Sunday, September 12, 2010

In Stafford, Lions Have Best QB Prospect in 50 Years

The football helmet was suddenly an airborne missile. It was flung across the locker room, narrowly missing its target—the head of the defiant quarterback who just helped orchestrate a defeat of numbing magnitude.

The helmet bounced off the wall, its hurler steaming mad, loaded for bear.

The Lions of the 1960s were a schizophrenic bunch. They had a swarming, mauling defense that, in some years during the decade, was among the very best in the NFL.

But the Lions were also a plodding offensive unit who seemed to play with one arm tied behind their backs.

And one of the leaders of the Lions defense got fed up with the smug, kiss-my-ass attitude of the quarterback in the wake of a crushing defeat in Green Bay in 1962, and took it upon himself to use Milt Plum’s head as a target for helmet-flinging.

Alex Karras was fit to be tied. The Lions had a big game in the palms of their muddy hands on the Packers’ home field, and needed only to run the clock down and punt the football deep into Green Bay territory—leaving the Pack little time and a whole lot of real estate to traverse.

But Plum was ordered to try a pass to get one last first down.

The field was sloppy. The pass call was risky at best, downright stupid at worst.

The Lions’ intended receiver slipped and fell down. The Packers’ Herb Adderly intercepted, and sloshed his way into field goal range. Moments later, Paul Hornung kicked the football square and true and just like that, the Lions were losers.

After the game, in the Lions’ morgue of a locker room, Karras demanded to know who called such a boneheaded play.

Plum told him that it wasn’t any of Karras’s business.

That’s when Alex lost it and threw his helmet across the room, missing Plum’s noggin by inches.

Such was the Lions defense’s distrust and ill will toward the incompetent offenses back in the day.

The Lions of ’62 might have been one of the best teams in NFL history not to qualify for the post-season. They were 11-3. The Packers finished 13-1—their only loss being a shellacking put on them by the Lions in Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.

But if the Lions hadn’t taken leave of their senses in Green Bay on that dreary October afternoon, both they and the Packers would have finished 12-2, and a playoff would have been needed to determine the Western Division winner.

In 1962, there was no Wild Card. If you wanted to play past the regular season, you had to win the division. So teams with records like 11-3 were just as out of it as teams who were 3-11.

Just the Lions’ rotten luck!

The distrust of the offense by the defense would continue for years after that horrific loss in Green Bay—a loss that might have stolen from the Lions a chance to play for the World Championship in December.

“I was absolutely violent,” Karras related about the 1962 loss in Green Bay to the Free Press’s George Puscas years later. “Joe Schmidt was absolutely violent,” Karras added, referring to the Hall of Fame linebacker.

“On the plane ride home, it was so bad that even the writers, who were usually like pall bearers to us, were trying to cheer us up,” Karras told Puscas.

“After that loss, we had the feeling that no matter how good we were, something or someone was going to ruin it for us.”

For nearly 50 years, Karras’s words have rung true.

For almost every one of those years, it’s been the Lions’ lack of a competent NFL quarterback that’s done them in—someone that even the defense can trust and get behind.

The NFL today is a quarterback’s league. If you have one, you have a chance. If you don’t, the season is 16 nervous breakdowns.

The competent NFL quarterback has to be confident but not cocky; strong-armed but deft; mobile but elusive; unflappable but focused.

He has to be the steadying hand on the team’s rudder—the reliable captain who can navigate the ship through the choppiest of waters. His teammates have to look at him and be reassured, not darting for the life jackets.

You want to win in the NFL? Then you’d better have a quarterback who everyone believes in, from the top of the organizational chart to the last man on the practice squad.

The quarterback is the central nervous system of his football team.

When he looks at his teammates in the huddle, they have to see General Patton and Wyatt Earp and Muhammad Ali, all rolled into one, staring back.

In the NFL, you can’t hide not having a good quarterback. You’d be better off trying to cover a 600-pound gorilla with a bikini.

For 48 years, from the moment in Green Bay when Alex Karras, Joe Schmidt, and the rest of the Detroit defense wanted to eviscerate the team’s quarterback, the Lions have been unable to find a signal caller worth—to steal from the old Vice President John Nance Garner—a warm bucket of piss.

Another NFL season begins Sunday. The Lions are in Chicago, to play their annual game in the Second City against their longtime rivals, the Bears. Chicago has been a rare place where the Lions have actually found some success in recent years. The Lions won there in 2004 and 2007—pretty heady stuff for a team that handles the road like a rear wheel drive car in wintertime.

Behind center will be Matthew Stafford, the Lions’ best stab at filling the quarterback role since Bobby Layne wore No. 22 and played without a face mask.

Stafford is the unchallenged, unquestioned leader of the Lions, in just his second season. He’s the closest thing to Elway and Montana and Favre and Manning that the franchise has ever had. By far.

Stafford is handsome, football smart, possessor of a cannon for an arm, and with leadership skills beyond his tender age. He has everyone’s trust in the Lions organization.

The Lions haven’t had a real, genuine NFL quarterback in over 50 years and this kid Stafford is going to make this town go crazy.

His coaches speak glowingly of the progress he’s made from Year One to the dawn of Year Two. They talk of him and you get the feeling that they want to let you in on a secret that they’re keeping.

You get the feeling that they want to tell you that Matthew Stafford is going to be, sooner rather than later, the very best quarterback in the entire NFL.

The coaches almost can’t contain themselves when they talk about Stafford.

Stafford has more offensive weapons this year, including a dynamite running back (Jahvid Best), and he’s developing a rapport with ace receiver Calvin Johnson.

Matthew Stafford is going to make Detroit go crazy.

You get that feeling.

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