Now or Never?
Saying he'sfinally in the right situation, Joey Harrington gets his shot in Atlanta forwhat will be a make-or-break year
SO THIS is howit's going to be for the Falcons on the road this year.
"Hey, Joey! Who let the dogs out? Woof-woof-woof-woof!" That's the wayquarterback Joey Harrington and his Atlanta teammates were greeted when theywalked down the tunnel at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Orchard Park, N.Y., lastFriday night. The dogfighting charges against Michael Vick undoubtedly willfollow his team wherever it goes this season, even if he doesn't make it intouniform.
"Never heardit," Harrington said of the shouting, after the Falcons' 13--10 win. Thenhe added, with a smile, "Hey, if I survived death threats to my cellphonein Detroit, I think I can take a little barking."
Based on how hisfirst five years in the NFL went, you'd think his name was The Embattled JoeyHarrington. In four years with the Lions and then last season with theDolphins, Harrington, the third pick in the 2002 draft, went 23--43 as astarter, never threw 20 TD passes in a season and never had a year in which hecompleted more than 57.5% of his attempts—in a league in which the average overthe past five seasons was 59.5%. Among active quarterbacks with at least threeyears of starting experience, his 68.1 passer rating is the lowest.
Entering theseason, the Falcons would be suspect with Vick under center, and without himthey look to be one of the worst teams in the league. In his first twopreseason trials using new coach Bobby Petrino's offense, which relies heavilyon the quarterback's decision-making at the line, Harrington directed onescoring drive in seven possessions. Against the Bills the wide receivers,perennially plagued with bad hands, were true to form in dropping two catchableHarrington passes on a first-quarter drive. Just as bad—in one of those momentsthat used to leave Lions fans thinking, Why did he make that throw?—Harringtontossed a wounded duck into a stiff breeze that was intercepted by Buffalocornerback Terrence McGee.
Nevertheless,Harrington walks and talks like a man who just won the lottery. He says this isthe first time in his career that a coach has trusted him to make multipleadjustments at the line. And why not? It was his football intelligence, afterall, that contributed to Harrington's becoming a hot prospect at Oregon, wherehe was 25--3.
"This is thebreak I was looking for, because this offense was made for me," saidHarrington, who was released by the Dolphins in March. "In Detroit what wecalled was what we ran. Here you see pressure coming that you didn't expect,you make a protection adjustment at the line, and it allows you the time tomake plays. [The quarterback] always has the trump card."
But after fiveseasons of mediocre results at best, one has to wonder if Harrington is cut outto be an NFL quarterback. He doesn't seem capable of lifting a needy team torespectability.
"Hell, yeah,I can do this, and I can succeed," he said. "The thing I've learned is,if I dwell on any of the stuff outside my control—fans, media, the distractions[of the Vick situation]—I will miss my opportunity. I won't let thathappen."
ONLY AT SI.COMPeter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
1 Drew Brees has picked up where he left off lastseason, when he led the Saints to the NFC Championship Game. In his last twopreseason games combined, Brees has completed 18 of 20 passes againstfirst-team defenses. "I'm getting excited," he said after strafing theBengals last Saturday night.
2 NFL owners' charging fans regular-season prices fortickets to preseason games is a travesty. LaDainian Tomlinson has sat for eightstraight exhibitions—the Chargers say he gets enough work in practices to beready for the season—but San Diego fans still have to pay from $54 to $290.
3 I will be surprised if Byron Leftwich, now thelightest he has been as a pro (242 pounds), doesn't have the kind offranchise-quarterback season the Jaguars envisioned when they drafted himseventh overall in 2003.
POINT MAN Petrino (inset) is confident Harrington (13) will make the right adjustments.
[See caption above]