Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lions Revolving Door of QBs Drove Barry from Detroit

Amazing at it seems, Barry Sanders hasn't juked a defender or rushed for 1,000+ yards in almost 14 seasons, ever since he abruptly faxed a 17-sentence retirement notice to his hometown paper, the Wichita Eagle, on July 27, 1999 (The Lions first read the statement on The Eagle's website.)

The franchise is 70-250 (21.8%, plus 1 playoff loss) since his departure, versus 78-82 (plus 1-5 in the postseason) during his career, and is riding its most dramatic roller coaster in recent years.

But with Barry celebrating his 45th birthday this week and the anniversary of his fateful departure looming, we thought it was time to look back not just on what made him great (the stellar vision, the hip-breaking cutbacks, we could go on...) but also what held him, and the franchise back: the myriad of QBs at the helm during his decade-long run in Detroit.  

We'll never get bored watching Barry's moves, which are now immortalized on YouTube. But when watching this video, notice the number of different quarterbacks handing the ball off to #20.

This isn't exactly Emmitt Smith taking a pitch from Troy Aikman for a decade straight or Thurman Thomas looking ahead at Jim Kelly for 9 years.  For those who think Detroit might have overpaid to keep Matt Stafford in the Honolulu blue and silver, here's a look at the revolving door of sub-par QBs playing in Pontiac throughout the '90s.  Ah, thanks Wayne Fontes for those years of flipping-flopping Erik Kramer and Rodney Peete.

1989 - Record: 7-9

Bob Gagliano: Games (11) Starts (7)
Ah, 'The Goose.'  Hopes were high for ol' Bobby after he led the Lions to five straight wins to conclude the 1989 campaign, Barry's rookie season, but it was too little, too late. The Lions finished 7-9 and Bob posted a touchdown to interception ratio of 11:24 -- not exactly a winning formula with the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year in the backfield. Barry's first drive was a sign of things to come:

"Sanders didn't play in the first half. His impact was immediate when he entered the game in the third quarter. He gained 18 yards on his first carry, and the Silverdome crowd roared. Three carries later, Sanders had his first touchdown – a three-yard run. For the game, Sanders had nine carries for 71 yards."

Barry finished the season with 1,470 rushing yards, only 10 behind rushing champion Christian Okoye of the Kansas City Chiefs.  Of course, that second place finish was because the rookie wanted to see his teammate get some carries in the season's last game against Atlanta

Rodney Peete: Games (8) Starts (8)

This is where we thought it would all change for Detroit, right?  A Johnny Unitas Award-winning quarterback from USC who seemed like a steal for the Lions in the 6th round of the 1989 Draft.  Unfortunately, he danced the Wayne QB Shuffle of starters for five years, splitting time with Gagliano, Erik Kramer, and former Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware (more on those guys to come). Peete went 22-26 during that time and never posted a QB rating above 80.

A side fact on Peete, an all conference third baseman at USC: he was picked in the 28th round (725th overall) by the Detroit Tigers in the 1990 MLB Draft.

Eric Hipple: Games (1) Starts (1)

We're not really sure where to begin: it's safe to say Hipple, a 1980 draft pick for the Lions, was in the twilight of his career during the 1989 campaign (yes, we're still in Barry's rookie season).  During his one start against the Vikings, Hipple went 2-11 and dove for a short yardage touchdown in the 24-17 loss (Barry rushed for 99 yards and caught another pass for 30).

One the upside, Hipple's best work did come after leaving the NFL.  His 2009 book, Real Men Do Cry, profiles his playing career in Detroit, bouts with depression, and his 15-year-old son's suicide in 2000. He continues to travel the country and gives speeches to high schools, youth groups, veterans about suicide prevention and mental illness.

Chuck Long : Games (1) Starts (0) 

And so began multiple decades of the Lions first round draft picks fading into irrelevance.  There's too much to say about Chuck devolving from a college 'can't miss' prospect out of Iowa to a 4-16 record in Detroit.

Let's just leave you with this: he posted more comeback wins in college during 1985 against Michigan universities alone -- 2 stellar comebacks against the Wolverines and Spartans -- than he did in 33 starts with the Lions (1).

1990 - Record: 6-10

Peete: Games (11) Starts (11)
Gagliano: Games (9) Starts (4)
Ware: Games (4) Starts (1)

At Houston, Andre Ware won the Heisman and set NCAA records with 4,699 passing yards and 46 TDs in 1989. Despite having a veteran (Gagliano) and a young prospect (Peete), the Lions drafted Ware with the 7th overall pick. Unlike Aikman and Smith, the Ware-Sanders pairing never clicked. Ware started one game his rookie season and attempted only 30 passes.

Sanders led the league in rushing with 1,304 yards and tacked on 13 TDs.

1991 - Record: 12-4

If there was a bright spot for the franchise, beyond Barry's bursts to the end zone, it was this season.  Erik Kramer was plucked from the Calgary Stampede and thrust into action after injuries sidelined Peete in Week 9 against Dallas. Kramer picked up the pieces in the second half, throwing two touchdown passes - including a 10 yard strike to Barry - and taking the Lions to 6-2 with the 34-10 win over the Cowboys.

