Thursday, October 12, 2006

In defense of Harrington
... or maybe I mean Culpepper

3 8 special

The Miami Dolphins have benched Daunte Culpepper -- possibly for the rest of the season -- and will be starting Joey Harrington at quarterback. This tells us:

A) Harrington is a better quarterback than Culpepper.
B) Culpepper's knee is not fully healed after he tore his ACL, his MCL ... pretty much every CL except NaCl.
C) The 2004 Detroit Lions offensive line was worse than the 2004 Minnesota Vikings offensive line.

The answer, obviously, is C. Because whenever a multiple-choice answer is a total non sequitur like that, it has to be the correct one. Congratulations. You just learned one of the secrets of journalism and mass communication.

In the Dolphins' first four games -- a sluggish loss to the Steelers, a shocking loss to the Bills, a gruesome win over the Titans and a humiliating loss to the Texans -- Culpepper was sacked 21 times. Last Sunday, in a predictable loss to the Patriots, Harrington was sacked just once. The numbers make sense if you noticed the subtle differences in the way they played. For example, when the rush closed in on Culpepper, he'd hold the ball, hold the ball, hold the ball, then do a little cha-cha-cha before going down in an embarrassing pile. When the rush closed in on Harrington, on the other hand, his eyes would get big like pie plates and he would dump the ball off or throw it away. Neither quarterback was making Miami fans forget Dan Marino, or even Jay Fiedler, but our pal Joey at least helped the cause by not losing 12 yards every other time he dropped back. Hell, if Harrington hadn't thrown two interceptions, the Dolphins might have even beaten the Patriots. Which is sort of like saying that except for that business at Dealey Plaza, Jackie had a great time in Dallas.

The question has been circulating for a year now: What's wrong with Culpepper? The conventional wisdom -- the kind of thinking Down and Distance sneers at unless we can get a funny joke out of it -- held that Culpepper was lost without his longtime favorite target, Randy Moss, who was run out of Minnesota for miscreant behavior a season before Culpepper had the same thing done to him. (To be fair, if I had to pick a player to live in my neighborhood, I'd rather have the one who played dice on a boat full of strippers rather than the one who tried to run over a meter maid. But I'm a native Minnesotan.) And yes, Culpepper did indeed go ass-up as soon as he had to play without Moss: Coming off an incredible season in 2004, he opened 2005 with 8 interceptions and no touchdowns in his first two games. Last year, in games against teams that weren't living out of suitcases in San Antonio, he threw just three touchdowns and 12 interceptions before his knee was destroyed (a medical term) against Carolina in the seventh game of the season.

The most significant difference between the 2004 Vikings and the 2005 Vikings, however, wasn't the disappearance of Randy Moss; it was the loss of four-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk, who sat out the year recovering both from hip surgery and from the team's well-thought-out, cheap-ass way of doing business. Without Birk to keep the bad guys out of the pocket, Culpepper was missing a critical element of his success: not Moss, but time. Facing the kind of relentless pocket pressure he had never before experienced, he started off dreadfully in 2005. And just when he seemed to be adjusting -- we forget that the week before his injury, he had a passer rating of 123.1 against the Packers -- he was out for the year.

So we zip forward to 2006, and here's Culpepper in Miami. Remember? The Dolphins were going to challenge the Pats for the AFC East title? They had an outside shot at the Super Bowl? And then the season started, and Miami went plunk! right into the toilet, and the first thing we heard was the old Victrola playing Culpepper Can't Do It Without Moss (which is a Lindy, I think). The second thing we heard was "Culpepper is no good if he can't run." Which is pretty silly, too, because even if he didn't have a knee rebuilt out of an Erector Set, where's he going to run to? A "mobile" quarterback, however you want to define that, isn't out there by himself. He has to have a line in front of him holding off the rush so he either has the time to wait for a receiver to get open or has an escape route should he pull the ball down and run with it. Michael Vick is an exciting guy and a tough little bastard, but if he didn't have a halfway-decent line, his career would be over by now. (It'll be short enough as it is.) Culpepper wasn't getting any protection from his line, but he didn't seem to realize it. This is not a guy who's used to the pocket collapsing around him. In Minnesota, pre-2005, he occasionally experienced protection problems and from time to time took a "coverage sack." But in Miami he's been stuck behind the Maginot Line. He holds the ball too long because throughout his career he's never had to get rid of it in a hurry. He tries to run because he thinks there's going to be someplace to go. And, of course, on some level he doesn't realize that the knee still ain't right. Oh yeah, and no Randy Moss. Put it together, and you've got a disaster.

And this all leads us back to Harrington, who still, resolutely, goes by "Joey" when it's really got to be easier in the locker room if you're a "Joe." Down and Distance has always been something of a Joey Harrington fan, though not really for his play. The guy is probably a career backup, and there's no shame in that. What you have to respect about Harrington, though, is that he hung in there as long as he did in Detroit, where he was set up to fail from the time he arrived as the third overall pick in the 2002 draft. (Please note that he went to Oregon, the school that hyped the Smith brothers, Akili and Onterrio, all the way into the NFL. Oregon's mascot should probably be the Red Herring rather than the Duck.) Once Harrington got into the league, Detroit Lions resident genius Matt Millen stuck him first with a coach who didn't know what he was doing (Marty Mornhinwheg), then one who never had any intention of giving him a shot (Steve Mariucci). Millen supplied Harrington a cadre of receivers whose egos were as fragile as their clavicles, plus a twelfth-rate offensive line. And when Harrington proved himself only an average quarterback, which, considering the circumstances, was not too shabby, Millen let him take all the blame for the franchise's pathetic condition.

But as it turns out, Harrington may get the last laugh. (Or, he would if anyone in Miami can laugh anymore.) As it turns out, three-and-a-half years running for your life in Detroit prepares you perfectly to play quarterback for the 2006 Miami Dolphins. As it turns out, the Dolphins didn't need a quarterback who won games with a good team; they needed one who lost games on a bad team. Culpepper put up fantastic numbers in Minnesota by throwing the ball to trapeze artists from behind the Berlin Wall. Harrington put up mediocre numbers in Detroit by throwing the ball sideways as the building collapsed around him. Who do you think is better prepared for the job in Miami?

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