TAMPA, Fla. -- He looked weary and disappointed and frustrated and, in summarizing what had just transpired in a 17-13 defeat here, embattled Detroit Lions quarterback Joey Harrington required only four words to verbalize those emotions late Sunday afternoon.
The it, of course, is losing. And Harrington, the franchise's first-round choice in the 2002 draft in a split decision among Detroit coaches and personnel officials, has done far too much of it in his career. The fourth-year veteran, and one-time star at the University of Oregon, is 15-32 as a starter. That percentage (.319) is actually considerably higher than the "winning" mark registered by Lions team president and chief executive officer Matt Millen (.254) since he took over the football operation in 2001, hired by William Clay Ford to stanch the bleeding.
Millen got a pricey five-year contract extension, with probably a new F-150 thrown in, from the Ford Family this summer. But if his track record is the measuring stick, heck, Harrington might be the Idi Amin of dubious passers. You know, quarterback for life.
Actually, this isn't about Millen-bashing, because the Lions' boss has quieted many of his critics by seemingly drafting wisely the last few years and assembling a young talent base admired by a lot of people around the league. What this little exercise is about, though, is wondering whether the Lions' current situation is a sort of a chicken-and-the-egg thing. And whether throwing more money at the problem will ever make it any better as long as Harrington continues as the captain who cannot shoot straight.
First, to the chicken-and-the-egg thing, at least sort of. Watching the latest performance of Harrington on Sunday, an outing so underwhelming it would have been nothing short of miraculous had he actually gotten his offense into the end zone in the waning minutes, one couldn't help but wonder: Is this guy getting any help from all of the so-called skill players with which Millen and his scouting staff have surrounded him? Is he ever allowed to throw the ball up the field in a West Coast design that isn't quite dink-and-dunk, but is hardly dangerous, either? Or is Harrington, who probably would have been replaced as the starter by now if backup Jeff Garcia hadn't broken his leg, simply as erratic as he appears for long stretches?
We're big on questions, shy on answers. Frankly, we don't know. If we had a clue, though, here's what we would do: Phone up Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. and see whether he wanted to give us a five-year contract extension. Or, for that matter, maybe even a second-hand Taurus.
This much we know: If the Lions' management ran its day-job business with the seeming dearth of financial acumen that it has exercised with the supposed offensive playmakers brought to the Lions in the last four seasons, there would be precious few Ford-truck guys left in the world. What the Lions have assembled, if the first three contests of this season are any indication, is a non-assembly line. The Lions' dividend on its mighty investment in offensive players been so tiny, the Ford family ought to invoke the automobile industry's "Lemon Law" and send these guys back for repair or replacement.
By our calculations (which could be a little off, since we don't drag all of our reference material on the road over the weekend, but not too far skewed), the Lions have invested, through Sunday's loss here, approximately $57.48 million in quarterback Harrington, the receiver triumvirate of Charles Rogers, Roy Williams and Mike Williams, and in tailback Kevin Jones. Suffice it to say, this offense isn't hitting on all five cylinders.
Beyond the inconsistencies of the quarterback, the receivers haven't produced, and Jones is finding it tough to find crevices, let alone holes, in which to run. The three wideouts, all first-round choices, have combined for 19 catches, 265 yards and a touchdown. Arguably the most reliable wide receiver on the field for the Lions on Sunday was the itinerant veteran free agent Kevin Johnson, playing for his third team in less than two years but the guy to whom Harrington kept looking in the clutch. The three high-priced wide receivers totaled seven catches against Tampa Bay, and Roy Williams missed on an early opportunity when he dropped a first-quarter pass deep up the left sideline, the ball having wafted over the hand of Bucs nickel cornerback Juran Bolden.
