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NATIONAL CONFERENCE

Right place, right time

With Vick out of the picture, Atlanta offers Harrington a chance to resurrect his career

September 01, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Hardly anyone thinks Joey Harrington can hack it as a starting NFL quarterback.

Hardly anyone thinks he can salvage the Atlanta Falcons from the wreckage of losing their star, Michael Vick, to indefinite suspension.

Harrington couldn't care less what people think.

"So what?" he said. "So what?"

If common wisdom holds that he should be feeling the heat, desperate to resurrect his career in the most desperate of situations, Harrington doesn't worry about that either.

"This is the happiest I've been," he said. "The most confident I've been."

After five tough seasons in the league -- a first-round draft pick who never panned out in Detroit and couldn't win enough games in Miami -- Harrington seems convinced that he has landed in precisely the right spot, at precisely the right time.

"It was just a matter of finding a place where I fit," he said.

At the very least, his emergence as the unlikely leader of the troubled Falcons ranks among the more intriguing story lines of the 2007 season.

Maybe it's a no-lose situation, Atlanta expected to fall apart now that Vick has pleaded guilty to a federal dogfighting conspiracy charge. Or maybe Harrington risks becoming the scapegoat.

He has traveled this treacherous path before. His new coach, Bobby Petrino, who took over the Falcons in the off-season, knows what Harrington went through joining the Detroit Lions in 2002 after being a Heisman Trophy finalist.

"Any time you throw a young man in there as a rookie and not on a great team, they are going to struggle a little bit," Petrino said. "When they get hit, it's hard to keep your eyes downfield and I think that is hard on a guy when you are young."

Long gone are the days when Harrington qualified as a local legend at Oregon, leading the Ducks to a 25-3 record over three seasons, including three bowl-game victories and no fewer than 11 fourth-quarter rallies.

The guy they called "Captain Comeback" was a media darling, not only a talented player but also a business major and a jazz pianist. A predictable degree of hype greeted his arrival in Detroit.

Harrington says now he believes he tried too hard to please. Coaches. Fans. Everyone.

"I became a different person," he said. And, more important, "I became a different quarterback."

While Harrington points to a change in his approach to football, maybe some discomfort with the Detroit offense, critics saw too many bad decisions. In four seasons, Harrington threw 60 touchdown passes and had 62 interceptions. His completion rate never ventured above 57%.

Suddenly, the perception of his piano playing shifted from endearing quirk to a sign of weakness. Fans booed him -- at practice. There were death threats and, after an interception at a home game, someone in the stands tried to pick a fight with his mother and his girlfriend.

Unfamiliar with adversity -- "I lost three games in college," he said -- Harrington began to doubt himself.

He says that he reached a turning point in 2005, deciding to ignore critics and harken back to the cocky kid who led Oregon to so many wins. The kid who threw fearlessly into tight spots and expected to win close games.

This attitude adjustment did not show up on the field, where he suffered through another up-and-down season. Nor did it seem to make a difference in 2006 when he signed as a backup for the Miami Dolphins, then started 11 games after Daunte Culpepper suffered a knee injury.

So why should things be any different now?

When Harrington visited the Falcons as a free agent last spring, team owner Arthur Blank, who was out of town, called him and they talked for half an hour. Harrington mentioned that he didn't know much about Atlanta -- and soon after, he and his wife received a collection of books about the city.

"It was such a simple gesture but a classy gesture," Harrington recalls. "It showed me that he cares about more than just football."

There is also the team's new offense, which requires split-second adjustments at the line. Some have suggested this system better suits a classic drop-back quarterback such as Harrington than it would Vick, who made his biggest gains on broken plays.

"He does a good job in his post- and pre-snap reads, being able to see how the safeties and linebackers move after the ball," Petrino said. "I think he is really going to be able to execute our offense."

From Harrington's point of view, all of this adds to a comfort level that will make him a better, more assured player. He views this season as an opportunity to show that he has learned to handle adversity.

And there's one more thing.

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