BLUNDER OBSCURES JOEY’S CLUTCH PLAY

Stop watching. It’s bad for your health.

Do something else. Shovel snow. Check the pilot light on your furnace. Anything that keeps you from a TV set, a radio or, heaven forbid, Ford Field.

All you’ll see there is a team that gives you a stomachache, a team that tries hard to win but does just enough to lose, even when that means digging deep into the bugaboo bag.

Sunday afternoon, if you bothered to stick around, you at least saw a rarity, like a buffalo nickel or a lunar eclipse. The Lions managed to drive 80 yards in just over a minute, only to blow the game on an extra-point attempt, when the snap looked like a stone skimming on a lake, and the holder looked like a man trying to hug a fish.

Final score: Vikings laugh, Lions cry. Who cares about the points? For one thing, that ridiculous play cost them only one, while an unforgivable 82-yard bomb to Randy Moss back in the second quarter — on third-and-24! — cost them six.

No. Forget the points, the score and the standings. The biggest shame of Sunday’s collapse isn’t even the botched last snap that assured Detroit another losing season. The biggest shame is that it eclipsed something almost as rare as a blown extra point — Joey Harrington leading a drive with the crowd cheering his name.

A change of attitude

That’s right. In the final minutes, as Harrington moved the team downfield, the crowd began to chant, “Joey! Joey!” which, given the way he has been treated the last few weeks, is like Tom Ridge chanting, “Osama! Osama!”

For those who buried Harrington last week — wow, what quick work digging up his corpse.

Then again, this wasn’t the same old Joey. For one thing, the well-groomed quarterback looked “like a wreck” just an hour before the game, according to his coach, Steve Mariucci. Harrington had been up all night with the flu. He was pumped with IV fluids before and during the game. But the biggest internal flushing came from his head.

“My mentality was to just come out and chuck it today,” he said, after two touchdowns, 25-for-44 passing and a career-best 361 yards. “I said, ‘Screw it. I needed to play better for my team.’ “

He said “screw it?” Joey?

Well, so what? He’s a football player. He should say it more often — especially if it leads to a less-measured, more-instinctive, whip-it-good mentality that infused his passes on two fourth-quarter scoring drives. He found a streaking Az-Zahir Hakim for 37 yards. He fired a seeing-eye pass to Roy Williams for a back-of-the-end-zone touchdown. And with a defender breathing in his face, he completed a backpedaling two-point conversion pass to Tai Streets. Whoa! Suddenly, Joey was more Miles Davis than Clay Aiken.

Then, with no time-outs, he engineered a fine final drive, including over-the-middle strikes to Stephen Alexander (11 yards), Streets (15 yards) and Hakim (23 yards), and a timing pattern jump ball to Williams for a touchdown.

Score: 28-27, with eight seconds to go. Kick an extra point and go to overtime.

“I was walking away, had my back to the field, when I heard the crowd groan,” Harrington said. “I looked up at the Jumbotron.”

How did it make him feel?

“Sick.”

And he was already sick.

A total bust or a potential star?

Ah, well, this is exhibition season, anyhow. The playoffs are all but officially — and fittingly — dead, so the best that can come from these closing weeks is foundation work.

At quarterback, that means continue building Harrington Towers or knock ’em down and get a new architect. There has been a lot of debate lately over Joey as “a bust.” Fans hold up Ben Roethlisberger or Michael Vick, making Joey seem like the unwanted Christmas present.

But Roethlisberger inherited a rare horoscope, a decent team with a good line, good receivers, a revitalized running back and a terrific defense. Sure, he has played great as a rookie, but he gets bailed out by his receivers far more than Harrington (who spends part of every game wondering what happened to that “if you get a hand on it you should catch it” credo).

And Vick? He’s a freak of nature.

A fairer comparison may be Drew Brees, who was “bust” status in his third year in San Diego and “invaluable” status in his fourth.

“I’ve learned you don’t gain anything by being afraid to make a mistake,” Harrington said Sunday.

The more he plays that way, the better he’ll be.

The good news is, they didn’t quit until the bitter end. The bad news is, the end is always bitter. Last week, it was Harrington throwing lead balloons in the Wisconsin wind. This week, it was a butterfingered snapper and holder. The Lions should come with a warning on the label: Continued exposure may be hazardous.

At least the condition isn’t permanent. Consider the words of Roy Williams as he left the field.

“It’s a shame,” he said. “The thing everyone’s gonna remember from this game is the missed field goal.”

Field goal?

How quickly it fades.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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