Said Roy Williams: "I put that game on me. If I made that catch, third play, fourth play of the game, that's a touchdown and we win." Roy Williams, it should be noted, is just one of the several Lions muttering the if word a lot on Sunday afternoon. Which begs this query: What might happen if Lions coach Steve Mariucci and new offensive coordinator Ted Tollner actually allowed Harrington to throw deep more than a couple of times per game? Yeah, yeah, we know. The West Coast offense is about timing passes, about throwing to those big, 6-feet-3 wideouts, hitting them on the cut, allowing them to add yards after the reception. But, hey, nowhere in the West Coast manual, as authored by the guru-ish Bill Walsh, does it suggest you can never challenge defenses deep. After the early drop by Roy Williams, the Lions threw deep less than a handful of times.
That Detroit was still in the game at the end, that the Lions came within an instant replay judgment (albeit an excellent one) of stealing a win, was more about good fortune than good football. When you spend as much of the family fortune as Lions ownership has, you have the right to expect some of the latter.
There are several young quarterbacks in the NFL, and Harrington clearly is one of them, for whom decision time is nearing. The Lions are doling out to Harrington nearly $8 million this season, between his roster bonus paid this March and his base salary for 2005. There is always a question, when quarterback decision time nears, about who might be a better alternative. But unless Harrington starts to demonstrate improvement, or the Lions' brass decides it still hasn't surrounded him with sufficient talent to cease all of the alibis, Detroit should be ready to find an answer after 13 more games.
McCown aces audition
One young quarterback who is going to get about a four-week audition because of the groin injury that sidelined Kurt Warner, and who figures to be on a lot of videotape for potential suitors as an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year, took a step toward earning himself some substantial pesos on Sunday night. Arizona Cardinals backup Josh McCown, who started 13 games for the team in 2004 before coach Dennis Green decided to sign Warner to a one-year contract this spring, played well in a comeback victory at Mexico City.
Overcoming some real butchery at the outset of the game -- including his own fumble after a sack, returned for a touchdown, and another San Francisco touchdown on a bobble by tailback Marcel Shipp -- the fourth-year veteran completed 32 of 46 passes for 385 yards, with a couple of touchdown passes and no interceptions. McCown was sacked three times, actually far better than the ratio at which Warner has been going down, and showed real poise in rebounding from a 14-0 deficit just seven minutes into the landmark game at Azteca Stadium.
Once he settled into a rhythm, and discovered the outmanned and injury-ravaged San Francisco secondary was pretty easy pickings, McCown went to work, connecting time and again with wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, both of whom went over 100 yards, with each scoring a touchdown. In all, McCown did a passable job distributing the ball, with completions to eight different receivers. And although the Arizona running game again left a lot to be desired, McCown kept the offense moving, and mixed his plays pretty well.
None of this is meant to suggest that McCown, a former Sam Houston State star and a third-round choice in the 2002 draft, is a special player. He isn't. At least not yet. But for a franchise that might want to, or will perhaps be forced to make a quarterback change at the end of this season (pay attention here, New York Jets officials, because we're talking to you, among others), he might be an intriguing guy. McCown has good size (6-feet-4 and 217 pounds), a more-than-adequate arm, and just a hint of emerging presence.
As has been noted here in the past, it isn't easy to find a young quarterback with viable starting potential in the unrestricted free agent market, because teams tend to not allow them to get there. Early in the spring, we suggested that David Garrard of Jacksonville might be such a guy next spring, but then the Jaguars signed him to a four-year extension. The Cardinals signed McCown to just a one-year qualifying offer this spring as a restricted free agent, so unfettered freedom is only a little more than five months away. And, if he can string together a few more games like Sunday night's, before Warner returns, then a decent contract, and maybe a legitimate chance for McCown to start elsewhere, is in the offing as well. There will be several teams looking for quarterbacks and, as usual, not nearly enough of them to go around.
At 0-2, we said that the San Diego Chargers were still the most legitimate contender of the winless franchises in mid-September and, after two dominating victories in a row, it looks like that was the case. Nothing against the Giants, but it's one thing to take apart a young New York team, as the Chargers did last Sunday night. But a dismantling of the two-time defending Super Bowl champions, like San Diego accomplished with Sunday afternoon's 41-17 romp at Gillette Stadium, well, that's an eye-opener.