But the season will be remembered for a different victory over the Cowboys: the 38-6 NFC Divisional Playoff win at the Silverdome. While Barry was held to 99 total yards, Kramer was simply on fire: 29 of 38 for 341 yards and 3 TDs. Barry did have this very memorable moment late in the Lions only playoff win since 1957.

                        Erik Kramer: Games (13) Starts (8)      Peete: Games (8) Starts (8)

1992 - Record: 5-11

Peete: Games (10) Starts (10)            
Kramer: Games (7) Starts (3)
Ware: Games (4) Starts (3)
When you have three starting quarterbacks, you don't have a starting quarterback. Despite leading the Lions to a playoff win the previous season, Kramer started the 1992 season as the backup. Sanders' final totals: 1,548 yards, 16 TDs (league leader), average rushing yards per game (103.2).

1993 - Record: 10-6

Kramer: Games (5) Starts (4)
Ware: Games (5) Starts (2)
Peete: Games (10) Starts (10)

Wayne's QB Shuffle goes into overdrive in '93. A trip down memory lane that started with Fontes declaring Peete was the starter in August after being "inspired" by the nuttiness of practice being "interrupted by a huge dog careening through the players, with two children in hot pursuit."  Nonetheless, even before Week 1, Fontes backtracked on this premonition and started Ware.  By Week 4 the QB Shuffle was in overdrive:
"The Detroit Lions' quarterback saga took a surprising turn when Rodney Peete was dropped to third team and Andre Ware was named to start against Phoenix ... 'I was a little shocked the decision was made today,' Peete said. 'I'm very surprised by it.' Peete strained his left knee in a 14-3 loss to New Orleans last Sunday."-- Associated Press, September 23, 1993.
"This isn't a popularity contest. If we had a Dan Marino, there wouldn't be a problem," Fontes said. "The guy who plays this week is the guy I hope will take it the rest of the year. I don't want to make a wrong decision." -- The New York Times, September 28, 1993.
"Fontes has three quarterbacks—Erik Kramer is the other—and no one knows from week to week who will get the call from the coach. Fontes is doing the Lions a terrible disservice, and the way he has handled the quarterbacks in the past year has compromised his ability to lead the team into the future. Granted, none of the three is a Joe Montana, but no quarterback can develop into a confident, competent leader if he is forced to twist in the wind every week. Peete was given the nod for this Sunday's game against Seattle, and Fontes says, 'The only way I'll take Rodney Peete out of the football game is if he gets hurt.'-- Sports Illustrated, October 18, 1993.
"So what does a guy have to do to win a job with the Detroit Lions? 
"Quarterback Andre Ware has been trying for nearly three years just to get somebody to take a look at him. Finally, with the Lions nearing the end of a long march to nowhere, coach Wayne Fontes agreed to start the former Heisman Trophy winner last week. The result: two starts, two victories, including Sunday`s 16-3 squashing of the Bears, in which Ware passed for 290 yards. 
"So the job is Ware`s, right? Not exactly. Fontes said Ware would start again next week when the Lions end their season at San Francisco, but Fontes added, 'If the season were starting over again tomorrow, Rodney Peete would start.' 
"If Ware beats the 49ers, the best team in football? 
''If he has another good football game . . . I hate to even say this,' Fontes said. 'I'd hate to have three guys competing for the job again.' -- The Chicago Tribune, December 21, 1993
Dizzy yet? That was the 1993 season. Sanders missed five games because of injury and rushed for a career low 1,115 yards.

1994 - Record: 9-7

Scott Mitchell: Games (9) Starts (9)
Ironically, after Fontes' comment about Marino, Dolphins backup Scott Mitchell was the Lions big free agent splurge in 1994.  Mitchell signed a 3 year, $11 million contract but things didn't go well.

By Week 9, the hefty lefty had a 4-5 starting record, tossing 10 TDs and 11 picks. His also completed less than 50% (48.4) of his passes. After a dreadful day in Green Bay (5-for-15 for 63 yards), teammate Lomas Brown had seen enough of Mitchell:
"We were getting beat, 24-3, at that time and he just stunk up the place. He's throwing interceptions, just everything. So I looked at Kevin Glover, our All-Pro center and I said, 'Glove, that is it.' I said, 'I'm getting him out the game.' ... So I got the gator arms on the guy at the last minute, he got around me, he hit Scott Mitchell, he did something to his finger ... and he came out the game. Dave Krieg came in the game. We ended up losing that game, 27-24." 
Mitchell suffered a broken bone in his right hand when he was hit by Green Bay's Sean Jones, ending his season. Mitchell still has the cast from that broken hand at his home in Utah.

Dave Kreig: Games (14) Starts (7)

Dave Kreig is perhaps best known as for being one the NFL career leaders in... fumbles. In his only season in Motown, Kreig started 7 games when Mitchell was injured and finished with a 5-2 record. Other than one terrible game against Tampa Bay (5-13, 99 yards; Sanders had 237 rushing yards in the win), Kreig was solid and finished the season with 14 TDs against only 3 interceptions.

