Column: Defending Joey Harrington

After four tumultous, forgettable and pathetic seasons, Joey Harrington finally figured out that even he, the golden boy from Oregon, couldn't save an organization that has only flirted with mediocrity, never approached greatness, and shrouded so far in self-doubt and cynicism that "hopelessly lost" might be mistaken for a compliment.

The Great Debate: Read insider Mike Fowler's opinion on Harrington's comments to Mitch Albom.

Apologies to anyone who may be offended (or surprised) by the following statement: the Detroit Lions are a losing franchise.

And after four tumultuous, forgettable and pathetic seasons, Joey Harrington finally figured out that even he, the golden boy from Oregon, couldn't save an organization that has only flirted with mediocrity, never approached greatness, and shrouded so far in self-doubt and cynicism that "hopelessly lost" might be mistaken for a compliment. It's just unfortunate that the public and media sentiment is apparently as dubious.

During this past weekend's "Parting Shots," a two-part interview conducted by the Detroit Free Press's Mitch Albom, Harrington was honest, finally content with his career (who wouldn't be?) but also incredibly insightful on several matters.

First, while some have taken Harrington's comments with a grain of salt (despite the fact that 85 degree weather and white sandy beaches in front of him hardly gives him a reason to lie or embellish), it was evident that the past three years under Steve Mariucci were nothing more than a microcosm of the team's entire identity, proven by the results. Or lack thereof.

But it isn't that Mariucci didn't address it, he encouraged the losing, lackadaisical and inept mind-set.

"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," remarked Harrington.

His comments confirmed the rumors that rookie Mike Williams had been routinely tardy for team meetings. That practices were soft, drawing the ire of president Matt Millen. That in just his second year, running back Kevin Jones had to scream motivational phrases to team veterans just a few games into the season.

That would logically explain the 15 total wins in just under three seasons before Mariucci was rightly dismissed. Not a maligned quarterback's inability to make the "big play." That's just nonsensical.

While Harrington did admit more than once during the interview that he played poorly, Detroit's failures as a team exceeded the quarterback position, and virtually every facet of the team drew scrutiny during each of Mariucci's seasons in Detroit. Mariucci's personal savior, Jeff Garcia of 49er lore, stumbled worse than Harrington ever did. The team's defense, meanwhile, was typically in the bottom half of the league.

But if further evidence is needed to exonerate Harrington of at least the entire blame for Detroit's futility, look no further than the unemployment line. Which of the two individuals remain on it?

During the Harrington-era in the Motor City, he was also complicated by teammates' behavior on and off the field, most notably second overall pick Charles Rogers. Rogers has been unable to remain healthy throughout his career, but also earned a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy last year, crippling Detroit's receiving core for several games. When given the opportunity, Harrington declined to criticize the troubled receiver, saying that it would only put him on par with that of cornerback Dre' Bly -- who violated the cardinal sin in team sports by calling Harrington out publicly after Mariucci (a close friend of Bly's) was fired.

Naturally, only after the damage had completely killed whatever was left of team unity including Harrington's presence in the locker room, did Bly apologize.

Apparently his timing on the field isn't transcendent.

But it wasn't just egotistical and selfish teammates -- fed by a losing coach in a losing organization -- that greased the skids for Harrington's exit. A vicious Detroit media -- and one member of that media in particular -- seemed to directly target him.

Reports in the Booth Newspaper service routinely ran stories that were never authenticated, often times either ignored and laughed off by the team or outright denied.

Prior to last season, a report surfaced that the Lions were considering releasing Joey Harrington to garner a cap savings. Although the story's lead directly implied that it was a realistic possibility, it became diluted with conjecture, rhetoric and only vague speculation backed by an anonymous source.

Harrington didn't just play for the Lions last season, he started.

Early this off-season, a report in Booth Newspapers caught national attention when it was insinuated that Harrington had purposely "sabotaged" new offensive coordinator Mike Martz's quarterback school. There were even accompanying reports, saying Harrington was not responsive to Martz and even declined to approach the chalk board when requested by coach. While many in the Lions organization and close to the situation scoffed at the notion, as it was a direct contradiction to Harrington's character, it nevertheless was a tabloid-style shot at the maligned quarterback. The fact that it wrongly questioned his integrity, and was essentially a mean-spirited, fabricated jab, didn't make things any easier.

Or maybe it did.

It was clear from Harrington's tone in the interview that his relationship with the new Lions' coaching staff, including Marinelli, was neither uncooperative nor callous. Like anyone with sanity intact, he didn't want to remain a Lion after last season, but never demanded a trade or to be released.

Joey Harrington only gave Marinelli the option of bringing him back because he was still under contract, and was determined to honor that contract through if that is what Marinelli wanted. However, it was also clear to Marinelli that he was obviously dealing with a guy who had been through enough, taken the brunt of the team's failures, however unfair, and become public enemy No. 1 with both teammates and fans.

In Detroit, fairness has never mattered.

The interview also validates Harrington's love for the city of Detroit, and Lions fans in general. He wanted to bring that winner that is so badly wanted, the moment it was recognized that he had a winning personality, we responded by labeling him 'Blue Skies' and trashed him the second a mistake was made on the football field.

His comments prove many things, discredit many others, but most importantly prove that anyone that has a negative thing to say about Joey Harrington will also have a negative thing to say about any other potential 'savior' of this franchise. There's a reason why this team has lost for four consecutive decades, and it's hardly because of a 27-year old.

Joey Harrington entered Detroit a winner, and despite a nightmarish boot camp, left a winner. He'll return on Thanksgiving Day in a significantly altered uniform.

Maybe to prove another point.


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