Not surprisingly, the most obvious common denominator was tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, who rushed for 134 yards and two touchdowns, and added 34 yards on three receptions. San Diego is getting back to what it does best offensively: get enough touches for Tomlinson, make sure tight end Antonio Gates is in the game plan and throw to the venerable wideout Keenan McCardell once in a while.
Funny thing about McCardell but, even in his biggest seasons, he was never much of a touchdown-maker. Entering this season, his career rate was one touchdown every 14.2 receptions. Last year with the Chargers, McCardell scored only one time on 31 catches, and he has never had more than eight touchdown grabs in a season. But he scored on his lone reception Sunday, an 11-yarder, and now, at age 35, the wily McCardell has five touchdowns on just 18 catches this season.
The San Diego offense, now that the coaches have decided to make Tomlinson the centerpiece again, is just getting warmed up. The Chargers have rung up 86 points in two weeks and the Pittsburgh Steelers, who travel to San Diego next Monday night, will clearly have their hands full trying to slow the runaway attack.
As for the losers at Gillette Stadium on Sunday afternoon, well, we're not ready to conclude yet that the coaching genius of Bill Belichick might not be sufficient to compensate for all the adversity New England is now facing, but we might be close to penning the concession speech. Even the most well-stocked hardware store runs out of duct tape and baling wire every so often, and that might be the case for the heretofore resourceful Patriots. It's asking a lot to cut and paste the way Belichick and his staff did last season. Having to do it two years in a row simply might be too much. Certainly the schedule doesn't get any easier for the limping Pats, who now face consecutive road contests at Atlanta and Denver, two very difficult sites at which to come away with victories.
By the way, the 41 points hung on the Patriots by the Chargers is the most permitted by New England since Atlanta scored 41 in a Nov. 8, 1998 game.
The absence of a running game, or the disinclination to call more running plays on the part of coach Andy Reid, is going to catch up to the Philadelphia Eagles at some point. But for now, at least as long as quarterback Donovan McNabb is in one piece and still perpendicular, you've got to admire the mental toughness of this Eagles team. And, of course, the physical grittiness and courage of McNabb, a guy whose injuries alone could send national health-care costs skyrocketing.
The comeback of the Eagles on Sunday was enough to make Philadelphia fans weep for joy. And enough to make one longtime Philly resident, Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil, cry as well. But for other reasons. The Eagles -- in particular McNabb, wide receiver Terrell Owens (11 catches for 171 yards and one touchdown) and tight end L.J. Smith (nine receptions, 67 yards, one score) -- shredded a Kansas City defense that had been stout for two games and then started coming undone in last week's rout at Denver. A 31-0 run in the NFL is virtually unheard of, especially after one team had so dominated for a half, as the Chiefs had done.
No doubt about it, the big turnaround for the Eagles was ignited by cornerback Sheldon Brown, one of our favorite all-around corners in the league and a guy approaching Ronde Barber status in that area, who returned an interception 40 yards for a touchdown.
But it was McNabb, completing 33 of 48 for 369 yards, who took control and started throwing gasoline on a Kansas City defense that quickly became a tinderbox. At one stretch, the Eagles scored on six of seven possessions, the run stopped only temporarily by McNabb's lone interception of the day. We admit it: Just a couple years ago, we were among the McNabb critics, one of those who felt he was too inaccurate with the easy passes (like swings and check-downs) to ever be effective operating from the pocket. Now, because of his maturity, and the fear of leaving body parts in his wake if he tries to scramble and is hit, McNabb is one of the best passers in the league. Philadelphia has such a talented bunch, people often forget how tough a team the Eagles are, too. Sunday was a pretty graphic reminder of what a proud bunch Andy Reid has playing for him.
