DESPITE THE BOOS, JOEY ONLY PART OF PROBLEM

Booing won’t help.

I can’t recall the last time a hometown quarterback got razzed all day and later thanked the fans for helping him with his accuracy.

Still, many of the 61,000 fans at Ford Field on Sunday afternoon chose to shower Joey Harrington with hoots and catcalls during the Lions’ collapse against Carolina, even singing “Joey sucks” at the finish. Here’s a question: When you chant “Joey sucks,” what’s the endgame there? You expect him to say, “Yeah, you’re right, I do”?

If the goal is to see the Lions win, the least people can do is keep their mouths closed when the Lions have the ball. Better yet: Take a nap. It’s not like you’re gonna miss anything.

The Lions’ offense has the creativity of a cinderblock. Earning a first down is like passing a kidney stone. Scoring a touchdown is akin to getting crowned king of England.

In its final 10 plays from scrimmage, the offense moved the ball – and we’re talking three separate possessions here – minus-two yards.

That’s right. Minus-two. Not a touchdown when the Lions were within spitting distance of the goal line. Not a first down when a first down would have iced the game. Not a single yard when 15 yards would have given them a shot at a winning field goal.

Minus-two. That’s not all on Joey. A lot of it is, given the leadership of quarterback. But there are running backs, receivers, linemen, tight ends. Lots of moving parts that right now aren’t moving.

“The crowd’s chanting …‘Joey sucks,’ ” said offensive tackle Jeff Backus, who was guilty of three penalties on a line that blocked like an open tollbooth. The line has “to protect him and give him a chance. I mean, call me out. Tell me I suck.”

Please. Don’t tempt us.

Where are all the receivers?

“I can’t control who boos; I can’t control who screams,” said a tight-lipped Harrington after this 21-20 stinker.

But Joey will be the first to tell you this isn’t what he had in mind when he rode into town with the cheers of college ringing in his ears. Yes, he throws too quickly, he eats it too fast, he makes too many hasty reads, and he is too worried about making a mistake to take the kind of chances quarterbacks have to take.

But let’s examine what he was working with Sunday. Instead of throwing to three stud No. 1 picks, he was deciding between a hobbled rookie (Mike Williams), an undrafted backup out of Wyoming, (Scottie Vines), a guy on his fourth team in three years (Kevin Johnson) and a kid just activated from the practice squad (Glenn Martinez).

Instead of handing to his heralded starting running back (Kevin Jones, out for much of the game with an injury), he was once again pitching to backups (Shawn Bryson or Artose Pinner).

He lost his best fullback weeks ago.

And his offensive linemen played as if they were the beneficiaries of his life insurance policy.

Yes, it’s true, he fumbled several times and threw an interception. He also was pummeled by defensive linemen who couldn’t have gotten in the backfield faster if they took a Gulfstream.

Still, Joey maintains his composure after every game. He doesn’t point fingers. When asked about all the backups he’s playing with, he declines the excuse.

“It’s not like you get to walk on the field and say, ‘Whoa, hold on, let’s reschedule this for next week and get everybody healthy,’ ” Harrington said. “We gotta go out and play.”

No comparisons with Weinke

Now, quarterbacks are a comparative item, like cars. You always check the other guy’s to see if he’s got more under the hood. So it didn’t help matters when Jake Delhomme got hurt on the Panthers’ final drive and in trotted rusty old Chris Weinke, who is 33 and balding and hasn’t played an NFL game in three years.

And with barely a warm-up, Weinke hit five of seven passes for 47 yards – including the winning touchdown – in the time it takes the Lions to get a play straight.

Joey will get blamed for that -why aren’t you as good as their backup?- even though that falls on the defense, which was surprising, since, for most of the game, the defense had done what it needed to do: Keep the Lions’ offense off the field.

Like the mother who cooks, cleans, takes the kids to school and then goes to work, the defense handled dual responsibilities, hitting, tackling and plundering the Panthers, then scoring touchdowns as well.

And had the Lions won this game, we’d be talking about the 14 points and four turnovers by the defense. We’d be talking about a 3-2 team. We’d be talking about first place in the division.

Instead, we’re talking about Joey again. It is the curse of a losing team with a tradition of ineffective quarterbacks who currently have, well, an ineffective quarterback.

But calling him names won’t make him better.

By the way, the Lions are still tied for first place, which begs the question, just how bad do you have to be to fall to second in the NFC North?

Don’t answer. I have a feeling we’ll find out soon enough.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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