Joe Callahan is getting something big-school quarterbacks rarely get and small-school quarterbacks almost never get – an opportunity to make an NFL team.
And it appears Callahan has successfully made the transition from Wesley College’s small and cozy Scott D. Miller Stadium to Green Bay’s large and legendary Lambeau Field.
Callahan was a record-setting passer at Wesley – he set Division III records for passing yards (5,063) and touchdowns (55) and won the Gagliardi Trophy, which is awarded to the best player in Division III – but he wasn’t drafted by an NFL team in April, which was no surprise.
Since 1986, only two Division III quarterbacks have been drafted by the NFL, and there’s a good chance you never heard of either of them – Larry Wanke of John Carroll (selected by the New York Giants in the 12th round in 1991) and Kirk Baumgartner of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (selected by the Packers in the ninth round in 1990). Both were cut in training camp.
Of course, the NFL draft was pared down to seven rounds in 1994, so Callahan might have been drafted back when they had all of those extra rounds. Regardless, the Packers made him a priority when it came time to sign undrafted players, simply because they couldn’t ignore Callahan’s amazing production in college, albeit a Division III one.
Callahan has been getting plenty of playing time in the NFL preseason because the Packers’ No. 2 QB, Brett Hundley, has been out of action with a high ankle sprain. As usual, the Packers have kept starter Aaron Rodgers in bubble wrap during the preseason and Callahan has picked up most of that available playing time. In three preseason games, he’s completed 41 of 64 passes for 356 yards, two TDs and a passer rating of 89.1.
“It’s fun to see him progress,” Rodgers told reporters after the Packers’ latest exhibition, a 21-01 victory over the San Francisco 49ers. “He’s constantly making improvements with his fundamentals, and he’s a gamer – he goes out there and makes plays.”
Callahan had his best performance so far against the 49ers. He entered the game with 9:27 left in the second quarter and played until the midway point of the fourth quarter and completed 16 of 24 passes for 167 yards, one touchdown and a passer rating of 100.5. And Callahan’s numbers could have been even better except a couple of his passes were dropped.
One that wasn’t was an 18-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jaren Abbrederis, and that wasn’t even Callahan’s best play of the game. That play set up the Packers’ final touchdown of the game, and Callahan made the play with his legs and his head as much as with his arm. Facing third-and-20 from his own 30-yard line, Callahan eluded two blitzing 49ers, rolled to his right and fired a 51-yard strike to wide receiver Geronimo Allison, to the 49ers 19.
“We knew we had to get 20 yards to get the first and it was going to take a little time for our receivers to get downfield,” Callahan said of his long pass. “They brought pressure inside. I was able to escape out and I extended the play a little bit. I saw [Allison] down there and gave him a chance with the ball, and he made a great catch.”
Needless to say, Callahan’s play has caught the attention of the man who counts the most, Packers coach Mike McCarthy.
“I thought Joe made plays,” McCarthy said. “The throw [to Allison] was the play of the game, in my opinion, from our sideline. “He’s doing a better job of managing the huddle, commanding at the line of scrimmage and so forth,” McCarthy added. “What’s nice is he’s taken advantage of his opportunities. He’s improved each week.”
Callahan could still end up on the practice squad if the Packers keep just two QBs on the active roster, even if Hundley isn’t ready to go in time for the Packers’ season-opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. If that’s the case Green Bay will have to find another veteran passer, because it would be too much to ask of Callahan to step in and play in an NFL regular-season game already, no matter how well he plays in the preseason.
At the same time, Callahan has shown enough in the preseason that another team could be interested enough to sign him off the practice squad and the Packers might not want to risk that. No matter what happens next, Joe Callahan has already proven that big things can come in small-college packages.