MINNEAPOLIS — There will be days when it doesn’t end eight yards short. There will be days when his last pass isn’t stolen in the end zone, when he doesn’t walk off biting his lip, when his coach doesn’t look at him and shrug. There will be days when Joey Harrington does what he thought he was going to do Sunday, which was take his team to the promised land and ultimately win it, the way he did in college, the way he expects to do in the pros, every Sunday. There will be days when that happens for Harrington, maybe sooner than we think, because this kid is some kind of freak, growing a year for every week he’s in the game. There will be days when all the lights turn green for him.
Just not yet.
Harrington, the rookie who is already the best weapon Detroit has, tried to pluck a victory from the jaws of standard Lions ineptitude Sunday afternoon. And, you know, he almost did it. Trailing, 31-24, with 2:07 left, he marched the Lions 61 yards and still had half a minute to close the deal from the 8. He had a play in mind. They had worked it in practice. He dropped back and saw his receiver, Az-Zahir Hakim, in the corner of the end zone. He lofted the ball on a perfect arc — or what would have been a perfect arc, had a defensive back not raced back and leapt for it, plucking it clean, causing Harrington to do the one thing he hadn’t done all day, throw a pass that was not theft-resistant.
“He baited me,” Harrington said of Vikings cornerback Corey Chavous. “He baited me, and I fell into it. I didn’t realize how quick he was. He got me good. It’s a mistake I have to learn from.”
“If that were college . . .” someone began.
Harrington didn’t wait. His eyes widened. “If that were college, that ball goes right over the head of the defender and it’s a touchdown.”
It’s nothing like Oregon
This isn’t college, of course, and Harrington gets the “L” hung on him same as the other Lions. He has been in the NFL five games and has experienced four losses, which is more than he lost his entire college career at Oregon as a starter.
But something needs to be said about this kid. He is shooting up the growth chart. He’s like one of those comic book monsters who absorb the traits of those around him, morphing into something he should not be. Harrington should not be this . . . poised. Not yet. His second start was hugely better than his first, and his third was largely better than his second. On Sunday, the Lions set him up on several plays with nobody in the backfield, something you don’t like to do to a veteran, much less a rookie. At one point, Harrington faked a handoff, spun around, then lofted a perfect sideline pass over the head of a defender and into the waiting hands of Cory Schlesinger. It was a thing of beauty. Moreover, it was a veteran play, all touch and timing. Harrington did it anyhow.
When the day was done, Harrington was 25-of-41, and that includes several drops. He racked up 309 yards and two touchdowns. Yes, I know it was against one of the worst pass defenses in the league. But it was in the Metrodome, enemy turf, loud crowd, he was missing his tight end, he lost another receiver at the end, and he was working with a single-pronged rushing attack behind him.
Oh. And he’s 23.
“I felt good out there,” he said. “I wasn’t nervous. We’re getting a little swagger. We just have to get to the point where we swagger enough to make the other team believe it can’t come back on us.”
It’s typical in Detroit
There may not be enough swagger in the world to do that for the Lions. While Harrington was going forward, the Lions were in a time warp. When Matt Millen and Marty Mornhinweg wonder why Lions fans keep harping on the past, it’s because of days like Sunday, a come-from-ahead defeat that we’ve seen a million times. The Lions’ defense played as tight as a 4-year-old’s shoelace. And it acted as if it had never seen Daunte Culpepper before, never touching him, allowing him all kinds of scramble time.
In the end — with a final 48-yard drive — he killed them.
And Harrington could not bring them back.
“Our execution lacked in the fourth quarter,” Mornhinweg said.
Oh. Well. That’s not an important time, is it?
“We’ll find out what kind of team we are after this,” he added.
Most fans know what kind of team this is. What they are learning is what kind of quarterback it has. More than any other position, the passer’s attitude can be contagious. And if this kid keeps growing like ivy, he could pull the rest of the offense up with him.
“Are you the quarterback to finally lead this team to the next level?” an out-of-town reporter asked.
Harrington laughed. “You mean next week? Yes. I will happily lead the team next week.”
The way he’s growing, that’s the best news we’ve heard.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.