April 25, 2009 at 11:42 pm

Jerry Green

Lions' future arrives, brightness to be determined

Flash forward: Five months from now, a Sunday afternoon in mid-September, and the NFL season is starting for the Lions in New Orleans.

And there he is, the No. 1 draft choice of the entire NFL, picked amid the glitter and pomp and ceremony of the Radio City Music Hall on a Saturday in April. An event in the style only the NFL is able to orchestrate.

He stands there on the sidelines, near the bench, near Jim Schwartz, the new head coach. He wears a headset instead of a helmet with the Lions' new logo on the sides. He holds a clipboard.

His name is Matthew Stafford, and his job is to perform the traditional role of the backup quarterback. A pro quarterback in the making while the Lions' new Roman candles offense operates under the jurisdiction of Daunte Culpepper, a well-traveled, beat-up functionary with NFL savvy.

Well, OK, the Lions have a fairly reasonable explanation.

"Not a quick fix," Tom Lewand, now club president, told the media this past week.

The Lions used the first pick on the board to select their quarterback of the future, the long-sought franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford. The quarterback to make all of those so-called suffering Lions' adherents over the past half-century fantasize about Bobby Layne. Stafford, right out of the same Texas Highland Park High School that Layne himself played for some 60 years ago.

Parade of mediocrity

Meanwhile, there has not been a quick fix. The Saints runners rip through the Lions defenses. Drew Brees passes their secondary silly. The worst defense in the NFL for seasons 2007 and 2008 lacks leadership and sufficient talent for 2009.

And the radically changed franchise that was rewarded with the No. 1 pick of the NFL draft due to its joke-infested 0-16 season is the same old barren, arrogant organization it has been for most of 51 years.

Flash back for a moment: Joey Harrington, Andre Ware, Chuck Long. None regarded as a quick fix, but each drafted on the first round as a franchise-rescuing quarterback. Each run out of Detroit, flopping, to the hoots of the crowds.

Flash back now to my favorite slice of wisdom: The statement by George Santayana, the Spanish-born American philosopher and poet: "Those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it."

And now, flash back also: Scott Mitchell, so highly regarded. To Greg Landry, a winner at least, a playoff quarterback, the Lions' only Pro Bowl quarterback in all those dreadful seasons since Bobby Layne's dynasty; and Tobin Rote, the Lions' most recent championship quarterback.

There is no reliable knowledge here that Matthew Stafford will become the Lions' franchise-rescuing quarterback. The Pro Bowler of 2010 or 2011. Or whether he will join the parade of those who played the position in Detroit through the years, the others who tried. Some had success, such as Gary Danielson and Eric Hipple and Erik Kramer and occasionally Milt Plum; and some didn't, such as Rodney Peete and Dan Orlovsky and Mike McMahon and Jon Kitna and Charlie Batch.

A wise football coach, a winner, the late George Allen, became an NFL legend with a simple motto: "The future is now."

It is a cliché.

But for the Lions, the future isnow.

Panic in Detroit

This pro football franchise in the city of Detroit cannot afford to lose all its games in September and into October, perhaps through into November.

The Lions' future is Sept. 13, 2009, in New Orleans and then Sept. 20, at Ford Field against the Vikings.

Once, in my youth, I used a phrase when the Lions got their rumps busted in September games, nothing as enduring as Santayana's truism.

"Time for panic!"

I turned it into another cliché.

Well, it is, right now, time for panic.

After months of speculation since the Lions lost their 16th game of a 16-game season; after 100,000 mock drafts by a corps of self-appointed experts who made a mockery of journalistic reliability; after William Clay Ford's sweeping changes in his club's hierarchy -- new coach, new GM, new president, after 51 years of inertia -- the franchise has exercised its right to draft first off the board.

And it picked another quarterback-in-waiting to stand on the sidelines, rather than a guy who knows how to tackle and lead and solidify the defense at linebacker, Aaron Curry.

Schwartz came to the Lions as head coach as a reputed defensive wizard for his successes creating the Titans' stingy defense.

Yet defense -- defense -- was ignored by the Lions in the first round. First the quarterback of the future, perhaps, and then with their precious second first-rounder, No. 20 off the board, they picked another offensive player. Brandon Pettigrew is the likely starter at tight end for the Lions as a rookie.

But already, with Stafford and Pettigrew as their first-round picks, with the porous defense so blatantly disregarded, I have suspicions that there is some old-style Lions intrigue involved.

Can it be that the head coach has been relegated to a position secondary to ownership and the front office in the vital area of personnel selection?

Suspicions only, but ... I remember Joe Schmidt's draft-day walkout 40 years ago, Monte Clark's anguish, Bobby Ross' midseason defection.


I'll say this about Stafford, though: He came across on ESPN's noise-laden coverage of Saturday's draft with a John Elway smile, flashing teeth. Further comparisons are pending. It did seem that there was an abundance of boos when Roger Goodell, the Lord High Commissioner of professional football, read off Stafford's name.

At this same draft in Radio City Music Hall in midtown Manhattan, Goodell offered the concept that the NFL soon might expend its regular season to 17 or 18 games.

Soon enough, the club that endured America's laughter by going 0-16 could be shooting at a target of 0-18.

Not a quick fix?

It's time for panic!

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports reporter. His Web-exclusive column appears at detnews.com every Sunday.

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