If you are Detroit Lions team president Matt Millen and coach Steve Mariucci, you had to be heartened by the standout performance of quarterback Joey Harrington in Sunday's victory over the Arizona Cardinals, right?
But Harrington's numbers (22 of 32 for 231 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions) were probably every bit as perplexing as they were pleasing to the Detroit brass. Likely just as maddening as they were meaty. They essentially reflected what a tease the four-year veteran can be at times, and augured how difficult it could become after this season to make a call on his future, a critical decision that involves big investments of time, money, tutelage and ego.
And they raised these questions: Why can't Harrington, the third player selected overall in the 2002 draft, post such statistics every week? Or at least with more regularity?
It doesn't happen nearly often enough with Harrington, but there are occasions, such as Sunday's 29-21 victory that kept Detroit within sniffing distance of Chicago in the NFC North, when potential is actually transformed into production. We saw a similar outing by Harrington in person on Oct. 24, 2004, when he completed 18 of 22 passes for 230 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a career-best efficiency rating of 140.5 in a road victory over the New York Giants. Watching the Lions game Sunday from the comfort of the family room, a personal commitment having kept us off the road, we flashed back to that impressive outing at Giants Stadium in 2004.
In that 2004 game, as was the case Sunday afternoon, Harrington played within himself. He took advantage of the talent around him, didn't force the ball, played efficiently and with notable poise, and most important, he played smart. That's a tough combination to beat. Of course, it's also a combination that Harrington doesn't often pull together. The Sunday contest, after all, was just the fifth time in his career Harrington has registered a passer rating of 100.0 or better. The laudable 120.7 mark against the Cardinals Sunday afternoon was his best since that day in Giants Stadium, 17 starts ago.
So what if Sunday's performance, solid if not quite spectacular, workmanlike but not exactly a wow kind of game, was a springboard for Harrington, and not just the latest belly-flop off the 10-meter platform? Yeah, we agree, the odds aren't good. In the long run, Harrington figures to be just another ordinary Joe(y) and not the reincarnation of Joe Montana. That's sure what the empirical evidence suggests.
Never has Harrington posted consecutive quarterback efficiency ratings of 100. In the four other games in which Harrington registered a rating of 100 or better, his best follow-up was a 92.7 mark, and that was in a loss at Dallas, the week after last year's strong performance against the Giants. His cumulative quarterback rating in the contests following marks of 100 or better is 67.9. So there's not much reason to believe that in next week's game, ironically at Texas Stadium again, Harrington will do much better than his personal history indicates.
Track records typically don't lie and the book on Harrington is that he generally comes undone after such positive performances. In the NFL, it takes a body of work to succeed, and Harrington is more a collection of body parts. Yet the Sunday victory offered yet another hint that maybe, just maybe, Harrington is salvageable. His receivers, especially the heretofore disappointing Roy Williams (seven catches, 117 yards, three scores), made some plays. The offense finally got something out of tailback Kevin Jones (14 carries for 81 yards). Harrington didn't turn the ball over and he was sacked just once.
Were he to maintain such a standard over the second half of the season, Harrington could turn the decision on his future into The Detroit Dilemma. The Lions, by year's end, will have nearly $20 million invested in him. Backup Jeff Garcia, working on just a one-year contract, couldn't keep the starting job because he couldn't stay healthy. The first rule of any franchise-altering quarterback decision is this: Don't get rid of the guy you've got until you're certain you can get someone better. Right now, the Lions are neither assured that Harrington will keep playing like he did on Sunday, nor certain to come up with a viable alternative for 2006.
That's not advocating that Lions management keeps Harrington, only that the decision needn't be hasty, and that there are still two months on the '05 schedule with which to evaluate whether he progresses or just stagnates. Such determinations are never facile, because of the ramifications and the symbolism. To kick Harrington to the curb would be an admission of failure, an investment squandered, a signal to the ticket-buying constituents that it is time to start over again, something no franchise ever wants to do.
It's probably little consolation to the Lions that they are hardly the only team facing such a monumental decision on the quarterback spot after his season. That's why evaluating whether Sunday's performance was just another fluke or was a foundation upon which Harrington will build, figures in some ways to be torturous. You never want to give up too soon on a first-rounder, especially a quarterback, and one who might come back to haunt you. On the flip side, a franchise should never permit a player excess opportunities to cement his legacy as a failure, simply because of his draft status.
Going for two
As is generally the case, observers can debate the manner and sagacity in which NFL coaches used the two-point conversion over the weekend. But no one can argue that the two-pointer was utilized about as much as it's ever been, nine times in all. Through the first nine weeks of the season, there were just 28 two-point attempts, and 11 conversions, a success rate of 39.3 percent. On Sunday, though, teams converted 7 of 9 two-point tries, a 77.8 success rate.
The two failures: A pass attempt from New England quarterback Tom Brady for wideout Troy Brown and one by his Miami counterpart, Gus Frerotte, for tailback Ronnie Brown.
