QB insists he's not looking over his shoulder

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Joey Harrington doesn't wear an "S" underneath his Lions No. 3 jersey. Superman, he isn't. "Stuff Happens" would be a more appropriately labeled T-shirt, given his tenure with the Lions.

Harrington is 14-30 as a starter. Frustrated Lions fans are rooting for his ouster. As he heads into his fourth season, the locker room is still his to win over. Teammates want him to be more of a vocal leader, yet he comes off the field after early training practices with a voice that whispers.

Even his supporters tend to baffle him. Veteran tight end Marcus Pollard, perhaps Harrington's most vocal booster, picked up a small, wadded piece of tape to distract him during an interview. The tape hit him directly in the left eye. Whoops. With Harrington, stuff just happens. Bad stuff.

Coaches tell their pupils to play with the cards they are dealt. Well, Harrington didn't draw a handful of aces with the Lions. They were coming off of three straight non-playoff seasons before he was drafted. He's been victimized by wide receivers constantly dropping balls. And until Kevin Jones turned it on at midseason last year, Harrington didn't have a running game.

Suddenly, though, things are supposed to change in Detroit. These are the new Lions. In addition to Jones, Harrington seemingly has a few more winning cards: wide receivers Roy Williams, Charles Rogers and Mike Williams. With such an impressive supporting cast on offense, Harrington is expected to win and win fast.

"It's tough," Roy Williams said. "I follow him, but it's tough to follow when you've won only three games, four games or five games. It's tough to follow somebody like that.

"We know what he can do. I wish the fans can understand because they boo him. It's not fair."

Jones opened camp with a brief, pointed speech. "Kevin said, 'Hey, this is our first day of training camp, and the old Lions are out of here,'" Pollard said. "No more of this losing. No more looking back."

But they still saw Harrington, a tall, talented, efficient quarterback who couldn't shake the losing ways of the Lions. Those are the cards dealt Harrington: win or else. And else comes in the name of Jeff Garcia.

"I don't feel any difference for me between this year and last year, other than the fact I'm tired of losing," Harrington said. "Honestly, I think people are making too much of this. By having more competition at quarterback this year, it has created a circus atmosphere. We need to win some football games. It has nothing to do with who starts and who is the backup."

To that end, Harrington has faced many obstacles in his efforts to produce more wins. He's gone through two head coaches and three coordinators in three years. His receiving corps in 2002, which featured Bill Schroeder, Az-Zahir Hakim, Germane Crowell and Larry Foster, was plagued by drops and injuries. In 2003, in came Rogers. Rogers broke his right collarbone in his fifth game and was done for the season. That left him with Schroeder, Hakim and Scotty Anderson as his main targets.

Last year was supposed to be a breakthrough year, but things broke down. Rogers broke a different part of his right collarbone in the preseason and missed the whole campaign. After a promising start, Roy Williams suffered a high right ankle sprain in Week 4 and wasn't the same player for the remainder of the season.

"I just declined to a point where I was below 50 percent," Roy Williams said. "If you watch the Tennessee film at the end of the season, you will see I'm not running anywhere close to where I was. I could only line up on the right side of the ball and I couldn't push off at all."

Stuff like that has been happening to Harrington for years. Jones was the running back he'd been looking for since he was drafted. However, Jones suffered an early-season ankle injury and only gained only 227 yards in his first eight games. With Rogers, Jones and Williams ailing, a 4-2 start was followed by a five-game losing streak. Jones got hot at the end of the season with 906 yards in eight games, but it didn't stop the losing.

"I think Joey is in a situation where he can only do two things -- come through or lose [his job]," Rogers said.

Now, there are no excuses. On paper, the Lions have among the most talented collection of skills players in football. Jones, Roy and Mike Williams, Rogers and Harrington are all first-round picks. The receivers are 6-foot-2 or taller. Jones will be among the popular picks to win the NFC rushing title.

"I think the sky is the limit," Roy Williams said. "We look good on paper and we look good out there on the field. We have to help Joey. That's our job. I don't care if you bring Brett Favre in here when he was young. When you drop balls, everybody is going to talk about you even if it's Brett Favre. We've got to gel. As long as we catch the football, then we will shut all of that up."

Therein rests the next problem for Harrington. The offense is almost too young. To ask these youngsters to mature in one season is a lot. Pollard understands. He comes from the Colts' offensive machine. Peyton Manning has been developing Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokley for years. He questions whether everything can come together in one season.

"Those guys in Indy have had the opportunity to go out there and experience championship games and the Patriots," Pollard said. "These guys are unproven. They have a lot of potential. They need to get out and play and get game experience. To do it in one season, I don't know. Optimistically, yes. Realistically, probably not. I think that would be big for an offense so young and so unproven."

Still, the Lions have so many weapons, Pollard wouldn't be surprised if the offense gels enough to score 25 points a game, a touchdown better than 2004. Should this group gain confidence, watch out.

To his credit, Harrington is working tirelessly to make things right. The Lions had their best offseason in the conditioning program. So many players stayed in Detroit to train though the winter there almost wasn't enough parking spaces for them when it snowed.

"In 32 games, I had Charles Rogers for five games," Harrington said. "Kevin Jones was hurt at the beginning of last season. If Kevin Jones can run the ball the way he did at the end of last year, we can make some noise. Charles is great running down the field. Roy is lean and fast and will catch anything you put up there. We've got to get Mike Williams into the mix."

It's Harrington's job to make things gel or step aside for Garcia. More is being asked of him as a leader.

"I've heard stories that Joey is not a leader and he's not vocal," Pollard said. "I'm really impressed with Joey. If he makes plays, he can bounce back. He's doing well right now. Of course, the way he's played in the past, some guys are still saying, 'He looks good right now, but he's going to revert to the old Joey.' I don't think he will."

Despite accidentally hitting him in the left eye with a small ball of tape, Pollard has Harrington's back. His talented group of skilled players is behind him. Despite losing his voice at the end of practice, Harrington is becoming a more vocal leader.

He doesn't have a choice. The alternatives aren't appealing.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.