Fans of the Detroit Lions are learning to embrace quarterback Jared Goff, who fortunately has a solid offensive line to protect him and a cast of offensive weapons that includes Jamaal Williams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, D’Andre Swift, D.J. Chark, and Jameson Williams.
But one Lion quarterback who was never embraced by the fans, media, and many of his teammates was Joey Harrington, the team’s number one pick in 2002 who failed in large part to not having much of a supporting cast or a decent coach.
In his senior season, the 2001 first team All-American quarterback and Heisman Trophy finalist lead the number 2 ranked Oregon Ducks to their second consecutive PAC-10 championship and an 11-1 record with a victory over Colorado in the Fiesta Bowl.
Nicknamed “Captain Comeback” for winning numerous games in the 4th quarter, he finished his college career as a three-year starter with a 25-3 record. After being selected by the Lions as the third overall pick in round one of the 2002 NFL draft, he signed a six-year deal for $36.5 million.
In his first start, the inaugural game at Ford Field, the Lions lost to the Packers 37-31, though Harrington nearly pulled it out with an incomplete pass into the end zone.
Instability at coaching position hounded Lions
Saddled with two head coaches in his four seasons in Detroit (2002-2005), Harrington finished 18-37 as a starter. An accomplished jazz pianist, he was sometimes called “Joey Sunshine” for his optimistic attitude despite mounting losses.
In 2020 I conducted a telephone interview with Harrington about his tenure in Detroit and we first spoke about signing with the Lions and not the nicest welcoming to the Motor City. Here is what he told me:
“I wasn’t really surprised [to be picked by Detroit] because I knew I was going somewhere between the third and 15th pick. So I was absolutely thrilled even though it was a team that had finished 2-14 in 2001. I saw it has an opportunity to make a mark on an organization that had some potential even though they hadn’t won a championship in a long time. I was a young, naïve, optimistic, and confident player when I came to the Lions and thought, ‘why the hell can’t I help do this in Detroit.’
When I walked off the jet way in Detroit the day after the draft this stranger welcomed me and then said: “The two toughest jobs in Detroit are playing quarterback for the Lions and goalie for the Red Wings. He then slapped me on the back as he was walking away and said, “we haven’t had a quarterback since Bobby Layne, good luck.” I did not feel pressure but I recognized it. Did it ultimately result in a mindset that was counterproductive? Yes.”
Harrington was also frank about the difficulty of playing for the Lions.
“I don’t think Marty Mornhinweg [and] Steve Mariucci were necessarily thrilled with having me. I wasn’t their style of quarterback. Mike McMahon was more mobile and athletic than me and fit better in their Bill Walsh style West Coast offense. There was a lot of trying to put a square in a round hole and they weren’t willing to adjust to my strengths. When I wasn’t playing well two to three years into my career, I think teammates started getting pissed. It was like ‘they’re paying you a heckuva a lot of money to be playing better than you are,’ and that was the truth. There was also this culture of losing that I did not want to subscribe to and it created a bit of a rift. Looking back, I could have handled it in a different way. My continued insistence that we can get better if we keep working didn’t sit well with people. At a certain point I learned that people want you to acknowledge that things are not going well. I never felt in Detroit that I got to the point where I felt I had command of the offense, my own game, and the locker room.”
Exacted revenge in 2006 Thanksgiving Game
Harrington welcomed a trade to Miami for a 2007 fifth round pick and said that one of the highlights of his career occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 2006 when on national television he threw three touchdowns to lead the Dolphins to a win over the Lions, 27-10.
His motivation for revenge went up a notch just before the game started.
“Before the game the Lions showed this video montage on the scoreboard showing me getting sacked and throwing interceptions while Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” played in the background. I was standing next to my teammate Justin Peele who had played with me at Oregon and we just started laughing. Justin said, ‘well you really made an impression at this place.” When I got back to Miami Billy Joel sent me a note suggesting that maybe the Dolphins would want to play “Piano Man” when I was introduced. He also wrote, “P.S. Maybe the Lion should play my song, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” I am grateful that Detroit gave me the opportunity to be a starting quarterback in the league and they paid me well, but beating the Lions on Thanksgiving Day proved to me that I could dig myself out of a hole and play well as an NFL quarterback.”
The following year Harrington signed as a free agent with Atlanta before finishing his career in 2008 with New Orleans. He later worked as football commentator for Fox Sports Radio, Fox College Football on FX and Fox, and the Oregon Sports Network. Today Harrington and his wife Emily and their two sons Jack and Emmet live in Portland, Oregon where he runs the Harrington Family Foundation that he established in 2003 with his bonus money. Based upon demonstrated community leadership and financial need, the Foundation annually awards four Oregon high school seniors, four-year college scholarships while providing mentoring.