, the kind that third-string quarterbacks take. Then he left the locker room with his future unknown, but still standing tall.