The two-point successes: Falcons quarterback Michael Vick to wide receiver Brian Finneran; Washington quarterback Mark Brunell to tailback Clinton Portis; Denver quarterback Jake Plummer to tight end Jeb Putzier; and runs by Heath Evans (Patriots), Obafemi Ayanbadejo (Arizona), Tiki Barber (New York Giants) and, oh yeah, Mike Alstott (Tampa Bay).
The amazing effort by Alstott, of course, was one of the biggest stories of the day, with Bucs coach Jon Gruden opting to go for the win rather than to send the game into overtime. It was do-or-die, much like the goal-line call by Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil a week ago, in which he sent tailback Larry Johnson into the line rather than have Lawrence Tynes boot a chip-shot field goal that would have sent the game against the Oakland Raiders to an extra stanza.
Gruden has come under fire of late, but he demonstrated some fieriness, and the chutzpah of a high-stakes riverboat gambler, too, with the call. It might just be the lift the sputtering Bucs needed, too, to revive themselves in the hotly contested NFC South race. Having lost two games in a row, and headed to the Georgia Dome for a matchup with the Atlanta Falcons Sunday, Tampa Bay needed to find a way to stay in the chase. And the Bucs found it when the Washington Redskins, who had blocked the potential game-tying extra point, were flagged for offsides. Three feet closer to the goal line, Gruden gambled that Alstott would wedge the ball in, and he did -- albeit it just barely.
The play raised Tampa Bay's record to 6-3, tied with the Falcons for second place in the division, and one game behind surging Carolina (7-2). The Bucs' defense, under the stewardship of coordinator Monte Kiffin, has always been difficult for Vick to navigate, because it is the rare unit with enough athletes to run with the Falcons' star. For the Bucs to hang with the Falcons, though, Gruden is going to have to get his own young star, tailback Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, back on the run. Williams carried 10 times for just 20 yards Sunday, and in his last four appearances has 45 rushes for 82 yards, an anemic average of 1.8 yards per carry. Twenty-three of the 45 rushes have been for 1 yard or less, with 10 of them for negative yardage. Williams, of course, rushed for over 100 yards in each of his first three games, averaging 144.7 yards per contest in that span. He's averaged 20.5 yards per game since then. Gruden needs to start getting six points from Williams, not two points on conversions, to stay in the playoff hunt.
As for the spate of successful two-pointers Sunday, it raised the success rate through 10 weeks to an impressive 48.6 percent. Since the two-point option became a part of the NFL in 1994, teams have converted 44.1 percent of the tries, through Sunday's games. The best season was in '94, when teams converted 50.9 percent of their two-pointers.
Big day for Peterson brothers
When it comes to brother combos, the Peterson siblings, middle linebacker Mike of the Jacksonville Jaguars and tailback Adrian of the Chicago Bears, get very little attention. But a deserving nod to the Santa Fe, Fla., tandem for their Sunday performances.
Mike Peterson collected 11 tackles, one sack, an interception that he returned 26 yards for a touchdown, and two passes defensed as the Jags routed the Baltimore Ravens 30-3, and the seven-year veteran very quietly is enjoying a Pro Bowl caliber season. Jacksonville has been more generous than usual versus the run this year, but Peterson, who skeptics contended was too small to play the middle linebacker spot when the Jaguars signed him away from Indianapolis as a free agent in 2003, has been consistently stout. The former University of Florida standout has 75 tackles, three sacks, three interceptions, three pass deflections, two forced fumbles and one recovery in nine games. The guy definitely deserves some notice.
Little brother Adrian, pressed into action when Thomas Jones was inactive for the game and rookie first-rounder Cedric Benson exited early with a sprained knee, rushed 24 times for 120 yards and a touchdown as the Bears won for a fifth straight week, their best streak since '01. One of the NFL's premier special teams players, Adrian Peterson had never rushed for 120 yards in a season, let alone in one outing. The 120 yards he gained Sunday against San Francisco represent 30.4 percent of his NFL career total.
The younger Peterson is a terrific story, a sixth-round pick from a small school (Georgia Southern) who won the Walter Payton Award as the best player at the Division I-AA level as a sophomore, and who has successfully dealt with what was once a socially debilitating stuttering problem. In the 38 mph winds that roared in off Lake Michigan and buffeted Soldier Field Sunday afternoon, Adrian Peterson was by far the most effective offensive player on either team.
In much warmer climes, as the Jaguars continued to vie for a playoff spot, Mike Peterson continued to arguably be Jacksonville's most consistent front-seven defender in 2005. It will be difficult with all the standout middle linebackers in the AFC this season -- Al Wilson (Denver), Zach Thomas (Miami), Jonathan Vilma (New York Jets) and Gary Brackett (Indianapolis), among others -- for Peterson to get a trip to Honolulu, but he merits strong consideration. Adrian Peterson won't make it as a tailback, certainly, but his special teams efforts could land him a slot on the NFC all-star squad.
Panthers defense prowling
The Carolina front four has played lights-out during the team's current six-game winning streak, especially over the past four games, in which the unit has really turned up the heat and contributed to the 19 sacks the Panthers have in that stretch. The Panthers have surrendered just 50 points and an average of only 236.5 yards in the last four games, and no opponent has managed more than 270 yards in that period.
