Column: NFL Draft has made Lions April's Fool

The fact that neither Earl "Dutch" Clark (pictured) nor Bobby Layne came to the Lions via college doesn't mean the next potential Hall of Famer the Lions have a real chance of drafting won't be. It's just a sign of what's happened. Signs of things to come are another department.

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While difficult to accomplish, the Detroit Lions have managed to put a negative spin on positive facts. Two of eight Lions quarterbacks selected in the NFL college draft are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The trouble is, neither one played a down with the Lions.

What follows should make all Lions Fans shudder. It's no exaggeration, nor is it opinion. These are the facts of our football life.

When it comes to evaluating college talent at quarterback, the Lions don't have a ruddy clue. In fact, the team hasn't recognized talent when it fell in their laps.

Case in point: Two of the eight quarterbacks the Lions have drafted in the first round since the draft started in 1936 are in the NFL Hall of Fame. Enshrined in Canton are Otto Graham and Y.A. Tittle.

The trouble is, both Graham and Tittle passed on their opportunities to play for the Lions. They weren't traded away. Both were dropped like a Charlie Batch pass and allowed to sign with the NFL's rival pro league, the All-America Football Conference.

It couldn't be any more ironic if it was posted on April Fool's Day. The Lions play the Fools when it comes to judging and drafting quarterbacks. But, it's no April's Fool joke. It's true. 'LIONSMANIAC' (from 'The Den' message board) found the factoid highlighted on the team's official home page.

Drafted Under a Bad Sign

The draft isn't necessarily a bad thing, but for the Lions it brings mixed portends, not only for what's happened but also for what may never occur. Like talent. The team also has had a difficult time seeing skills when there are none and vice verse.

Want to make Lions Fan madder than after a holding call in the Red Zone? Mention the names Andre Ware and Chuck Long. Ware was selected in the first round with the #7 pick in 1990 and Long at #12 in 1986. Both looked great in college. They seemed like "Franchise" type talents — players around which to build a team. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, neither played up to his pre-draft promise.

Passed over players make up another Round 1 category altogether. This list includes field generals like Jim Kelly who went to Buffalo at #14 in 1983. With pick #13, the Lions chose RB James Jones. Another fumbled opportunity (to be fair, missed by many teams) was Dan Marino, who went to Miami at #27 in the same round.

Lions Fans might think the team would have learned their lesson from four years earlier. In 1979 the Lions selected OT Keith Dorney in round 1, LB Ken Fantetti in round 2, and RB Bo Robinson in round 3. Evidently every scouting report on one Joe Montana said he was full of holes before getting dropped in the circular file. Hindsight is 20-20 and Montana today is remembered as the game's only 3-time Super Bowl MVP.

No wonder Lions Fans are more than a bit sensitive, testy is a better word, when it comes to drafting a quarterback with the first pick. One thing though, it still doesn't make the Lions' 0-for-ever Super Bowl drought hurt any less.

They Were Mighty Players in Days of Old

When the talk turns to Lions quarterbacks, there is one name Lions Fans should remember: Earl "Dutch" Clark. One of the Lions' original stars from the days before there was a college draft, Clark is remembered as the last of the "Triple Threat" signal-callers from pro football's Iron Age.

As quarterback, frequent running back, and kicker, Clark was the first quarterback to lead the Detroit Lions to an NFL championship. The team won the crown in 1935.

Besides Bobby Layne, Clark is the only Lions quarterback to ever do so. Both men are members of the Hall of Fame. Judging from the perpetually futile record posted by the Lions without them, they deserve to be.

Layne led the Lions to three NFL championships in the 1953, '54, and '57. Then, to show their appreciation, the team's new coach traded Layne to his former coach in Pittsburgh. That's where that curse idea came from.

Neither Clark nor Layne was picked by the Detroit Lions in the college draft at all. Clark was on the original roster when the team moved from Portsmouth, Ohio. Layne was obtained in a trade — called by former Packers' GM Ron Wolfe the "Best Trade Ever."