That big finish got him a new contract with the Arizona Cardinals where coach Buddy Ryan said, "over the last half of last quarterback played better football than Dave Krieg."

Buddy never knew much about offense and probably didn't notice that Steve Young was putting him huge numbers for the Super Bowl Champion San Francisco 49ers. Ryan and Kreig each last one season in the desert.

Sanders led the league in rushing with 1,883 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

1995  - Record: 10-6

Mitchell: Games (16) Starts (16)

Mitchell's career year that gave Lions fans false hope: 32 TD passes and a then franchise-record 4,338 passing yards.

Don Majkowski: Games (8) Starts (2)
Quick trivia: who was Green Bay's starting quarterback before Brett Favre? Don Majkowksi led the Packers to a 10-6 record in 1989 and finished second in the voting for NFL MVP to Joe Montana.

But the Lions didn't get that "The Majik Man" was in the waning years of his career and decided to pick up a QB who previously tore a rotator cuff and a ligament in his ankle. Nonetheless, Fontes and the Fords added Majik as a backup to Mitchell in the 1995 and '96 seasons.  

A spark of Majik was shown in Week 12, when he led the Lions on a 4th quarter drive and hooked up with Herman Moore for a touchdown to beat the Bears. But the game truly belong to Barry, who ran for 120 yards and two touchdowns. For the season, Sanders totaled 1,500 yards on the ground along with 11 touchdowns.

1996 - Record: 5-11

Mitchell: Games (14) Starts (14)
Mitchell returns to form: 17 TDs, 17 interceptions, 2,917 passing yards.

Upset after being benched against the New York Giants on October 27, Mitchell decided to go as Wayne Fontes for Halloween. Mitchell wore Mickey Mouse ears, stuffed a pillow under a sweatshirt and a cigar in his mouth, and mimicked Fontes.

"Wayno!" Mitchell said. "I'll bet this gets on the news."

Majkowski: Games (5) Starts (2)

Majik's career in Detroit (his last season in the NFL) is pretty much encapsulated in the '96 loss at Green Bay: Barry ran for 152 yards and a 35 yard touchdown, while Majik only threw for 153 yards... and was sacked 5 times.

In failing to improve on their 10-6 record in 1995, the Lions missed the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.  Sanders led the league in rushing with 1,553 yards.

1997 - Record: 9-7

Mitchell: Games (16) Starts (16)
Another season of mediocrity from Mitchell: 19 TDs, 14 interceptions.

Frank Reich Games (6) Starts (0)
Frank Reich is most famous for leading the greatest comeback in NFL history.  In '97, he was 11-30, with 121 passing yards and two interceptions in 6 games for the Lions.

Matt Blundin: Games (1)
Week 10 was a typical Lions road performance. Detroit was down 30-7 late against the Redskins at RFK Stadium. The combo of Mitchell and Reich had combined for this putrid stat line: 15-42, 163 yards, 2 interceptions. But then the Lions made their move and inserted former Virginia Cavalier Matt Blundin into the lineup.  Blundin attempted one pass, which fell incomplete. That was his only pass attempt in a Lions uniform. Barry was Barry: 15 carries, 105 yards, 1 TD.

1997 was Barry's finest season: 2,053 rushing yards, 11 TDs, 6.1 average per carry, 128.3 rushing yards per game, 2,358 total yards.

1998 - Record: 5-11

Mitchell: Games (2) Starts (2)
The end finally comes for Mitchell after the Lions start the season 0-2. In an overtime loss to Cincinnati, the lefty's final two passes in Lions uniform were intercepted, the second of which was returned for the winning score.

"I didn't get my job done when I was supposed to get it done," Mitchell said. He is in the second year of a four-year, $21 million contract.

Charlie Batch: Games (12) Starts (12)

Charlie Batch was the third QB selected in the 1998 draft behind Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. After Mitchell's early season stumbles, Bobby Ross inserted the rookie from Eastern Michigan into the starting lineup. Batch put up respectable numbers in his first season, throwing 11 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. Batch started two games last season for Pittsburgh.

Frank Reich Games (6) Starts (2)
Reich came out of retirement to become Detroit's third-string QB after the Lions cut former Michigan State Spartan QB Jim Miller. In his final NFL season, Reich passed for 5 touchdowns and is the answer to a great trivia question: name the starting quarterback in Barry Sanders' last game. The starting quarterback for Baltimore that Sunday? Jim Harbaugh.

A decade-long evaluation makes one reason very clear as to why a 31-year-old running back, in the prime of his career, and less than 1,500 yards from being the the NFL's all-time rushing leader, was driven from Detroit.  

Beyond the contract disputes, the 1997 late season collapse, and questions about Bobby Ross's coaching, as profiled by Peter King, it's clear that the lack of winning drove Barry from Motown.  

And for the Lions in the '90s, those losses rested squarely on the shoulders of the men listed above, not the one standing behind them in the backfield.

God this little exercise was depressing.  Can't imagine how Berry felt.

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