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Detroit's Darling Rookie Joey Harrington has all the tools--the talent, the toughness and the moxie--to bring real hope to the fans of the long-lost Lions

Nov. 11, 2002
Nov. 11, 2002

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Nov. 11, 2002

Detroit's Darling Rookie Joey Harrington has all the tools--the talent, the toughness and the moxie--to bring real hope to the fans of the long-lost Lions

His palms are sweaty,
Knees weak, arms are heavy.
There's vomit on his sweater already,
Mom's spaghetti...
--Eminem, from his hit song Lose Yourself

This is an article from the Nov. 11, 2002 issue Original Layout

He's a promising kid in a pitiless pressure cooker, his every move
scrutinized, his every fit and start entwined with the Motor
City's fragile identity. No, we're not talking about
platinum-selling rapper Eminem. Shattering hip-hop stereotypes
may be daunting, but try being Detroit Lions rookie quarterback
Joey Harrington each Sunday, staring down stage fright and quick,
vicious, 300-pound dudes who can bench-press you and one of your
kid brothers at the same time.

Is it any surprise that midway through his impressive debut
season, Harrington, despite his subdued musical tastes (he longs
to jam with Dave Matthews, and he recently attended a James
Taylor concert), hopes to hook up with Detroit's other
scorching-hot property? "I'd love to meet Eminem," Harrington
said last week, slamming his bottle of water onto a table at the
Lions' Allen Park training facility for emphasis. "He's the man
around here."

Slim Shady, say "What up?" to Slim Savior: In a city always
looking for pop-culture icons, in a sport always eager to anoint
the Next Elway, Harrington, an accomplished pianist, carries the
weight of his great-grandmother's restored 1911 Baldwin on his
shoulder pads. When the Lions, coming off a 2--14 season,
suffered blowout losses in each of their first two games this
year with Mike McMahon at quarterback, coach Marty Mornhinweg
went against his better instincts and gave the ball to
Harrington, the third pick in the 2002 draft.

Detroit has hung in each of its six games since Harrington took
over, winning three, including Sunday's 9--7 victory over the
Dallas Cowboys at Ford Field. Though Harrington's performance
wasn't pretty--he completed just 14 of 33 passes for 104 yards
and threw two interceptions--he showed the poise that marked his
stellar career at Oregon, during which he produced 10
fourth-quarter comebacks in 28 career starts. This time
Harrington's 12-yard pass to halfback James Stewart set up Jason
Hanson's game-winning, 43-yard field goal with 48 seconds
remaining. "He didn't do much today, but trust me, this guy is
going to be a damn good quarterback," Cowboys safety Darren
Woodson said after the game. "He reminds me a little of Brett
Favre: He doesn't have to set his feet when he slings it to get
the ball where it needs to go."

In throwing Harrington to the Lions, and the Lions to Harrington,
Mornhinweg brought hope and hype to a franchise that last had a
marquee quarterback when Edsels cruised up 8 Mile Road. "We've
had one quarterback get to the Pro Bowl [Greg Landry in 1972]
since this guy," Mornhinweg said last week, gesturing behind his
desk to a photo of Bobby Layne, who starred for the team from
1950 through '58. "You can understand our fans' frustrations. So
many rookie quarterbacks have gone down the slippery slope, and
there's an extreme amount of pressure on them from so many
directions. I know there have been times where he's felt like
it's all on his shoulders."

Harrington's deft handling of the burden has been a striking and
welcome development in a league that chews up and spits out
precocious young passers. Some rookies, including former Lions
quarterback Charlie Batch in '98, have had their share of
success, but in the last three decades only Dan Marino of the '83
Miami Dolphins began with a bang and built on his early stardom.
Though Harrington had a choppy starting debut in a 37--31 loss to
the Green Bay Packers, throwing four interceptions in the Sept.
22 opening of the team's sparkling new dome in downtown Detroit,
the Lions rallied from a 17-point deficit and nearly won that
game, as they almost did in two of his subsequent road outings.

On Sunday, Harrington won his third consecutive home start,
driving the Lions 38 yards in eight plays to set up Hanson's
game-winner. It doesn't sound like much, but give the rookie
credit for staying cool at the game's pivotal moment. The Lions
faced fourth-and-three from the Dallas 43 with 1:54 to go when
Mornhinweg went with Brown Left 51 Halfback Read X Dagger. The
play called for Stewart to read the coverage and break inside or
outside for a quick flare while wideout Bill Schroeder ran an in
pattern behind him. The Cowboys blitzed two players from the
strong side and dropped a defensive end into coverage. Harrington
instantly recognized the coverage and determined that Stewart
would break to the outside, and he zipped the ball to the
halfback for a 12-yard gain. Said Mornhinweg, "To struggle
through the game and then connect on that fourth-down pass, it
shows he's got a little something."

The result is that in Detroit, exasperation has given way to
anticipation. Virtually everyone in the organization, from team
president Matt Millen to longtime NFL veterans like guard Ray
Brown and cornerback Eric Davis, is convinced the Lions have
found their leader--and they are not alone.

