Pressure building on Harrington

All signs are pointing to 2004-05 as a "make it or break" season for Lions starting quarterback Joey Harrington. Would the Lions consider replacing Harrington if he doesn't produce after a third season? Lions insider Mike Fowler takes an in-depth look.

ALLEN PARK) - All signs are pointing to 2004-05 as a "make it or break" season for Lions starting quarterback Joey Harrington.

Entering his third season in the NFL, the Lions are making it clear they expect marked improvement from Harrington and are even hedging their bets in the quarterback department in case the young signal caller doesn't get it done.

After briefly flirting with the idea of trading backup Mike McMahon to Cleveland, Detroit did an about face and tendered the restricted free agent at 125% of his current salary, ensuring that they would receive a first and third round draft pick if another team signed him away from the Lions.

Then Detroit began making noises about signing McMahon to a long term contract. Why all the interest in a guy who has a career 42.3% completion rate?

The fact is, Harrington hasn't been much better. In 2002 Harrington was among the NFL's lowest rated passers (59.9). His improvement in 2003 was miniscule (63.9). He's thrown more interceptions than touchdowns (38 ints vs. 29 TDs) despite being sacked the fewest of any NFL quarterback in 2003.

Still, Detroit has reason to hold out hope. The New York Jets Chad Pennington's progress in his third season is the model Detroit hopes Harrington follows. Pennington was the backup to longtime starter Vinnie Testaverde until the 2002 season, his third year in the NFL.

Pennington, who had previously posted 40% and 50% completion seasons, was inserted into the Jets starting lineup following an injury to Testaverde. Pennington grabbed the job and never let go, completing nearly 70% (68.9%) of his passes for over 3,000 yards including 22 touchdowns passes.

Pennington was hurt the next season and the Jets never contended with him out of the lineup for seven starts.

While most of the Lions front office and coaching staff have been cautious in their remarks about Harrington's need to step up his game, quarterbacks coach Greg Olson was extremely candid in his remarks on Detroit's website.

"To me, he has to produce," Olson said to Detroit

"I think we have done a real good job in free agency. I think you will see in the draft that we are going to try to surround him with some real good players. I think as a quarterback, you are always judged in your ability to elevate the play of your teammates around you. He knows that this has to be the season that he produces. I have all the faith in the world that Joey will produce for us. We are excited as an offensive staff. Do I think he can do it? Yeah. But he has to do it. Talk is cheap. We are going to find out in the next six months."

Clearly, head coach Steve Mariucci isn't sold on Harrington as the entrenched starter. After a horrible 38-7 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Mariucci contemplated making a switch but was talked out of it.

"No decision has been made just yet," Mariucci said at the time, "because I want to visit with both quarterbacks, obviously, before we have a plan as to what to do."

While Mariucci stuck with Harrington, he clearly isn't satisfied with the way the Oregon grad has played and shouldn't be.

Mariucci is enamored with McMahon's athleticism, his strong arm and believes that at some point he could be a viable NFL quarterback. Entering his fourth year as a pro, the coaching staff wonders if this could be the year for McMahon.

If it is, they want to give him a chance to show it. The Rutgers product will become an unrestricted free agent after this season.

Meanwhile, Harrington gets a huge bump up in salary, to nearly $5 million in 2005. Detroit isn't interested in paying that kind of money to someone who isn't producing.

Would they consider releasing Harrington after three seasons? Not likely, but it sure looks like Detroit plans on hedging their bets. McMahon is likely to see some playing time the first moment Harrington falters.

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