FIRST OF TWO PARTS
On Friday, Joey Harrington woke up a Detroit Lion and went to bed a Miami Dolphin. After four tumultuous years, his first NFL home was behind him.
Now we were on the phone. It was late. Harrington was in Idaho for his brother Michael’s graduation. The reality of the trade, which he had wanted and waited for, was finally sinking in.
In a wide-reaching conversation – which lasted until 2 a.m. Detroit time – Harrington finally spoke about many things he’d kept bottled up, things the quarterback didn’t want to be blunt about while still in Detroit, because decorum and loyalty always have been part of his personality.
From his Pollyannaish first days (“People thought I was some kind of rookie joke”) to being benched for the first time (“I felt like people turned their back on me”) to Dré Bly’s critical comments (“I felt absolutely and completely betrayed”) to the rumors about his attitude in Mike Martz’s quarterback school (“Did I sabotage it? No, I did not. But I was uncomfortable”), Harrington was candid about the ups and frequent downs of his time in Detroit.
What follows is the first of two parts of the conversation from the night – as Harrington put it -“that I become someone else’s property.”
QUESTION: Do you feel as if a weight has been lifted?
ANSWER: Yeah I do. But I think every player dreams of having a great career wherever he was drafted, so there’s still a big part of me that wishes it would have worked out in Detroit.
Q: But do you feel the situation in Detroit was beyond repair?
A: (Laughs.) I felt that a while ago.
Q: When Dré Bly publicly criticized you last season, it seemed to be a turning point. How did you feel when that happened?
A: I felt betrayed. I felt absolutely and completely betrayed. I had done nothing but work for that team. Yeah, I didn’t play well all the time, but nobody on that team did. I think the thing that hurt the most was that nobody stood up for me. Nobody. Not publicly. Not privately. There were some people after the fact – a couple days removed, a week removed – who said something, very few, but none at the moment when it really would have counted.
Q: Were you angry?
A: Of course I was angry. I wanted to say, “Why the hell didn’t you come up and say something to me before? If this was truly a moment of frustration, then bite your tongue and sleep on it. But if this is what you feel, then be a man and tell me.”
Q: Why didn’t you say that to his face?
A: Because I didn’t want to create another Terrell Owens situation. I didn’t want to create a media circus. I did everything I could to try and take the high road.
Q: Any regrets about that?
A: No. I can walk out with my dignity intact. I acted true to who I am.
Q: Did the locker room change after that?
A: I think people tried to forget it. At last that’s how people acted towards me.
Q: But was it still an elephant in the room?
A: Oh, yeah.
Q: Compare how you feel now to how you felt when you first arrived here.
A: Four years ago, I knew nothing. My mentality was to go in and be the same person that I was in college. I wanted to go in and work. Take some lumps, learn from them, study film, get better, have guys around me who are in the same boat, who come early and stay late, take their playbook home and fall asleep on it.
Q: You always tried to be upbeat here. Why?
A: I really believed that in order to change the results you have to change the attitude. People would kind of roll their eyes my rookie year when I’d turn away from negative questions and just want to be positive. People thought I was some kind of rookie joke.
Q: Which people?
A: A lot of people. The media, the beat writers. I got a few odd looks.
Q: Did older players think you were too Pollyannaish?
A: Sometimes, yeah. But I really do believe I wasn’t off base the way I came in – and the way I went out.
Q: Let’s talk about the coaches you had. Start with Marty Mornhinweg.
A: It’s been so long. I remember the moment he called to tell me I was gonna start against Green Bay. I was watching “Jeopardy!” at home – I was doing pretty well, too – and I got a call from coach’s secretary. I drove over and he told me. He talked about us working together for a long time He mentioned that to me again when he called and said he’d been (fired). He said I’m really disappointed that we’re not gonna have that chance.
Q: What did you think of him as a coach?
A: Marty was a different guy. He was different from any coach I’ve ever been around. He was much more laid-back than I had experienced before. I really do think he had a great offensive mind; I liked his play-calling. He was aggressive. He took shots. (laughs.) I think Marty may have needed somebody looking over the top telling him NOT to take so many shots.
Q: Did you respect him?
A: Of course I did. I didn’t know anything else. I still have the tapes of Joe Montana and Steve Young – tapes Marty had given me when I first came into the league.
Q: How did it feel at the end of your first year, when the team had gone 3-13?
A: (Long pause.) I felt like I was always trying to fight something off. We lost more games that year than I ever lost in my life. We lost 13 games that year. I lost a total of three playing in college. That wasn’t something I was gonna accept.
Q: Did you feel the pressure was on you for those losses?
A: I felt I still had a bit of leeway that first year. I think there was still a little “he’s a rookie” grace period.
Q: What did you think when they hired Steve Mariucci?
A: His reputation preceded him, that’s for certain.
Q: What was that reputation?
A: That he was a winner. That he was a master of the West Coast offense. He definitely had an air about him when he came in – an air of confidence. But it’s funny. I especially remember when he first addressed the team. I thought to myself, “My God, this guy sounds just like Marty Mornhinweg.”
Q: How so?
A: His mannerisms, his phrases. I think a lot of the West Coast offense guys who worked together sound that way.
Q: What was your relationship like at the start?
