Experience wins out in Lions backup QB battle

Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky completed 58.9 percent (33-of-56) of his passes in the preseason.

Allen Park — If you watched every minute of every Detroit Lions’ exhibition game this year, you watched rookie quarterback Jake Rudock take 112 snaps.

You watched him throw 51 passes, completing 30 for 333 yards and four touchdowns and one interception. You watched him show impressive mobility, scrambling from the pocket 10 times and gaining 62 yards on those plays. 

Heck, you might have even attended a couple of the training camp practices open to the public and read every word written about Rudock’s performance and his chances of overtaking Dan Orlovsky as the team’s backup quarterback. 

But even if you studied all of that, you only saw a sliver of what goes into the evaluation process, the combination of all the factors that go into deciding who makes the team and what role they’ll play. And that’s why, according to coach Jim Caldwell, you’ll never truly understand why the Lions make the choices they do when constructing the roster. 

“There’s a lot that goes into it,” Caldwell said. “I know you all analyze it from your vantage point and you don’t have all the information. If you ask me to stand up here and give it to you, I won’t.

“Nevertheless, I think it’s part of what makes our game interesting,” Caldwell said. “Everybody has their own opinions about how they think something should go. But the fact of the matter is we make the best decision for our team and we take everything into consideration and it’s not just one thing.”

Lions sign 9 to practice squad, including Rudock, Jones

The best decision, the team decided, was to stick with Orlovsky as the primary backup to Matthew Stafford and waive Rudock. The sixth-round draft pick out of the University of Michigan went unclaimed and promptly re-signed to the team’s practice squad, giving him the same developmental experience without taking up a valuable roster spot on a player that would never be active on game days. 

“One thing we know, we got all three,” Caldwell said. “They’re here, they’re all getting better and we’re excited about it.”

While Caldwell will never go into the detailed reasons a decision was made, he suggested Orlovsky’s experience is a significant reason why he remains part of the roster.

“He’s certainly one of those guys who have been around, understands the league, understands what he sees from a defensive standpoint. He’s played in games, has experience under his belt,” Caldwell said. 

The coach also praised the veteran’s leadership. 

Orlovsky had an up-and-down offseason. While Rudock initially struggled on the practice field, Orlovsky looked comfortable and kept mistakes to a minimum. But that didn’t carry over to the exhibition games, the portion of the offseason fans are able to watch and dissect. 

Playing earlier in games than the rookie and, by default, against better competition, Orlovsky completed 58.9 percent of his passes. That was nearly identical to Rudock’s 58.8 completion percentage. But Orlovsky made two glaring errors, rookie mistakes you wouldn’t expect from a 10-year veteran.

Both throws not only resulted in interceptions, but the picks that were returned for touchdowns. 

When the sample size is small, bad plays are magnified. These are the throws amateur talent evaluators, whether watching on TV, in the stands or in the press box, latch on to when trying to decipher how the roster should be constructed. 

Rudock certainly wasn’t flawless during the exhibition slate. He didn’t complete a downfield pass the first game and threw his own bad interception in the second. In the third contest, he didn’t complete any of his six throws, thanks to a couple drops. 

But in the fourth and final game, Rudock was good. Really good, even if nearly every defender he was working against that night was cut the following day by the Buffalo Bills. 

It’s still a lasting impression. Rudock is new and exciting, Orlovsky has been around a while and boring. It’s not unusual, in any way, that fans are more interested in potential over the tried-and-true option. But the Lions were thinking more short-term than long-term when they exposed Rudock to waivers.

The idea is that Orlovsky, the experienced veteran, is more capable of salvaging a game midstream than a rookie working against NFL starters for the first time. Plus, Rudock is still here. He’ll continue to develop, and maybe next year, with some additional experience, the Lions will be ready to trust him in the backup role. 


Twitter: @justin_rogers