Alvin Harper was so alone, he could have shot off a flare. He waved his hands. He jumped up and down. And, as is often the case with his team, he watched as the ball went somewhere else, the wrong place, thrown by a quarterback who has a lot to learn. Harper walked slowly back to the Tampa Bay huddle, shaking his head, wearing those silly orange pants.
You remember Alvin Harper, don’t you? Not long ago, he was one of the most famous receivers in football. He wore a star on his helmet, and was half of the Dallas Cowboys’ lethal one-two punch. Harper and Michael Irvin, can’t stop ’em, can’t top ’em. Irvin had the moves. Harper had the speed and the leaps. He was the one streaking down the field like a track star, jumping high, pulling in the bombs from Troy Aikman. Two years ago, he led the league in yards per catch, averaging 25 every time he yanked in a ball. Twenty-five yards per catch?
He won two Super Bowl rings.
And then he left.
He didn’t get old. He didn’t get hurt. He left because he wanted more money, and Tampa, a perennial laughingstock, had the money. He took their check. He moved to their town. And in so doing, he traded in his pedigree.
Now Harper plays in this forgotten pile of a team. After the Lions stomped the Bucs, 21-6, on Sunday, Harper took his clothes from his locker and dressed across the room, where reporters might not find him. I found him anyway.
“What’s been the biggest adjustment going from Dallas to where you are now?” I asked him.
“Oh,” he exhaled. “I don’t want to answer that.”
“What about when you were open today and the ball didn’t come, or your quarterback overthrew it?”
He looked around. Other reporters were coming now. “Let’s just say he missed me. It happens.”
Alvin Harper draws a big paycheck. He lives in a fancy home. At the moment, in that depressing locker room, with a team that is already going nowhere, I’m not sure it meant all that much.
Mitchell held to higher standard
Down the hall, in the winning locker room, Scott Mitchell was going through a similar exercise. His team had won, but for the second week in a row, he had thrown the ball erratically. He wasn’t awful, but he wasn’t great. He threw behind his receivers, over their heads, or at their feet. Several times, he made Herman Moore dive to the turf to make a catch, when Moore could have gained big yardage if he’d taken the ball in stride.
More than once, Mitchell had been booed — and this was the home opener.
“People around here aren’t really patient,” he said glumly. Of course, fans would say they’ve been very patient. They would remind Mitchell this isn’t his first season here, or even his second. In fact, he’s talking about a fat new contract; he ought to be able to hit his guys in the hands.
“It’s way too early to be critical,” Mitchell said. “We’re just not clicking yet. We’re not in sync. But we did win the game. That’s kinda positive, isn’t it?”
Mitchell is going through much of what Harper is going through — big money, big expectations. When he came here from Miami, Mitchell was supposed to be the future of the franchise. He got a mega-contract despite a limited resume. He is a pleasant person, but he often expects everyone to be just as pleasant, no matter how he performs. When they’re not, it upsets him.
That won’t work. You take their money, you take your chances. Mitchell is simply held to a higher standard, and he needs to see the boos as motivation, not disruption. Detroit had the top-rated offense in the NFL last year. He needs to live up to his own reputation.
Moore said: “It seems like everyone loved Scott until the Philly game last year. Then they started doubting again. Now after two games, the boo-birds come out.”
Mitchell, like Harper, makes a ton of money. But as he pushed the sweat from his face and answered questions in a low, tired voice, the money didn’t seem to be much consolation.
Blue-collar guys earned their pay
On the other hand, Sunday’s heroes — except Barry Sanders, who deserves his own category — were largely the lesser-known, lower-paid guys. For them, it was all about fun. Take Corey Raymond, who scored his first NFL touchdown by picking off a pass and scampering down the sidelines, cutting back inside, diving in between two tacklers to reach the end zone.
Or Greg Jeffries, the cornerback and special-teamer, who charged down on a punt and absolutely pummeled Tampa Bay’s Nilo (translation: “no sense”) Silvan, who did not signal for a fair catch even though he could smell Jeffries’ breath.
Silvan went flat as a mattress, the ball fumbled away.
“When you hit someone that hard, do you go back to see how much damage you did?” Jeffries was asked.
“Oh, yes. You never want to seriously hurt anyone.”
“So you went back and checked on Silvan?”
“No. I was too busy being congratulated.”
So much for the compassion theory.
But there you have it, both ends of the spectrum. The Lions’ defense has played well its first two games — and since it was not expected to do so, the news has a good spin.
Meanwhile, for guys like Mitchell and Harper, the expectations always precede the accomplishments, because the money exceeds the norm. And win or lose, they go home hearing cries for more, hanging over their heads like rain.