A: Good. Nice. He never said a cross word to my face.
Q: Would you have gone through a wall for him back then?
A: Yeah. I’d like to think I would have.
Q: And by the end?
A: No, by the end, that wasn’t the case.
Q: What changed?
A: (Long pause.) I don’t feel like he helped take the team in a different direction. I think he was very comfortable with the way he did things, which is the way things had been done – the schedule, how practice ran, the attitudes around the facility. I don’t think things changed a whole lot.
Q: Was there a time that he stopped believing in you as a starting quarterback?
A: After my third year.
Q: How could you tell?
A: (Laughs.) Well, it’s not like the walls are quiet. You pretty much know what going on in the building. I wasn’t a dummy. I knew that people wanted to replace me. I knew there were a lot of people on that coaching staff that didn’t want me to be playing.
Q: Did that hurt?
A: Yeah, it hurt. It did. I think what hurt the most was that, yeah, I didn’t always play well, but Coach Mariucci turned away from me when there were a lot of other things that we could have addressed.
Q: What one thing did he do that bothered you the most?
A: (Long pause.) He made it OK to be mediocre.
A: I don’t know that I want to elaborate. He let things slide. He let losing attitudes slide, rather than change them.
Q: Do you feel you were a scapegoat?
A: At times I do. But I played poorly a lot. I really did.
Q: What about the arrival of Jeff Garcia?
A: I’d heard rumors he was coming. At the time I felt he was just somebody else that’s gonna compete with me during camp and I’ll beat him.
Q: Did you feel Mariucci preferred him because he had worked with him in San Francisco?
A: If that was why he was gonna play, then I didn’t want to be there. The best player at each position should play, period.
Q: Did you think Jeff should have been made the starter when he was?
A: No, I don’t think Jeff should have played when he did. But at that point, I had been around long enough to know other factors contributed to it.
Q: What factors?
A: Momentum – mine going down because of losing for three years his rising because of his relationship with the coach and being the backup, which fans always want.
Q: How hard was being benched?
A: It was awful. It was awful. That hurt more than anything, because for four years I had done nothing but work and prepare – on the field, in the weight room, at home with my book. I felt like people turned their back on me. It wasn’t fun.
Q: What was the worst part of not playing?
A: Knowing that everybody was watching me. Everybody. Coaches. Players. Fans. How’s he gonna react? How’s he gonna deal with this? There plenty of times where I wanted to go punch a locker, just to have some sort way to vent. I knew everybody in Detroit was watching. I wasn’t gonna crack. I wasn’t gonna break.
Q: Did you ever find an outlet?
A: I found a sports psychologist in Detroit, a good friend, who helped me gain a great perspective on life, not just football but how to carry yourself on a daily basis. How to exist. How to stay sane in an insane world.
Q: What did he teach you?
A: He helped me realize I shouldn’t let other people dictate my mood or how I feel about myself.
Q: Did you let other people’s opinions of you count too much in Detroit?
A: Oh, yeah. I was green. I was a sponge when I came in. If I felt like I was disappointing somebody, I felt bad. I just wanted to make people happy. I wanted to bring Detroit a winner. I wanted the fans of Detroit to experience something they had not experienced in 50 years. My whole life working hard had made it happen. If I hit a bump, I just worked harder. But for some reason, in Detroit, for the first time, that didn’t work.
Once upon a draft pick
What they said about Joey Harrington after the 2002 draft:
Curt Sylvester, Free Press: Rated with No. 1 pick David Carr as the two best quarterbacks in the draft. Neither is considered a Peyton Manning can’t-miss type, but both expect to play and excel in the NFL. Good but not great arm strength, but has many additional qualities – good size, good vision, very smart, quick feet and adequate mobility, and great leadership qualities. Won games in the fourth quarter, a la Joe Montana and John Elway. Good mechanics and exceptional accuracy, comparable to that of Tom Brady, the former Michigan quarterback who led New England to a Super Bowl title.
Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN: Harrington possesses all the intangibles, demonstrates leadership qualities and an ability to rally the troops. He has a presence and an aura about him in the huddle. He commands respect from his teammates. He is mobile and has above-average arm strength. And he’s proven he can play in adverse weather conditions.
Matt Millen, in Sports Illustrated: “I don’t know if we can have a quarterback in Detroit and call him Joey. We’ve got to give him another name. There’s something wrong with that, calling your quarterback Joey.”
Joey vs. prior Lions QBs
PLAYER (PICK) GS YDS TD INT RATE Scott Mitchell
(No. 93 in 1990) …………….. 71 15,692 95 81 75.3 Charlie Batch
(No. 60 in 1998) ……………. 48 9,309 50 41 76.9 Mike McMahon
(No. 149 in 2001) …………… 14 2,867 15 21 55.1
PLAYER (PICK) …. GS YDS TD INT RATE Harrington (No. 3) …… 55 .. 10,242 60 62 68.1 David Carr (No. 1)……. 59 .. 10,624 48 53 73.7 Patrick Ramsey (No. 32) . 34 … 5,649 34 29 75.0 Josh McCown (No. 81) 35 …. 5,431 25 29 72.1 David Garrard (No. 108) …. 8 … 1,080 8 4 77.7