NO. 1

CLEVELAND – Jeff Garcia got behind the wheel and floored the gas, and we all sat up to watch him drive. There were two games going on Sunday, the football game recorded for history and the game Lions fans were playing at home, called “What Did Garcia Do That Joey Harrington Wouldn’t?”

In the end, if you’re being honest – and not giddy about a three-point win over a lousy team – not a lot. Garcia was energized in place of the beleaguered Harrington, but he still dumped many passes to his running backs, as Harrington was prone to do. And he overthrew some receivers, as Harrington was prone to do. And he never completed a significant downfield pass, as Harrington was prone (not) to do.

But it was what Garcia didn’t do that won him the day – and most likely the job for as long as he stays healthy.

Here is what he didn’t do. He didn’t sink when his plays sprung a leak. He created. He salvaged. He scrambled in a collapsed pocket until he found, at the last instant, an open Mike Williams for a huge gain. He bounced out of one would-be tackler and shoveled a pass to Shawn Bryson to keep the offense on the field.

He didn’t throw an interception. He didn’t take a sack. And he didn’t walk off a loser.

In the end, that’s what we remember.

“I don’t do it like a lot of quarterbacks do it …” Garcia said after the 13-10 win, which cemented him as the Lions’ starting quarterback and kept Detroit in first place in the NFC North. “One thing that I emphasize … is that no play is dead.”

Not dead?

Those are magic words to Lions fans.

Remember the good times

Now, winning affects many things, one of which is memory. Because the Lions won, this morning we are more prone to remember Garcia’s sweet shovel pass than his clock mismanagement at the end of the first half, or his bootleg into the end zone rather than his overthrow of an (ineligible) receiver on third down.

And we’ll not remember that the Browns, as bad as they were, still had a first down at their own 40 in the final two minutes, needing only a field goal to tie, but went backward on penalties and bad play calling.

That’s OK. That’s the NFL. To the winner goes the selective memory. The fact is, it’s obvious now that the Lions players wanted a change at quarterback. You could hear it in the support they showed Garcia afterward.

“He gave us a better chance to win today …” running back Kevin Jones said. “Getting out of the pocket, checking the ball down. … He’s an athlete at quarterback.”

“Not to say anything bad about Joey,” Damien Woody, the offensive guard, added, “but sometimes you need a little change, a little spark.”… That shovel pass was typical Jeff.”

Typical Jeff? We know him that well?

Well, we will. Steve Mariucci quickly said that as long as he’s healthy, Garcia’s the starter next week. And remember, Garcia was rusty (he hadn’t played a real game in 10 months) and in pain, and he still moved the offense when he had to – 22-for-34 for 210 yards. He was missing Roy Williams and Charles Rogers and was throwing to a beat-up and inexperienced receiving corps.

Then again, so was Harrington.

Garcia brings passion to game

After the game, Harrington didn’t hide. He stood by his locker, dressing more quickly than usual. He said the experience of watching after 37 straight starts was “a bit harder” then he thought. Yet he was supportive of Garcia. “It’s not Jeff’s fault,” he said.

Said Garcia: “We support each other. … Whoever pulls the trigger we’re gonna be supportive of that.”

That’s nice. And more civil than many fans handled it. Was it possible to imagine Joey quarterbacking Sunday’s win? Of course it was. The Lions didn’t show any great new imagination. They scored one touchdown – on fourth-and-goal. They converted just five of 14 third downs. The defense, not the offense, ensured the victory.

But if there was one intangible Sunday it was the passion that Garcia brought to the afternoon, a demonstrative determination not to accept a play until the outcome was satisfactory. Garcia yelled. He pumped his fist. He gave a little smack talk to the crowd. Lions’ fans will like that. As long as there’s a win at the end.

Of course, Garcia will be the first to tell you that Chicago, Baltimore and Tampa Bay – all of whom beat up on Harrington – are the top three ranked defenses in the league, while Cleveland is the fourth-worst. And some of those near-miss Cleveland sacks won’t be missed by better teams.

But you play what’s in front of you. It’s funny. On Sunday, Garcia was replacing a guy that the Lions gave up on, but facing a team that had given up on him. And Cleveland’s quarterback, Trent Dilfer, was the replacement for Garcia, but was roundly booed – even though he was the only quarterback out there with a Super Bowl ring.

That’s football folks. You love ’em when they win and you celebrate what they bring to the table.

“What’s obvious is that Jeff can improvise,” Mariucci said proudly.

“He can make something out of nothing.”

That’s what we’re hoping, isn’t it?

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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