Cowboys cornerback Mario Edwards was barely into his end zone celebration last October, following a 27-yard touchdown return of another Joey Harrington interception, when Lions coach Steve Mariucci went to the bullpen. With a little more than four minutes left in the first half, Harrington was out. Mike McMahon was in.

"He's the head coach," Harrington says. "He was doing what was best for the team."

Nice try, Joey, but we're not buying it. And neither are you.

"Was it the best for me?" he says. "No."

That benching, though just for one game, was embarrassing, but it had an overriding message, one that will reverberate throughout the 2004 season. "Maybe he learned he's got to play well to stay in there," Mariucci says.

Harrington, the third overall pick in the 2002 draft, is entering his third year as the Lions ' starter. In the West Coast offense family, the third year is the Big One. Patriarch Bill Walsh believes quarterbacks must grasp the intricacies of the scheme by the third season, or they'll never get it. All of Walsh's descendants feel the same way. "I do understand the third-year concept," says Mariucci, a Walsh scion. So, Harrington had better play more like he did against St. Louis in the 2003 season finale -- 26-of-36, 238 yards and three TDs in a 30-20 win -- than he did in that 38-7 Dallas debacle (5-of-13, 30 yards, two picks), or he could find himself looking for work.

The Lions don't want their high-priced quarterback to fail, so they went on an offseason talent hunt designed to bolster an offense that produced only 22 touchdowns last year. Free agency brought in wideout Tai Streets (*****), sturdy guard Damien Woody (Patriots) and tight end Stephen Alexander (Chargers). On draft day, the Lions selected Texas wide receiver Roy Williams with the seventh overall pick and traded up to grab speedy Virginia Tech runner Kevin Jones with the 30th selection. And receiver Charles Rogers , the second overall pick in '03, is healthy after missing the last 11 games because of a broken collarbone.

The overhaul has created some rare football excitement in Motown, which watched attentively as Carolina went from 1-15 to the Super Bowl in two seasons -- with free-agent pickup Jake Delhomme under center for the championship run. Another season below .500 (the Lions have had three straight), and significant blame will fall on Harrington. "That's the nature of this business; that's the nature of this league," Harrington says. "Welcome to the NFL."

Lions president and CEO Matt Millen already has had to deny reports that Harrington needs to produce this year -- or else. But there clearly is a sense throughout the organization that Harrington can't afford another erratic performance like last season's (17 touchdowns, 22 interceptions, 55.8 completion percentage). "People are impatient," offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis says. "They look at where he was drafted and expect a lot." Harrington closed well last year, completing 96-of-158 passes for 843 yards and five TDs, with three interceptions, in the final five games. Now, Harrington must be even better -- for an entire season.

To this point, Harrington hasn't provided compelling evidence he's a first-rate NFL quarterback, though his arm certainly is strong enough, and he's mobile. "I think he's a front-line guy in terms of his release, mechanics and arm strength," says Mark Dominik, the Buccaneeers' director of pro scouting. But inconsistent decision making, impatience and a tendency to force throws cost Harrington last year. Those problems can be attributed to youth or are indications that he is a poor fit in the offense, which requires precision.

"He does stupid things," says one NFC pro personnel director. "You look at some of the balls he throws, and sometimes you say, 'This kid's a bust.' But he has too many tools to be a bust." The same personnel director thinks Harrington needs to use his speed more. He might buy time against the blitz, but he doesn't run enough. "He needs to be more of a gunslinger, like Brett Favre ," the personnel man says.

Mariucci defends Harrington -- to a point. He attributes some of the interceptions to "tipped balls, great defensive play or times when his vision wasn't as clear downfield" but allows there were some decision-making problems. Because last season was only Harrington's second as an NFL starter and also was his initial experience with Mariucci, consideration must be given to the learning process. "He made improvements in areas that didn't show up in the stats, things like leadership, knowledge of our offense and other defenses," Mariucci says. That progress needs to continue, because Favre, Donovan McNabb , Daunte Culpepper , Peyton Manning , Chad Pennington and Tom Brady , who are the benchmarks for quarterback development, all had reached the postseason by the end of their third seasons.

No matter how much Harrington developed, the Lions knew last year's primary receiving unit of wideouts Bill Schroeder , Az-Zahir Hakim and Scotty Anderson and tight end Mikhael Ricks wasn't good enough. Rogers was supposed to help greatly last season, and his two TD catches in the season-opening win over Arizona were cause for great optimism. When he went down, during practice October 7, it was a crippling blow. A healthy Rogers, combined with the tall, explosive Williams and reliable Alexander (46 catches with San Diego in '02; out most of '03 because of a groin injury), will make a big difference. "They should make (Harrington) more comfortable," an NFC defensive coach says. "Now he doesn't have to win every game by himself. When you have good guys around you, you get more at ease."

But even Mariucci isn't expecting Rogers and Williams to be stars this year. "Rarely does a rookie receiver have a good year," Mariucci says. That's why the addition of Streets, who caught 47 passes last year and 72 in 2002 and knows the West Coast scheme, is so important. He and Hakim -- who likely will spend more time in the slot, his preferred position -- will be counted upon heavily, at least early in the season. "You need guys who have been in the system, who have that game experience, no matter how young and fast you are," Harrington says. Jones should add a much-needed burst to a ground game that averaged a league-low 83.6 yards per game last year. Though receivers tend to struggle in their first seasons, backs typically need less time to adjust.

Regardless, the Lions will be a younger team. Harrington admits he was intimidated at times the past two seasons by all the experience in the huddle. Schroeder, running back James Stewart and fullback Cory Schlesinger were in their ninth seasons last year. Now, Harrington will be surrounded by people closer to his age (25), a comforting factor. "People were expecting me to lead a group of veterans, when I didn't even know what was going on in the playbook," Harrington says. "It was a fine line I had to walk."

There is youth in the line, too. Woody, 26, a five-year vet with two Super Bowl rings, will help greatly, particularly in the ground attack. "You didn't have to be afraid of their running game last year," the NFC defensive coach says. "You could sit back and play for the pass." Woody also should provide leadership for center Dominic Raiola and tackles Jeff Backus and Stockar McDougle , all of whom should be through with their growing pains.

In the end, though, it comes down to Harrington. If the offense sputters, he's responsible. Raiola, perhaps his closest friend on offense, notices a difference in Harrington's familiarity with the scheme and overall confidence. During a two-minute drill in minicamp, Mariucci called out plays and Harrington was right there with him, shouting, "I got it; I got it."

"There's definitely a sense that he's getting closer," Raiola says. "He's more familiar with the offense and what he can and can't do."

Good thing. The West Coast clock is ticking.

Michael Bradley - The Sporting News