Harrington faces another challenge to his starting job

ATLANTA -- Joey Harrington is looking over his shoulder again.

The guy who already lost starting quarterback jobs in Detroit and Miami will likely face a challenge in Atlanta unless he can turn things around -- and soon.

The Falcons, who host Carolina in their home opener Sunday, lost their first two games on the road. They scored a mere 10 points. Guess who's going to get most of the criticism if the defeats keep piling up?

"I guess I've learned through my time in the league that as the quarterback, you're going to get the credit or the blame placed on your shoulders," Harrington said. "That's something I'm comfortable with."

Atlanta turned up the heat on Harrington by signing Byron Leftwich, a former starter in Jacksonville who was cut by the Jaguars just before the season. After spending the first two weeks without a job, he caught on with a team that has endured plenty of turmoil at the quarterback position.

Michael Vick was supposed to be the starter, coming off a 1,000-yard rushing season, but his career crumbled after a dogfighting operation was found on his property. He was suspended indefinitely by the NFL and is likely headed to prison after pleading guilty to federal charges.

Matt Schaub had been Vick's backup, but he was traded to Houston just weeks before the gruesome dogfighting kennel was found. He's led the Texans to a 2-0 start, including a 34-21 victory over the Panthers last week.

The Falcons were forced to turn to Harrington, the No. 3 overall pick in 2002 but a bust with both the Lions and the Dolphins. He had signed in Atlanta with the idea of working behind Vick and taking steps to revive his struggling career.

That plan never worked out, of course.

Harrington had two interceptions returned for touchdowns in a season-opening loss at Minnesota. He's also been sacked 13 times - a staggering number that prompted coach Bobby Petrino to proclaim it wasn't entirely the offensive line's fault. He said Harrington needed to get rid of the ball quicker and be more aggressive in the passing game.

Not surprisingly, the quarterback disagreed with that assessment.

"I feel like I've made the throws when they're there," Harrington said. "But I'll try to get better. I'm here to do what he wants me to do for this team. I've said it since day one: My job here is to help this team get better."

For now, Harrington's job is secure. Leftwich will likely need at least a couple of weeks just to get handle on Petrino's intricate offense, which puts a lot of the decision-making burden on the quarterback.

If the Falcons lose a couple of more games, though, there will certainly be a deafening clamor for the team to make a change at its most prominent position, no matter who's fault it is.

Leftwich was 24-20 as a starter with the Jaguars. Harrington's career record is 23-45.

"Byron is going to have some time to learn," tight end Alge Crumpler said. "But he's an experienced guy. He's going to push Joey to try to get out everything we're looking for out of this offense. It's a business. This is a business move."

Carolina (1-1) took care of business in their opener, beating St. Louis 27-13, and jumped to a 14-0 lead on the Texans. But Houston scored the next 34 points, leaving fans to wonder if the Panthers - a trendy pick to reach the Super Bowl a year ago - are headed for another underachieving season.

They certainly don't want another slip-up against the struggling Falcons.

"It's a game that both teams desperately want and desperately need," Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "Everybody knows about everything that went on with them in the offseason. They're going to look to do anything and everything to get a win. We feel the same way."

Carolina's offense revolves mainly around Steve Smith, who has 15 catches for 271 yards and four touchdowns. Look for him to be covered most of the time by DeAngelo Hall, the Falcons' talkative Pro Bowl cornerback.

"I definitely look forward to the opportunity to get some balls," Hall said. "I didn't get any in the first two games. I'm trying to knock some of the rust off. I can't wait."

After managing one sack in their first two games, the Panthers must be looking forward to the chance to go against the Falcons leaky line. Julius Peppers has been especially quiet, getting close to the quarterback only one time and still looking for his first takedown.

"We just need to get everybody playing together as one," Peppers said. "The D-line can dominate all day, but if we're not playing with the backers and secondary it doesn't matter because we're going to get beat. And vice versa."

Even if Leftwich eventually takes over as the Atlanta starter, he's not the most mobile of quarterbacks. He could be just as prone to sacks as Harrington has been playing behind a line that had to revamp its style after Petrino was hired.

The Falcons preferred smaller, quicker linemen in the zone-blocking schemes used by previous coach Jim Mora. Petrino inherited most of those players, who had to bulk up and learn a more conventional style.

After leading the NFL in rushing for each of the last three seasons, Atlanta averaged 89 yards on the ground in its first two games. Warrick Dunn is the top runner (105 yards), but he's managing only 3 yards per carry.

"When we led the league in rushing, we not only had a running quarterback but a scheme that fit the guys we had at running back," Dunn said. "The chemistry is a little different now. It's going to take us a little time to get adjusted."

But time could be running out for Harrington.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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