But while the front four is getting lots of credit, and justifiably so, the cornerback tandem of Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble has been nothing shy of superb. In Sunday's victory over the hapless New York Jets, the cornerbacks combined for nine tackles, three interceptions (two by Lucas), three other passes defensed and a fumble recovery.
"[They are] right there with the best pairs in the league," Jets wide receiver Laveranues Coles said after the game. "They get right up on you, bump you, then run with you. Neither of them gives you any kind of room in which to operate. Yeah, they're tough."
When the Panthers used a first-round pick in 2004 to snatch Gamble, a lot of naysayers scoffed, because the former Ohio State star had begun his college career as a wide receiver and was still generally viewed as very raw on the defensive side. But Gamble started all 16 games as a rookie and had six interceptions in his maiden campaign. General manager Marty Hurney was criticized in some quarters this spring, too, when he spent big money to sign Lucas away from the Seahawks as an unrestricted free agent. Lucas was seen by some NFL pro scouts as too soft, but very few evaluators are saying that now.
"We knew that, since we play so much cover two, we had to have corners who would come up and support against the run," coach John Fox said. "That's a priority for us, and those two do it, don't they?"
For sure, both Lucas and Gamble, along with safeties Mike Minter and Marlon McCree, provide aggressiveness in the secondary. And their abilities versus the run will come in handy in division play, particularly in the two matchups (Dec. 4 and the season finale on New Year's Day) remaining against the Atlanta Falcons, the team's leading rushing offense. What the Panthers must do in those two games, though, is to corral Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick, a feat with which they have struggled.
Soaring in Seattle
Because no one east of the Mississippi River ever sees them on television, the Seattle Seahawks continue to fly below the radar screen and outside of public consciousness. But the Seahawks very quietly are tied with Carolina for the best record in the NFC, and are one of just a half-dozen franchises in the league with at least seven victories.
Sunday's victory over St. Louis, a nemesis for Seattle the last few years, wasn't very artistic. In fact, usually steady quarterback Matt Hasselbeck had more interceptions (two) than touchdown passes (one) for only the second time this season.
It didn't much matter, though, as the Seahawks continued to use tailback Shaun Alexander (33 carries for 165 yards and three touchdowns) as a battering ram, and played well on defense again. The Seahawks can definitely control tempo with Alexander, a candidate for most valuable player honors, and are starting to get back some other playmakers, like wide receiver Bobby Engram, from injuries.
They have one of the best offensive line units in the NFL and are getting solid play defensively from young players such as rookie middle 'backer Lofa Tatupu, a second-round choice who has silenced those (like yours truly) who felt that new team president Tim Ruskell reached a bit for him in the second round. That's why Ruskell is one of the NFL's top talent scouts and we're hacking away on a laptop keyboard.
Seattle has underachieved for a few seasons, and the denizens of the Pacific Northwest were beginning to lose patience with coach Mike Holmgren, but this could be the season when Seattle makes some noise in the playoffs. Especially with no team in the NFC having clearly separated itself from the pack.
The Vikings upset the Giants despite accumulating just 137 total yards of offense and only 12 rushing yards. Minnesota had 394 yards, nearly three times its offensive output, on interception, kickoff and punt returns. Until their final, game-winning drive of 42 yards over eight plays, which culminated in Paul Edinger's 48-yard field goal, the Vikings had one possession on which they managed more than five snaps and one on which they gained more than 14 yards. Their 14 offensive series included eight punts, two missed field goals, a lost fumble and losing the ball on downs. Jets cornerback Ty Law, who played Steve Smith heads-up quite a bit on Sunday, limited the Carolina star wide receiver to three catches for 34 yards. Law also had an interception, his fifth of the season. The New England defensive backs, as a group, have two interceptions, one each by Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs. Seattle's five-game winning streak is its first since 1999. Samkon Gado, who scored three times for Green Bay on Sunday, his 23rd birthday, is the fifth different starting tailback the Packers have used this year. No other team has registered carries by five different tailbacks. The other four players who started at tailback for the Packers: Ahman Green, Najeh Davenport, Tony Fisher and ReShard Lee. Unemployed just a month ago, Gado started only two games in college. Since playing in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002, the Oakland Raiders are just 2-14 against their AFC West rivals. Tampa Bay wide receiver Joey Galloway, who had seven catches for 131 yards and a touchdown Sunday, continues to defy age. At 34 years old, he hasn't lost any of his top-end speed and seems to make big plays every week for the Bucs. Jacksonville first-round wide receiver Matt Jones had three catches of over 30 yards Sunday and scored for the third time in four games. The New England secondary had 12 passes defensed Sunday, and four players each had at least a pair of knockdowns. Rookie cornerback Ellis Hobbs had four passes defensed. In the gusty winds of Soldier Field, San Francisco quarterback Cody Pickett completed just one pass in 13 attempts, and registered a microscopic passer rating of 7.5. The 49ers lost standout safety Tony Parrish for the year to a broken left leg. The injury will end his streak of 121 consecutive starts.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.