Is there a more disruptive interior defensive lineman in the NFL right now than Atlanta under tackle Rod Coleman? The seventh-year veteran, who got flat-out robbed in the travesty of a Pro Bowl vote last year, had two sacks in the Falcons' rout of Minnesota at the Georgia Dome on Sunday afternoon. And his inside pressure forced at least two more of the Falcons' seven other sacks of Minnesota quarterback Daunte Culpepper, who was looking for a foxhole in which to bury himself. Coleman now has five sacks for 2005. And he's got 16½ sacks in the 17 games he has played for the Falcons, since he signed as an unrestricted free agent in March of 2004.
There are probably some quicker tackles than Coleman. Certainly there are a bunch of tackles with better-looking bodies. But the Atlanta star, clearly one of the league's most intriguing provocateurs, just has a knack for making himself slippery, for sliding off blocks, collapsing the pocket from the inside, and closing on a quarterback with a deceptive burst. Not many people talk about Coleman as one of the game's premier inside players, but he is, and he is also one of the best free agent signings over the last two or three years.
The Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli, combined to complete 39 of 62 passes on Sunday for 560 yards, with eight touchdown passes, no interceptions and a cumulative efficiency rating of 131.6. ... The Indianapolis offensive line has yet to surrender a sack this season. The NFL record for fewest sacks allowed is seven by the Miami Dolphins in 1988. ... With his 96-yard runback on Sunday, Kansas City return specialist Dante Hall tied a league mark for career kickoff return touchdowns, with six. ... With the success of the Sunday night game in Mexico City, look for the NFL to soon play a regular-season game in London. And because of his ownership of the Manchester United soccer club, Bucs owner Malcolm Glazer might want Tampa Bay to be one of the participants. ... The Redskins are 3-0 for the first time since 1991. ... Against wide receivers with the surname Moss, as in Santana of Washington and Randy of Oakland, the Dallas Cowboys secondary has surrendered nine catches for 282 yards and two touchdowns this season. Five of the receptions were for 20 yards or more and three for 35 yards or more. The only saving grace Sunday was that the Cowboys kept Randy Moss out of the end one, even though he registered 123 receiving yards. ... The Buffalo offense has scored just two touchdowns in the last 14 quarters. ... The city of San Antonio has done a terrific job hosting the New Orleans Saints, but the less-than-capacity crowd at the Alamodome on Sunday afternoon (58,688) was a disappointment, even to some city leaders. ... The Jets gave up a first-round pick this year to land tight end Doug Jolley from Oakland in a trade. Jolley has just four catches for 33 yards. The tight end who beat him out for the starting spot, Chris Baker, has 14 receptions for 201 yards. ... Tennessee first-year offensive coordinator Norm Chow said before the season he wanted to involve the tight ends more in the passing game. In Sunday's loss, three Titans tight ends combined for 18 catches, with Erron Kinney and Bo Scaife getting seven each. ... Colts safety Bob Sanders, a real hitting machine, had 10 tackles Sunday and also his first career interception. ... Eagles defensive end Jevon Kearse chalked up his first sack of the season. ... Dallas had just one catch by a wide receiver in the first three quarters of its loss at Oakland. ... Dallas rookie linebacker DeMarcus Ware got a sack but was flagged three times for offsides penalties. ... Texans quarterback David Carr, who set a league record when sacked 76 times in 2002, is now on pace to go down 106 times this season. Carr has been sacked 20 times in three games. ... Arizona kicker Neil Rackers hit six field goals in the thin air of Mexico City on Sunday night, and has now nailed all 16 attempts this season. Rackers was a steal for the Cardinals, who got him after Cincinnati cut him in 2003. Rackers has converted 47 of 57 field goal tries since moving to the Cardinals, a success rate of .825. But the Bengals did pretty good, too, in replacing Rackers with Shayne Graham, who has hit 87.9 percent of his attempts. ... Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson now has 67 touchdowns in 67 games. ... Tampa Bay is 3-0 against NFC North teams, having dispatched of Green Bay, Minnesota and Detroit. The league should just award the crown to the Bucs, who used to play in the division before realignment. The four teams in the division, by the way, have totaled three victories. ... Despite assurances he would see more balls coming his way in the new offense, Houston wide receiver Andre Johnson had just three receptions Sunday, and now has just 10 for the season.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.