"I think he's going to be a great quarterback," says coach Jim
Haslett of the 6--2 New Orleans Saints, who suffered their first
loss at Harrington's hands on Sept. 29. "The thing that got me
was how poised he was when he was getting hit. We pounded him,
but nothing rattled the guy."

The 6'4", 220-pound Harrington, who turned 24 last month, claims
to be a shy, withdrawn homebody who doesn't have the nerve to
start up a conversation with an unfamiliar woman. In a football
context, however, he is bold and confident. Ask him if his rookie
responsibilities--learning a new offense with complex
terminology, asserting himself in the presence of older
teammates, handling off-field commitments--are more daunting than
he expected, and he smiles and shakes his head no. "I feel really
good," he says. "Football is what I love, and I know I can do it,
too. I know I can play in this league, and not having to wonder
about that helps keep me calm."

Harrington's breezy confidence has generated excitement in the
Lions' locker room and has won over teammates. "I've been around
young quarterbacks who get so freaked out that you can see the
whites of their eyes, but not this guy," says guard Tony Semple,
a nine-year veteran. "He's so relentlessly positive and has such
a passion for the game that it's a pleasure to block for him."
Fellow guard Brown, a 15year veteran, played for Washington in
'94 when the Redskins brought in Heath Shuler with the third pick
in the draft. "Joey's not in over his head like Heath was," Brown
says. "He's not overwhelmed by this. Before the opening kickoff
against New Orleans he sidled up to me and told me a joke."

Davis, a cornerback in his 13th year, compares Harrington's
demeanor with that of former San Francisco 49ers teammate Steve
Young. "Joey's a special player," Davis says. "He wants to
perfect everything he does. He's always pulling me aside during
practice, saying, 'How did you know I was going to throw that
way?' or 'What can I do to sell that fake?'"

Of all the qualities a quarterback can possess, none captivates a
team like toughness--and Harrington has that, too. "We were
playing the Bears, and Brian Urlacher put a nice hit on him near
the sideline," Brown says. "Joey got up and patted him on the
ass, like, I'm coming back, fool." Harrington brought the Lions
from behind in that game too, directing a 12-play, 72yard drive
in the last 2:21 to set up the tying field goal. Detroit won
23--20 in overtime.

If, on Sundays, Harrington is free to lose himself in the moment,
the rest of the week presents different pressures. Like most
rookies, Harrington has been waylaid by the grind of a season
that counting preseason games can be almost twice as long as the
typical college campaign. "I'm learning just how long it is right
now," he says. "I'm tired. But it's a good tired."

He apparently doesn't expend a lot of energy off the field. "It's
true; we sit around the dinner table eating spaghetti and
sounding like our dads," says Harrington's longtime friend Steve
Bramucci, an aspiring screenwriter who is living in the
quarterback's condo. And Harrington remains fiercely protective
of his privacy. "I was in a drugstore a while back," he says,
"and when they were ringing up my items, the checker asked for my
phone number. I said no, and it caused a scene. I said, 'I don't
think I should have to give you my phone number to make a
purchase here,' and she said, 'Yes, you do.' The manager ended up
putting his phone number into the system."

There is no shortage of female fans who'd love to get
Harrington's digits, but he swears dating isn't a priority right
now. "I don't have time," he says. "That's something I can worry
about later on, when I get a handle on this offense." Besides,
Harrington says, when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex,
"I'm awful. Awful. I'm just terrible."

Pardon those of us who aren't young, handsome, rich (he has a
six-year, $36.5 million deal) and bound for stardom while we
express our skepticism. "It reminds me of Sylvester the Cat with
Tweety Bird feathers in his teeth," says Harrington's father,
John, a high school principal in Portland. "He appears to have a
lot of friends who are girls. During football he has never had
the time, but he seems to make up for it in the off-season.
Besides, how does a guy who can't talk to girls end up in Cosmo?"

Ah, yes, the infamous Cosmopolitan photograph. In the magazine's
November issue, Harrington is featured as one of the 50 "Hottest
Hunks in the U.S.," espousing his regard for "great-smelling"
women, "soft cheeks" and vanilla bean ice cream. It wasn't quite
Ricky Williams posing in a wedding dress, but there was plenty of
locker room fallout. "It's easy to pick on a guy who seems like a
perfect kid," Semple says. "I'm calling him 'Cool Sharp
Hollywood.'"

Speaking of which, that inevitable rendezvous with Eminem
beckons, if only to settle the debate over which performer is the
true darling of Detroit. "Those are the two biggest guys in town
right now," Bramucci says, "and somehow or some way, they've got
to meet."

If it happens, the kid confesses he might get a little nervous
chatting with the rapper. But you won't see those nerves on the
football field. "I'm not there yet by any means," Harrington
says, "but I know I can play with these guys."

In other words, don't expect to see any of mom's spaghetti on his
jersey.

