More talent could be curse for Harrington

Of all the quarterbacks on the hot seat heading into 2005, Joey Harrington is the one doing the most sweating.

Harrington finds his career at a crossroads. He has started 44 games, winning only 14. After three seasons, his completion percentage is substandard (56 percent) and his 6.23 yards per attempt is more than a yard-and-a-half below what is expected of a quarterback.

He heads into training camp surrounded by three first-round receivers -- Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams. He has a first-round running back, Kevin Jones, with 1,300-yard potential. General manager Matt Millen even got him a veteran tight end, Marcus Pollard, and a veteran receiver, Kevin Johnson.

But while all that talent is a blessing, it could also end up being his curse.

Expectations will be higher, and Harrington's first regular-season stumble could force Lions coach Steve Mariucci to bring Jeff Garcia to the rescue. It's almost as though Harrington is set up to fail, even though the franchise is giving him every possible resource to succeed. His starting seat couldn't be any hotter.

And his peers aren't making life any easier. Since 1998, half of the NFL's teams have been taken over by quarterbacks drafted in the first round, which has only increased the demands for high-quality production. How good must Harrington be to survive?

Unless he improves his completions to north of 60 percent and adds at least a yard to each of his throws, enter Garcia. Other than head coaches, quarterbacks more than anyone know the NFL stands for Not For Long. Patience doesn't go with the job.

The timetable for waiting on quarterbacks seems to start running out at about 50 games. Tim Couch was given 4½ years and 59 starts to turn the Browns into a winning franchise, but he was fighting off Kelly Holcomb for the starting job after three seasons. The Lions gave Charlie Batch 46 starts after rushing him into service as a rookie and then felt the need to draft Harrington. Akili Smith, Ryan Leaf, Cade McNown, Quincy Carter and others only wish they had a chance to get to 50 starts.

And what are the expectations? Here are the average 2004 quarterback numbers of the 12 teams that made the playoff: 313 completions in 501 attempts (62.5 percent) for 3,879 yards (7.74 yards per attempt and 12.38 yards a completion), 28 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and 33 sacks.

Thanks to the influx of young quarterback studs who started with Peyton Manning in 1998, the stakes for quarterback performance have only increased. When Manning entered the league, the NFL was an old league for quarterbacks, filled with signal callers in their 30s.

Playoff standards were much lower then. A playoff quarterback had to be only a 59-percent thrower. In 1999, a playoff quarterback had to throw only 23 touchdowns and could get away with 16 interceptions.

But now, much more is expected. Only teams with top-rated running offenses -- or running quarterbacks, such as Falcons QB Michael Vick -- can get away with 56-percent throwers. Nine of the 12 teams that finished last season 6-10 or worse (the 49ers, Browns, Dolphins, Raiders, Bears, Giants, Redskins, Lions and Cardinals) completed less than 58 percent of their passes. Of the 14 teams in the NFL that completed less than 58 percent of their passes, only two (Falcons and Seahawks) made the playoffs.

Harrington's position now is no different than Drew Brees' in San Diego heading into last season. Harrington can only hope things go as well for him as they did for Brees. The former Purdue second-round choice knew he had to put up playoff numbers or become a former Charger. The team drafted Philip Rivers, and if Rivers hadn't been involved in a long contract dispute, Brees might not have had his Pro Bowl season.

Brees led the Chargers to a 12-4 season, completed 65.5 percent of his passes, averaged 7.9 yards per attempt, threw 27 touchdown passes and had a 104.8 quarterback rating. He played so well the team had no choice but to keep him around another year as a franchise player.

Maybe it's unfair, but quarterbacks are expected to be the difference between a playoff team and a franchise's drafting in the top 10. Harrington, after 44 starts, is at the stage that the Lions have to make a decision about the quarterback position. His cap number in his fourth year is $10.5 million. Next year, the number grows to $11 million, and he's due to receive a $4 million roster bonus. The Lions won't do that if they are a 6-10 team with a quarterback who's completing only 56 percent of his passes.

Unless Harrington posts playoff-caliber numbers, he's heading for disaster.

Five of Harrington's first-round quarterback peers -- Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culpepper, Michael Vick and Chad Pennington -- already have been locked up to contract extensions in recent years. Vick and McNabb haven't always had flashy passing numbers, but they win. McNabb has four NFC title games to his credit, and thanks to the addition of Terrell Owens last season, he established career bests by completing 64 percent of his passes and throwing 31 touchdown passes. Vick completes passes at a 56.4 percent rate, but his elusiveness has carried the Falcons deep into the playoffs in two of the past three years.

Other quarterbacks on the hot seat heading into this season include Aaron Brooks of the Saints, Brian Griese of the Bucs, David Carr of the Texans and A.J. Feeley of the Dolphins. Omitted from the list are Kyle Boller of the Ravens and Rex Grossman of the Bears because their judgment days won't come until 2006 or later; they simply haven't had enough starts to make a full determination.

Carr's case is interesting and should result in a happy ending. His numbers are coming close to playoff level -- 61.2 percent completions, 7.58 yards per attempt, 16 touchdowns and an 83.5 quarterback rating. His contract has a buy-back option at the end of the year and the Texans are expected to execute the option or negotiate a long-term extension.

Though the Texans won a franchise-best seven games last year, much more is expected of Carr. His record is 14-29 as a starter and, barring a major setback, high expectations have been set.

Brooks is a more interesting study. He's stuck in the abyss of being a .500 quarterback. Even though he's thrown 22 to 27 touchdowns a season for the past four years and his quarterback rating has been in the 80s for the past three years, his record as a starter is 35-34. Coach Jim Haslett switched offensive philosophies and plans to be more of a running team this year to take some pressure off Brooks.

Still, the pressure is on. He's a career 56-percent thrower with McNabb-type skills. He needs a breakout year.

His plight isn't much different than what Griese went through in Denver. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan praised his efficiency, but by the time he reached his 50 starts, a disturbing pattern persisted. Griese was a 60-percent thrower but a 50 percent winner. That led to the decision to go to Jake Plummer, putting Griese in the tough position of proving himself with new teams in each of the past two seasons.

Each season, production by quarterbacks across the board is improving. And for those not keeping up, the pressure will only intensify.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.