JOEY HARRINGTON might be the NFL player under the most pressure this season. The Lions, who haven't had a winning season since 1997, have surrounded the fourth-year quarterback with pricey linemen; three wideouts and a running back who were all first-round draft picks; and a tight end who was a favorite target of Peyton Manning's in Indianapolis. But if Harrington is feeling the it's-all-on-you heat, he's doing a good job of hiding it. He insulates himself from the pressure, it seems, by simply not acknowledging it. In fact, when one of the Detroit dailies delivered free papers to his doorstep for a week as a trial subscription, he dumped them in the trash without even taking them out of the wrappers.
"Why would I want to read what someone outside of my locker room and coaching offices thinks of me, when the only people who matter to me are the people on this team?" Harrington says. "If there's a headline that says JOEY STINKS, well, that would sell papers and get people to read it, but I'll tell you, it doesn't matter to me."
What matters in Detroit is that Harrington has to take a major step in his development and become a much more efficient passer. Coach Steve Mariucci, formerly a quarterback mentor to Steve Young in San Francisco and Brett Favre in Green Bay, wants the signal-caller in his passer-friendly offense to complete 65% of his throws. Harrington hasn't come close to that number since arriving in Detroit as the third pick in the 2002 draft; his completion percentages in his first three seasons were .501, .558 and .560. Because the Lions picked up 35-year-old free agent Jeff Garcia in the off-season, Mariucci most likely won't wait long to pull a struggling Harrington. "That's going to be a feel thing," was all Mariucci, who also coached Garcia in San Francisco, would say on the subject. But it figures that an 0--2 or 1--3 start would be hazardous to Harrington's starting job.
The Lions have made slow but steady progress over the last four years, winning two, three, then five and six games. Failure to make a strong run at the playoffs in 2005, however, could endanger the Detroit career of not only Harrington but also of Mariucci. At the start of training camp, club president Matt Millen told his team, "There are better players and coaches in this room than on teams that have won the Super Bowl. It's time." When the boss says that--and a week later ownership announces it has signed the boss to a five-year extension--you know 7--9 just won't do.
"We will win," Harrington says. "There's no other option. We have a running back [ Kevin Jones] who rushed for more yards than anyone else in the last eight weeks of last season. We've got one of the most talented receiving corps in the league. We've got a great core of linemen. We're ready."
Is Harrington? "It took Brett Favre three or four years to dominate," says wideout Roy Williams, who was the seventh pick in '04. "It took Donovan McNabb a while. We believe in Joey. I think what Matt Millen did in the off-season, drafting Mike Williams [the USC wideout, at No. 10], will really help too. Can't ever have too many explosive players. Explosive plays win games."
The other talented wideout is Charles Rogers, the second selection in the '03 draft who broke his collarbone in practice before the sixth game of his rookie season and suffered a similar, season-ending injury on Detroit's third snap of '04. On the second day of camp this summer Rogers fell hard while lunging for a pass over the middle. Two good signs: He caught the ball and then got up and ran with it. An underrated addition is tight end Marcus Pollard, a free-agent signee out of the Colts' scoring machine. With 159 catches over the last four years, he gives Harrington the sure-handed tight end he hasn't had in Detroit.
For all the talent around Harrington, however, it's still up to the quarterback to turn the offense into a winning unit. Raising his completion percentage 10 points would only be the first step, but he has to give his coach a reason to be patient. "Over the years this organization has played musical chairs at quarterback," Mariucci says. "Over the past 35 years we've had one Pro Bowl quarterback-- Greg Landry, in 1972. We need continuity at the position. Joey's better, and [ Garcia] has been to Pro Bowls. How our quarterback plays is going to be vital." --P.K.
Eddie Drummond's 2004 season ended after he injured his right shoulder in a Thanksgiving Day loss to the Colts, but that didn't keep the return specialist from earning his first Pro Bowl selection. Drummond, a four-year veteran out of Penn State who joined the Lions as a free agent in 2002, led the league in punt-return average and was second in kickoff returns last year. The 5'9" 185-pounder took back two kickoffs and a pair of punts for touchdowns.