Sunday, August 07, 2005

Something For Joey -- Finally; So Does He Have What It Takes?

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

Do or die for Joey in 2005? Probably yes

When Joey Harrington joined the Lions as a top draft choice in 2002, there was no shortage of excuses as to why he couldn’t become a successful NFL quarterback.

No running game. Poor receivers. A coach who may be even more clue-free than he is. A suspect offensive line. Nobody to push him. A franchise that has been a graveyard for quarterbacks in any year that followed Bobby Layne.

If the excuses were a grocery list, then team president Matt Millen has been pushing his cart with one hand and crossing items off with the other.

Proven coach -- check. Better pass catchers -- check. A running back that teams must respect -- check. A better and more experienced offensive line -- check. A legitimate backup that can push him and talk to him -- check.

So what will the Joey apologists say now?

I don’t consider myself an apologist nor a basher of Harrington. I suppose I’m a fence-sitter, which makes me a sideshow freak in Detroit, where it is not only accepted but expected for fans to be on polar opposites when it comes to the quarterback position. However, whether I’m pro-Joey or anti-Joey or let-me-wait-and-see-about-Joey, the facts are plain: everything is in place now for the Lions quarterback to finally start busting a move.

Look, the offensive tools Harrington has now, compared to what he was working with in his rookie year of 2002, is like the difference between a race car driver behind the wheel of a Ford Escort and a Maserati. There is no comparison when it comes to the skill players wearing Honolulu Blue and Silver in 2005 and the jokers masquerading as NFL’ers in 2002.

When he’s not figuring out which talented receiver he should target -- Roy Williams, Mike Williams, Charles Rogers, Kevin Johnson or Marcus Pollard -- Joey can simply hand the ball off to running back Kevin Jones and let him do his thing, which he did better than anyone in the second half of 2004. All that is supposed to make an NFL quarterback’s life easier, is it not?

Of course it is, and that’s why this year -- 2005 -- is the year we should find out whether Pal Joey has what it takes to be a bad-ass QB in the NFL. But it’s far from the only reason.

Jeff Garcia is in camp, after all, and that may be the most important factor in Joey’s development than anything else. Finally -- FINALLY -- the Lions have provided Harrington with a #2 guy who has actually played a little bit in the league and, bonus, has gone to some Pro Bowls and won some playoff games. Not one Detroit quarterback, since Layne’s days of the 1950’s, can you say all that about. Not a one. It’s both amazing and shameful that the Lions have had one signal caller -- Greg Landry in 1971 -- make the Pro Bowl in nearly 50 seasons. The team has been the league’s undertaker when it comes to the quarterback position. And its cemetery is running out of room for headstones.

But this is the closest thing the Lions have had to a potentially killer offense since the glory year of 1995, when Scott Mitchell was surrounded by Herman Moore, Brett Perriman, and a running back named Barry Something-Or-Other. That club broke some records, both franchise and league-wise, but the end result was a horrific playoff blowout in Philadelphia. Of course, it’s pretty hard to blame the offense when the defense gives up 58 points, as it did in Philly that day.

Yep, weapons abound for Harrington as the 2005 season beckons. But let’s get back to Garcia. I’ve always felt that one of the biggest mistakes the Lions were making in recent years was not providing Joey Harrington with a backup who’s had some success in the league. Not only to push him on the field and presumably improve his game, but to be an extra ear and mouth. You know, someone that can talk quarterbacking and listen -- someone who’s had the kind of success on the field that Harrington has heretofor only been able to imagine. It isn’t always good enough to just have a quarterback coach. A player like Harrington needs a peer. He needs a guy who can take him aside, as a fellow QB, and fill his mind with all the nuances and tendencies of opposing players and defensive schemes. And, of course, he needs a backup that everyone in the league knows could step right in and lead the team without any significant drop-off in production. Jeff Garcia meets all those requirements. Too bad the Lions stunted Harrington’s growth for three seasons before bringing in a guy like that.

Garcia is -- finally -- the veteran backup Joey has needed

There’s a double edge to this sword, however. Because of Garcia’s past success and apparent ability to continue to be successful, it will be even sooner that fans will start calling for a change behind center. And we have yet to be convinced that Harrington thrives under that kind of pressure. So while it may be comforting for Lions fans to know that Jeff Garcia waits in the wings, it should be just as much of a concern, maybe more, to think what a change could do to Harrington long term. Because the future is Joey Harrington, not Jeff Garcia, who is 35 years old by the way. But this quarterback controversy risk is a risk that should be well worth it. Let’s face it, Harrington wasn’t going to get any better with Mike McMahon on the sidelines holding a clipboard.

The Lions can win with Joey Harrington as their quarterback -- I’m convinced of that. The Baltimore Ravens won a Super Bowl with Trent Dilfer, don’t forget. But what has me still teetering on the fence, mostly by myself, is the fear that the team will not give him the chance to prove that before getting seduced by the Garcia-Steve Mariucci connection, hoping the two of them can re-create the salad days in San Francisco. But, like I said, that risk comes with the territory when you sign a legitimate NFL quarterback as your backup.

So will this be the year we find out whether Joey has the goods? Is this the make-or-break season for him? Will all those offensive weapons make it easier for him to be a winning quarterback?

Let’s wait to answer those questions -- at least through the first two games, okay?

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