Monday, August 31, 2009

Culpepper Should Be The Man (For Now)

As the preseason winds down, Lions' head coach Jim Schwartz has to decide who his starting quarterback will be against New Orleans: Daunte Culpepper or Matt Stafford.

It's obvious Matt Stafford shows the promise of a bright future for the Lions. But no harm would come to his career if he sat the first few games of the season, let alone all of 2009. It didn't hurt Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Eli Manning, or Brad Johnson's careers.

For those who bring up the Peyton Mannings, Troy Aikmans, Joe Montanas, and Terry Bradshaws, we must remember there are literally dozens of times over quarterbacks' careers who are littered along the highway to NFL success. Joey Harrington, Akili Smith, Tim Couch, David Carr, Alex Smith, Ryan Leaf, Rick Mirer, and Chris Weinke are all names associated with the word "bust."

All of the above mentioned in the last sentence were thrust into the spotlight before they were ready. Not all of them had the mental makeup for the NFL (especially Leaf), but many of them can be looked on and wonder "what if?" As in, what if we had let them learn the pro game academically before being thrown to the wolves.

The worst thing that can happen to Stafford is to be forced to play when he's not 100% ready. Very few quarterbacks in the NFL have ever recovered from horrendous starts to their careers. As of now, Drew Brees is perhaps the sole exception. Jim Plunkett would count, but he had an exceptional first two or three years and recovered late in his career and retired with a Superbowl victory.

The worst thing Jim Schwartz can do is not trust his instincts. He's shown he's capable enough to be given an opportunity to be a head coach. That isn't saying much for a guy coming into an organization that is notorious for being a coaching graveyard: see Monte Clark, Wayne Fontes, Bobby Ross, Gary Moeller, Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci, and Rod Marinelli. None of the above have ever landed another job since being fired (Dick Jauron did indeed land a job in Buffalo after 2005, but he was never going to be running the show in Detroit after that debacle).

Schwartz and Stafford have one problem that can't be overlooked either: William Clay Ford, Sr. Ford is not a football man. He owns the team because he likes the status of being an owner of an NFL team. From what I've seen, he doesn't care about the fans. But it's his meddling that has cost many a coach's success here. His decision to make Mornhinweg start Joey Harrington over Mike McMahon in 2002 had nothing to do with the long-term success of the organization; he wanted the cornerstone of the franchise starting the inaugural game at Ford Field.

If Schwartz can show he can resist Ford's meddling, he and the Lions will be a better organization for it. That's why it's critical Culpepper get the go-ahead for Week 1 in New Orleans. The league has a "win now" mentality, even when such teams like Detroit are in the middle of rebuilding. Culpepper gives the Lions the best shot.

It is probable that the Lions will start the season off at 0-6. But that doesn't mean it's time to play Stafford. It won't do him any good with little help around him. The best situation for the Lions in any game is ball control: the longer the defense is off the field the better a chance a victory can be secured. Too many glaring holes on defense makes me think Detroit is a 2-14, 3-13, or 5-11 team at best. I'm still going with 3-13.

If you want Stafford to start, then I think two criteria need to be met. One, the Lions need to have won their first game. Two, he should see some time in mop-up action as a warm-up for when he actually does start. He doesn't have the help on either side of the ball to be going at full speed come September.

Stafford will be the starter, guaranteed, on Week 1 of 2010 barring injury. Until then, let him grow into the position.

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