Read Open Mike by Michael Silver every week at
cnnsi.com/si_online.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY [COVER] YOUNG GUNS OF THE NFL DREW BREES--MICHAEL VICK--DAVID CARR--TOM BRADY THE BEST CROP OF QBs IN 20 YEARS "I KNOW I CAN PLAY IN THIS LEAGUE" --DETROIT ROOKIE JOEY HARRINGTONCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BERGMAN PASSING LANE With Harrington in charge, Detroit has already surpassed its win total of 2001.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID BERGMAN FEARLESS Harrington is willing to throw his weight around to help the cause.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER

MIND Game
Want to be a quarterback? Here's what Harrington goes through on
one play

Joey Harrington learned to read music at age five, and he's
thinking about taking a Latin class this spring at Michigan, but
right now he's fully immersed in the language of the West Coast
offense. Here, courtesy of Lions quarterbacks coach Kevin
Higgins, is what has to happen inside Harrington's head during
the execution of a single play:

"As soon as the previous play ends, the clock starts in Joey's
mind. The first thing we want him to do is to start anticipating
the play he thinks Marty [Mornhinweg, the coach] will call. At
the same time, his eyes are getting a feel for the personnel
group we're sending in. Let's say it's secondandfive, and Marty
calls Pass 317 X Slant. He gives the call to [third-string
quarterback] Ty Detmer, who relays it to Joey over the
communication system in his helmet. The call tells Joey this:
We're faking a run, 17-power, to the halfback and then trying to
throw a slant to the split end. He should notice that our base
personnel group [two wideouts, two backs and a tight end] is in
the game and figure out that we'd only run that play out of a
'red left' formation. He's at liberty to choose the snap count.
Now he's ready to relay the call in the huddle: 'Red Left Pass
317 X Slant, hard count on three.' He also might give a reminder
to someone in the huddle: Say he tells the split end, 'Make sure
the DB has outside leverage so you can beat him inside.'

"Now we break the huddle, and he comes to the line. He surveys
the defense with what we call 'first wide vision.' He checks that
our formation is aligned correctly and gets a feel for the
coverage and front he's facing. His eyes are staring down the
middle of the field so he won't give away anything to the
defense, and he's watching to see how the linebackers are
playing--will they bite on the play fake so that the receiver
will be open when he breaks inside? Then he goes to 'second wide
vision': Will any other defender be in the area to screw up the
route? Now he's ready to take the snap. He fakes to the running
back as he's dropping back. On his third step he's ready to throw
to the X [split end]. If the X is covered, now he has to reset
his feet and look for the Z [flanker] on a post. The third read
is the halfback. Hopefully, though, he gets the ball to the X, we
get the first down, and then the clock in Joey's head starts
again." --M.S.

Midseason ALL-PRO TEAM

In the 45-year history of the NFL Most Valuable Player award,
only one man, Packers quarterback Brett Favre (left), has won it
more than twice. Favre was MVP in 1995 and '96 and shared the
honor with Barry Sanders in '97. According to a panel of 16
scouts and personnel directors, Favre is on his way to a fourth
MVP. With 15 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in
Green Bay's 7--1 start, Favre last week received the votes of
nine panel members. Chiefs running back Priest Holmes received
four votes, Bills quarterback Drew Bledsoe two and Eagles
quarterback Donovan McNabb one. In a separate vote befitting this
strange NFL season, Bledsoe was named the midseason All-Pro
quarterback over Favre 8--7 by the same panel. Here is the
complete lineup and other award winners.

POS. PLAYER, TEAM VOTES

OFFENSE

WR Eric Moulds, Bills 14
WR Terrell Owens, 49ers 7
TE Tony Gonzalez, Chiefs 15
T Jon Ogden, Ravens 14
T Lincoln Kennedy, Raiders 3
G Will Shields, Chiefs 11
G Alan Faneca, Steelers 5
C Matt Birk, Vikings 5
QB Drew Bledsoe, Bills 8
RB Priest Holmes, Chiefs 8 1/2
FB Tony Richardson, Chiefs 4

DEFENSE

E Trevor Pryce, Broncos 12
E Jason Taylor, Dolphins 10
T Warren Sapp, Bucs 12
T Kris Jenkins, Panthers 4
OLB Derrick Brooks, Bucs 13
OLB Joey Porter, Steelers 8
MLB Brian Urlacher, Bears 7
CB Patrick Surtain, Dolphins 5
CB Chris McAlister, Ravens 5
FS Brian Dawkins, Eagles 13
SS Lawyer Milloy, Patriots 4

AWARDS

MVP
Brett Favre, Packers, 9

COACH
Marty Schottenheimer, Chargers, 9 1/2

EXECUTIVE
Tom Donahoe, Bills, 4

OFFENSIVE ROOKIE
Clinton Portis, running back, Broncos, 7

DEFENSIVE ROOKIE
Julius Peppers, end, Panthers, 14