The Joey Harrington era has finally ended in Detroit. Now that another quarterback’s career has ended in Detroit it is a good time to reflect on the history of signal callers in the Motor City. In 1971 Greg Landry was named to the Pro Bowl and he still remains the last Detroit quarterback to earn this honor. Thirty five years have come and gone, and no other quarterback of the Lions has made the Pro Bowl roster. Given that several quarterbacks are named each season, the Lions failure on this point is from a statistical point of view a simply amazing achievement. The odds against a team failing so consistently are indeed quite large.
How did the Lions do it? Let’s spend a bit of time reviewing the list of signal callers who have started for the Lions but not traveled to the NFL’s annual all-star game.
- Gary Danielson (1978-1984): Danielson inherited the mantle of “starting Lions quarterback” from Greg Landry and is really the first Lions quarterback I remember (although I did have a Greg Landry football when I was a kid). What I remeber most about Danielson is that he did start for a Lions team that almost defeated the 49ers in the playoffs in 1983. In all, though, he only had three seasons where he played at least 15 games, so he was not often on the field as the Lions starter. Today Danielson announces college football games for ABC.
- Eric Hipple (1985-1986): After 1984 Danielson went to Cleveland and the Lions turned to Eric Hipple. Hipple lasted only two seasons as Detroit’s starting quarterback. Today Hipple is a motivational speaker, or in some sense, a people coach.
- Chuck Long (1987-88): Like Joey Harrington, Long was a first round draft choice expected to lead the Lions to much success. Long did not have a lengthy career in Detroit, really only playing one full season in 1987. When Wayne Fontes decided to employ the run-and-shoot offense, Long’s career in Detroit ended. Last December Long was named the head football coach at San Diego State University.
- Rodney Peete (1989-93): Peete was a 6th round draft choice of the Lions out of USC. For five seasons he traded the job with Erik Kramer and another first round draft choice of the Lions, Andre Ware. Interestingly, all three have had some success in broadcasting.
- Scott Mitchell (1994-1997): In 1994 the Lions went shopping and bought Scott Mitchell. In 1995 Mitchell had one great season, posting the 36th best season of any signal caller in the league from 1995-2005. The average quarterback in the NFL produces 0.133 net points per play. Mitchell’s net points per play in 1995 was 0.249. In other words, he was pretty good. Unfortunately, as quarterback’s often are, Mitchell was inconsistent. His net points per play the next two seasons was below average.
- Charlie Batch (1998-2001): In 1998 the Lions selected Batch in the second round. Early in the 1998 season he was named starter. For two seasons his net points per play was above average. And then for two seasons his performance was below average. Today he is the back-up quarterback for the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
- Joey Harrington (2002-2005): After Batch the Lions turned to Harrington. Harrington never posted an above average season, although he came close in 2004.
- Jon Kitna or Josh McCown (2006- ??): And now the Lions turn to Jon Kitna or Josh McCown. These two signal callers have already received significant playing time in seven NFL seasons. Only Kitna has been above average in net points per play and he only did it once. In 2003 Kitna posted a net points per play of 0.141. At 33 years of age, Kitna cannot be thought of as the quarterback of the future. Unfortunately McCown, who looked to have been signed to take on the mantle of starting quarterback down the line, may not even hold on to his job as number two quarterback. According to Tom Kowalski of Booth newspapers and MLive.com, McCown has not performed well in mini-camp and may end up third on the depth chart behind Dan Orlovsky.
So that is where the Lions are today. After a history of failed quarterbacks the Lions have turned to a collection of quarterbacks who have yet to find much success on the football field. There is some good news in this story. The list of failed quarterbacks includes a number of people who went on to significant accomplishment. Unfortunately, none of these accomplishments occurred on the football field, although in the case of the announcers, something was accomplished near a football field. So I guess that is something.
If Harrington follows in the footsteps of those who failed before him, we can expect some day he will make a great announcer. Perhaps there is a lesson in all of this for Detroit. Their ability to groom future announcers suggests that the communication device in the quarterback’s helmet should not simply receive the coaches’ instructions, but should also allow the quarterback to broadcast the game to the audience. If this was the case, the Lions quarterbacks could show the Lions fans where their talents truly lie.