FACE IT, THIS IS JOEY’S TEAM MORE THAN EVER

So after all that, it falls back on Joey Harrington anyhow. All the Sturm und Drang about Jeff Garcia, riding into town, eyeing Joey’s job, with his Pro Bowl history and his proud declaration that he was not coming to be a backup and here we are, two days from the season opener, and Garcia was right, he is not a backup, he’s a scratch. The backup is now an untested kid barely out of college. And the offense, the season – and, let’s face it, the national face of the Detroit Lions – is once again perched on the shoulders of Your Pal Joey, old No. 3.

This is your quarterback, folks.

It always was.

“Yeah, I knew something was gonna happen at the end of last season,” Harrington says this week, talking on the phone from his home in the suburbs. “The word was it was gonna be Jeff Garcia or Brad Johnson. I don’t want to say that didn’t bother me. … There was definitely an emotional response on my part, maybe even feeling a bit threatened. …

“But then I met Jeff – and he’s terrific.”

And now he’s injured. So much for the old rivalry trick.

But then, no one is going to change Joey Harrington, not me, not you, not coaches, not fans, not even a new gunslinger brought in to stoke the flames beneath his feet.

Joey, who begins his fourth season as Detroit quarterback having started all but four games since he got here, is what he is and what he always has been: a well-mannered, highly disciplined, firmly grounded athlete who got so used to winning before arriving in this losing football town that he won’t let the idea go; he’s like an old seaman who has lost his dog and keeps whistling the familiar tune, certain the pup will return.

“I’m tired of losing,” Joey says.

Join the club.

Will this season be different?

“I don’t want to say it’s like ‘Groundhog Day,’ but the last three years have been a mush of losing. I expect things to be much different this year. I also realize if things aren’t …”

He pauses. “Well, no, they’re gonna be. That’s all. Things are gonna be different.”

See that? Positive thinking. And good for him. For even though Harrington is undeniably at a crossroads – step up or step away – he has really only gone through what a lot of high draft picks to lousy teams go through. A cultural shift. The culture of winning to the culture of losing. Detroit doesn’t offer much tradition when it comes to playoff football. Slogging through that muck can sap your energy – and make you look bad.

But Harrington has endured. And matured. He is 26. Talking to him now is markedly different from talking to the squeaky voiced rookie of years past, who evinced confidence but had the pulse rate of a rabbit.

“I still remember my first Thanksgiving game,” he says, with a small laugh, “watching Tedy Bruschi return a touchdown on me. I still remember my heartbeat racing. I still remember lying in bed my rookie year, after about the ninth game, and saying to myself, ‘The season has to be over by now.’ “

He’s learned the length. He’s learned the complexity. He’s learned the cold-fingered business side – already having seen friends cut and his first coach replaced. He’s heard all the talk about needing to be tougher, to growl more – and this Sunday, with Brett Favre across the field, that talk will amplify.

But Harrington knows what separates the two of them.

It isn’t whiskers.

Can the QB stay healthy?

“Brett, in a word, is passion,” he says. “He seems to be completely wrapped up in the game, and loving it, and that’s why people watch him and why he’s been successful.

“I already feel that same passion – even if I do it in a different way. But Brett’s won. Brett’s won. People respect winning. People gravitate towards winners. When Bill Parcells, with his style, wins a Super Bowl, he’s a genius. When Bill Belichick wins one with his style, he’s a genius. It’s not the style. It’s the winning. When you win, your style becomes right. It becomes vogue.”

So hunker down, Detroit. If the Lions win, Harrington’s steady, level, accentuate-the-positive style will be as vogue as it gets around here. And if they lose, what good will it do if he barks?

The fact is, the year is all about Joey now. Once again. The job is not only his, the coaches pray it stays his. The dinner bell is sounding, it’s feeding time for the NFL behemoths, and keeping Joey in one piece is critical. So what does he say to working without a net?

He chuckles.

“Just don’t fall?” he says.

Maybe “Just get up.” We’re not expecting miracles here.

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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