Still the fact neither came to the Lions via college doesn't mean the next potential Hall of Famer the Lions have a real chance of signing won't be. It's just a sign of what's happened. Signs of things to come are another department.

Do QBs Make the Lions Gun Shy or Gun Short?

Sure, the stats indicate most first round QBs will not make it into Canton. But the team still has to try to find and field the best player possible at each position, particularly quarterback.

Just because something didn't work out once, um, twice, OK, lots of times, doesn't mean it won't work in the future. Right? Wrong! It may or it may not work.

The trick is to knowing and recognizing who's got what and who doesn't. This is where you can't have enough football brains working on the problem of making the right read — especially in the 2002 NFL College Draft.

This year, the Lions have a chance, a decent chance, of drafting a top-flight college player who has a very good possibility of becoming a most respectable pro player.

Smart teams don't skip on selecting a starting QB. At least those teams that plan to go further than the first round of the playoffs don't. Despite what's happened in the past, the Lions still need a competent Captain.

Don't believe it? Think the team has to be solid top-to-bottom first to get anywhere? You might want to ask Barry Sanders what it was like facing eight men in the box whenever his team made the playoffs. If you find him and he says anything at all, he may indicate it wasn't much fun. If I can't forget Sanders getting 6 yards or something ridiculous against the Packers, it's likely he can't either.

Oh, it wasn't like Sanders was alone with a few fans watching on television out there. In addition to an outstanding defense, the team had a super-body with a super-arm at quarterback. Who can forget Scott Mitchell mouth off to Wayne Fontes when pulled from the game, "Why me?" The guy who beat us silly? Why ex-Lion QB Rodney Peete, of course.

The Sad Facts of Lion Life

OK, I'll stop. I hate making readers cry. Groaning is another matter. When it comes to the ship in question, there's been serious dereliction of duty by the field general of the Detroit Lions.

Lions head coach Marty Mornhinweg, and many of his colleagues in pro football, know that and rightfully argue the quarterback is the most important position on a team. Besides being involved on most every offensive play, the starting QB is often the player most responsible for creating the character of the team as a whole.

Whether that character is based on a winning or losing spirit depends on how the QB plays game days. And that's the kind of spirit the Lions have been missing since, when? Everybody shouts at once: "1957!"

Unfortunately, the Andre Ware Syndrome is still with the team. The team is "gun shy" of using any high first-round pick on a quarterback. Many, if not most, fans refuse to entertain the possibility of using the #3 pick overall to select a potential franchise QB.

Unbelievably, yet understandably, gun shy is the wrong approach. The Detroit Lions have been short of real guns when the shooting started in Septembers past. The quarterback is a team's true captain. They lead teams to victory and defeat. And that's why they are worth selecting in the first round of the draft.

Where else are the Lions going to find one? Teams don't trade them. Those worthy, they label them "Franchise" players and that's that. So that makes the draft the only place these days to find them.

That's what makes the upcoming draft so important. The team has the choice of trading away the #3 pick and potentially fixing a bunch of holes at several positions. Or they can go for broke, playing their hand in hopes of landing a playmaker with the #3.

One of the options is to draft John J. Harrington, Oregon QB. In Harrington, the Lions would get a player who has proven his ability to win at the highest level of college competition — he's 25-3 as a starter in the Pac-10. He's re-written the passing records at his school, many once set by Dan Fouts, himself an NFL Hall of Famer.

The Captain has been missing from the bridge of the Lions ship for a long time. Perhaps he's already on deck in the form of a junior officer commissioned last year, Mike McMahon. Perhaps he's a possible candidate for Officer Candidate School identified in Oregon. Either way, he needs to show up willing, ready, and able for action in the 2002 campaign.

Finding the right signal-caller would go a long way to setting the team on the proper course — especially for the team in question, the April's Fools of the modern-day NFL Draft. That's one holiday tradition all Lions Fans would rather do without.

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