Joey Harrington and the Worst Job in Professional Sports

The supply of jobs in professional sports falls far short of the demand.  From players to coaches, more people want to land jobs in sports than slots exist.  Given this scarcity, some would take any job that was offered. In other words, any job would be considered a “good” job.

Despite this perspective, some jobs are better than others.  Although we tend to focus on the “best”, today I want to talk about the worst job in professional jobs.  And this job is all about Joey Harrington.

The Lions Before Harrington

Let me begin by noting that I am a fan of Harrington.  In 2002 the Lions selected Joey Heisman with the third pick in the NFL draft. Lions fans (and I am a Lions fan) were fairly pleased with this pick.  To understand this reaction you have to understand the history of quarterbacks in Detroit.

As a child I had a football stamped with Greg Landry’s autograph (at least I think it was a stamp, a got it from a neighbor so who knows if it was real. I do know it was more than slightly deflated and not fun to play with).  Landry was the last Lions quarterback to go to the Pro Bowl, and that happened in 1972. 

Landry lasted in Detroit until 1978.  After Landry departed there were ten quarterbacks who attempted enough passes in a season to qualify for the NFL’s quarterback rating leaders.  And when we review the list we see why Harrington was greeted with such optimism. 

Gary Danielson

Jeff Komlo

Eric Hipple

Chuck Long

Rusty Hilger

Bob Gagliano

Rodney Peete

Erik Kramer

Scott Mitchell

Charlie Batch

How bad were these quarterbacks? Here is the list of quarterbacks who posted an above average QB Score per play (where average is 1.85).

Gary Danielson, 1980 (2.48)

Eric Hipple, 1981 (2.38)

Gary Danielson, 1984 (2.10)

Rodney Peete, 1990 (2.58)

Scott Mitchell, 1995 (2.97)

Charlie Batch, 1998 (2.11)

Yes, since 1984 only three signal callers for the Lions has had an above average season.  So it’s easy to see why people were excited about Harrington.

The Harrington Era in Detroit

Unfortunately, when we see what Harrington did in Detroit, it’s clear the potential was never realized

QB Score per play 2002: 0.86

QB Score per play 2003: 0.80

QB Score per play 2004: 1.50

QB Score per play 2005: 0.93

Even by the dismal standard set by quarterbacks in Detroit, Harrington didn’t look good.  Despite these performances, though, it’s hard to get Harrington to the bench.

Taking Joey’s Job

The first to try was Steve Mariucci.  Mariucci inherited Harrington when he took the job in 2003. But after two below average seasons, Mariucci brought in Jeff Garcia in 2005. Although Garcia was old and coming off a bad season with the Browns, it was clear that Harrington’s days were numbered.  Garcia had played for Mariucci in San Francisco and had performed well enough to go to the Pro Bowl (something quarterbacks do not do in Detroit).  Certainly it was expected that Garcia was going to take Joey’s job.

But this intention was clearly a mistake.  Garcia had historically been a fairly healthy quarterback.  Mariucci had historically been thought of as a good coach.  In 2005, though, both trends changed. Garcia couldn’t stay healthy enough to take Joey’s job. When the season ended, Harrington had still appeared in 12 games (and still played poorly).  Meanwhile Garcia only appeared in six games while Mariucci, who was fired after a particularly poor performance by the Lions on Thanksgiving Day, only coached eleven games.  Yes, Harrington saw more action in 2005 than either the quarterback trying to take his job and the coach who trying in vain to send him to the bench.

In 2006 Harrington was sent to Miami and it looked like the days of Harrington starting had ended.  Harrington began the 2006 season with the number two position on Miami’s depth chart.  Daunte Culpepper had been to the Pro Bowl as a quarterback in Minnesota and he was clearly the starter in Miami.  But Culpepper could never fully recover from injury, and by the time the season ended Harrington had appeared in 11 games. And again Harrington played poorly (QB Score per play in 2006 was 0.94).  Still, he ended playing more games at starting quarterback than any other Miami signal caller.

Nevertheless, before the season was over Harrington had lost the starting job to Cleo Lemon.  So once again a team soured on Joey Heisman.  And once again a team acquired him to be the back-up.  The team in 2007 was the Atlanta Falcons. 

Atlanta had Michael Vick firmly in place at quarterback and there was no expectation that Harrington would ever start for the Falcons.  Surprisingly, though, Vick was arrested.  Suddenly Harrington was again the starter.

The 2007 version of Harrington is the best we have ever seen.  His QB Score per play of 1.84 is amazingly close to average.  Yes, Harrington has become average. But that is still not good enough so the Falcons signed and decided to start Byron Leftwich.  This seemed like a good decision since Leftwich had been an above average quarterback much of his career. 

Leftwich played poorly off the bench in Week Five.  But this past week Leftwich was again an above average performer.  And it certainly looked like a replacement for Harrington had been found.  In the third quarter of the game, though, Leftwich suffered a high ankle sprain.  And now it looks like Leftwich is going to miss a few weeks.  This means that once again, Harrington is the starter.

Okay, let’s review the pattern.  Harrington’s play consistently inspired his coach to send him to the bench.  But something always happens – injuries or an arrest – that puts Harrington on the field.  So we now see what the worst job in football must be.  The worst job is to be a quarterback competing with Harrington for a job. Garcia, Culpepper, Vick, and Leftwich have all been above average quarterbacks in their career.  All have faced NFL defenses and found success. But none of these quarterbacks can beat Harrington.  Although they try, something bad always happens to these quarterbacks who try and take Harrington’s job. 

And by the way, the story is the same for the coaches who have tried to bench Harrington.  Mariucci and Nick Saban are now out of the NFL. Bobby Petrino, Atlanta’ coach, doesn’t look to be someone with a long future. 

It has been rumored that Petrino has talked to Chris Redman, the Falcons other quarterback, about starting for Atlanta after their bye week.  Redman, though, has seen the pattern.  Right now he is healthy and out of jail.  So we can expect Redman to do nothing but sing the praises of Joey Heisman. 

Sure Harrington doesn’t play well.  And sure, it looks like the team would be better off sending him to the bench.  But the data is quite clear on this point.  Very bad things happen to people who try and take Joey’s job.

– DJ 

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