Confident Harrington ready if needed

ATLANTA -- For a second straight season, Joey Harrington, suddenly a human insurance policy for NFL franchises in need of security at the game's most critical position, could be expected to pay big dividends.

Signed by Atlanta in the spring to serve as backup to Michael Vick after the Falcons traded promising and popular three-year veteran Matt Schaub to Houston for draft picks, Harrington soon might be a starter again. Last year, after signing with Miami as backup to Daunte Culpepper, he ended up starting 11 games.

Vick faces two federal indictments on alleged illegal dogfighting activities, and his playing status for 2007 is hardly resolved.

Given the high-profile nature of the Vick case, a soap opera that has played out over the past three months, Harrington could not be oblivious to the ramifications. Or to the fact that Vick's woes might elevate Harrington to starter and back into a spotlight that has burned him in the past.

Indeed, Harrington, the onetime presumptive savior of the Detroit Lions franchise, could be asked to salvage a potentially dire situation.

"I would be lying to say I don't think about it," Harrington recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "As a backup quarterback I have to be ready. As a backup quarterback, you have to be ready at all times. It would be naive of me to say I'm completely oblivious to what's going on, but it doesn't change the way I would prepare for things. Whether these things were happening off the field or not, I still need to be prepared to play at any moment."

That any moment might come even sooner than Harrington, or anyone in the Atlanta organization for that matter, anticipated when he signed a two-year, $6 million contract this spring after the Dolphins released him.

Vick will not be on hand when the Falcons conduct their initial training camp practice under first-year coach Bobby Petrino on Thursday afternoon. The face of the franchise is scheduled to be in a Richmond, Va., courtroom for a pair of hearings regarding the indictments brought against him this week. So, for one day at least, Harrington will be No. 1 on the depth chart.

And, if Vick is suspended, or takes a paid leave of absence, as some feel he might be asked to do, Harrington could be starter for the entire season.

This time around, he noted earlier this summer, he will be better prepared.

"There's that old saying about 'once burned, twice shy,' right, but I'm not sure it quite applies," Harrington said. "I've been burned a little bit, and burned myself a few times, too, but it hasn't made me shy about wanting to get back into the fire again. That said, I think I've learned a lot about handling things in general, certainly about handling adversity. If they want me to get back up on the horse again, OK, let's go. You can't let it make you crazy."

Which isn't to say that the former Oregon star, chosen by the Lions as the third overall pick in the 2002 draft, hasn't collected a few mental scars during his first five NFL seasons.

In fact, as part of reclaiming the confidence with which he entered the league, but which had been dented by some difficult circumstances, Harrington, 28, has spent time in therapy with a sports psychologist. The treatment, Harrington acknowledged, was critical to his being able to approach the game with fervor again. Knocked down a few times over the past five seasons, both literally and figuratively, Harrington has bounced back, and the fires that once defined his quietly competitive nature are stoked again.

Certainly, given the money that he earned just from his signing bonus in Detroit alone, Harrington doesn't need football to pay the bills. And as a well-rounded individual -- he is an accomplished pianist -- Harrington has diverse interests away from the game that can stimulate him mentally. As a competitor, though, he isn't quite ready yet to put away the pursuit of athletic excellence.

There were few expectations at the outset of the 2006 season for Harrington, who was playing behind Culpepper, even though the Miami starter was coming off a catastrophic right knee injury. But when it became obvious a month into the campaign that Culpepper could not function, coach Nick Saban turned to Harrington in early October.

Harrington registered a 5-6 record as the starter, and his career mark is only 23-43. But he did win four straight games last season, briefly catapulting the Dolphins into playoff contention.

And while he was occasionally the target of disgruntled Dolphins fans, the pressure wasn't nearly as suffocating as it was during his four seasons in Detroit, where he was victimized by a poor organization and often characterized as the poster boy for the franchise's failures.

With the Falcons, who chose to sign Harrington after long deliberations about who would supplant Schaub as Vick's caddy, a new coaching staff has all but insisted that Harrington be himself. In fact, they have written it into the playbook.

Vick and Harrington will work, of course, from the same script implemented by Petrino and his staff this spring. But there are subtle changes, particularly in areas like pass protection, that vary in the playbook, depending on whether it's Vick or the less mobile Harrington in the game. So while critics charge that the Falcons haven't made sufficient contingencies to deal with the possible absence of Vick, in application, that is hardly the case.

The fact is, Atlanta coaches and players are far more comfortable with Harrington, and more confident in his abilities, than are the legion of fans who still debate whether the team should have traded the popular Schaub. Schaub had gained near-legendary status here by not playing, having started just two games in three seasons, both losses. Harrington, on the other hand, has played a lot, with 66 starts.

But as was the case in Detroit, and to a far lesser extent in Miami, Harrington will just have to convince the skeptics. In that regard, he has taken a giant step already, by convincing one of his biggest detractors, himself, that he still can play the game.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer with ESPN.com.