Daunte Culpepper is the incumbent starter. Matthew Stafford is the highly rated, overpaid, and knock-on-wood savior of the Detroit Lions franchise.
Yet the roles of these two quarterbacks in 2009 are far from decided.
Ideally, the Lions would like to use Culpepper as a “bridge” to Stafford and the team’s future, as said publicly by new head coach Jim Schwartz. But patience is low and pressure is high in Detroit.
Fans are angry in the Motor City. Lovable losers the Lions are not. Not after a 0-16 season, not after 50 years of futility. The Lions need results, or at the very least, to create excitement.
Early word out of Detroit is that Culpepper looks great in mini-camp. The veteran himself told the Detroit Free Press that he is in “the best shape of my career since the 2004 season.”
However, looking good throwing post routes in gym shorts is far different from performing on Sundays.
Culpepper has reportedly lost close to 40 pounds, formed good chemistry with star wide receiver Calvin Johnson, and is excited about being reunited with former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
But is that enough to secure him the starting job?
If Stafford outperforms Culpepper in training camp and the preseason, keeping the rookie on the bench will be near impossible.
Furthermore, even if the Lions opt to protect Stafford and go with Culpepper as the starter, how will Coach Schwartz justify the move if the team starts 0-4, or 1-6?
Both Stafford and Culpepper are saying all the right things now—talking about accepting their roles and doing what’s best for the team. But the competition between the two is already underway.
Stafford heard the boos on draft day. Culpepper remembers the failures of his comeback last season and his previous stint in Oakland. Both players expect to start, and neither will be content with a reserve role.
The quarterback situation in Detroit is a true toss-up and will serve as the first major decision for Schwartz in his head coaching career.
History has offered conflicting results to the rookie/veteran quarterback dilemma.
In the case of Carson Palmer, sitting a year on the bench behind former Lion Jon Kitna paid great dividends. Cincinnati remained competitive, although they missed the playoffs, and Palmer took over the following year and played great. He has since developed into a Pro Bowl quarterback.
On the contrary, there is last season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year Matt Ryan. Ryan started from day one in Atlanta and led the Falcons to an improbable NFC South division title. His career started off with a bang when he, coincidentally, posted a 137 quarterback rating in a season-opening win over Detroit.
Either scenario would be suitable for the Lions.
What Detroit cannot afford is option C, a failure on both counts.
As Schwartz said in his introductory press conference with the Lions, “It’s about time we found a replacement for Bobby Layne.”