Without written evidence of the opening day projections, the position battles are heating up in theory before practice. But none of the theoretical battles match the one happening at quarterback .
The Lions have two options, a recently under-achieving veteran or the unproven rookie.
Playing the role of veteran is Daunte Culpepper, entering his 10th professional season, second with the Lions. The rookie quarterback role belongs to the draft’s No. 1 overall selection, Matthew Stafford.
When debating which of the two should be the team’s primary starter this year, the overwhelming determining factor in most arguments is Stafford’s development. On the surface, this appears to be a deal breaker, however, it’s importance may be greatly exaggerated.
If Peyton Manning or Donovan McNabb would have sat out their first seasons, would they have not developed into the players they are? If Brett Favre or Drew Brees would have played as rookies, would their careers be ruined? The simple answer is: No, a quarterback is going to reach his potential when given a fair opportunity. Early struggles won’t destroy any quarterback that is capable of playing at a Pro Bowl level neither will watching from the sidelines for a year.
So, instead of focusing on what’s best for the development of Stafford, the main concern should be, what’s best for the Lions in 2009?
Culpepper, to me, is the logical choice here.
Culpepper, 32, not only has the edge in experience, he has the edge in experience within the Lions’ new offense.
The Lions’ new offensive coordinator is Scott Linehan, who ran the Minnesota Vikings from 2002-2005, where Culpepper experienced his most productive years as the team's starter.
Culpepper’s advantage doesn’t end in his knowledge of the offense, it is also present in his familiarity with his surroundings. Having played last season behind the offensive line, which at worst should return three starters. He has also developed a chemistry with star receiver Calvin Johnson.
Many question Culpepper’s recent on-the-field struggles, his susceptibility to injury and his reputation for having a poor ability to read defenses. All of which are valid concerns based on his recent play. Still, Culpepper’s situation this season is different than year’s past.
Culpepper will enter the year with a full offseason to prepare with his teammates without any trade or contract distractions – something he hasn’t had since 2005. Also, he has reportedly lost significant weight this offseason and is said to be in terrific physical condition. If this is true, he should not only be more effective on the field, he should have a reduced chance of injury.
Lastly, his abilities to read defenses shouldn’t be a major concern playing for the Lions. With Johnson commanding a constant double-team and with a respectable pass-catching tight end (rookie Brandon Pettigrew) and a threat at running back (Kevin Smith) defenses should be more forthcoming in their attacks – simplifying Culpepper’s reads.
There is no doubt Stafford will be given the job eventually, but in 2009 – at least until the Lions are eliminated from playoff contention – Culpepper should be the starter. Not because Stafford needs time to develop or because his confidence needs to be sheltered, rather because Culpepper gives the team their best chance to win.
Will the Lions rise like a Phoenix (or Cardinal?) through the ashes of a historically humiliating season? Can Larry Foote provide Detroit's first legitimate middle linebacker in recent memory? Will Barry Sanders return on the anniversary of his 10-year sabbatical?
Yep, they're interesting. But combing through what will be one of the more interesting NFL training camps yields the central theme of the Great American Novel, while the rest are subplots.
Stafford versus Culpepper. You would almost expect to see each player (think: MMA-style promo event) pounding their fists, grinding their teeth, and delivering silly one-liners like, "He might be the No. 1 pick, but I was misreading defenses while he was in diapers!"
Really, there isn't anything like a good quarterback battle. And while it's easy to play down anything involving the Lions with a certain dose of cynicism, it will have reverberations on both this year and the future.
The showdown plays like The Quick and the Dead (DiCaprio versus Hackman), or a movie starring Al Pacino as a tough-talking, 5-foot-7 head coach with chronic Laryngitis, who has to decide between the aging veteran with knee problems, and the young buck with fan-tabulous hair.
While the last man standing will be determined over the next couple of weeks, I'm hanging my allegiance and belief on Matthew Stafford.
There's a few trains of logical thought behind this ...
First, the money. The Lions can say what they want about competition, but they didn't hand Stafford $41.7 in guaranteed money if they didn't firmly believe he could play in this league. And judging from his mini-camp performances to date, he has backed up the organization's confidence in his right arm.
Also, people shouldn't want to see Daunte Culpepper. I don't want to see Daunte Culpepper. Not after last season's embarrassing tour (11 turnovers in five games), and the two years that preceded it. That giant cloud causing short-term memory and projecting Culpepper as something that he's not, a bona fide NFL starter, are the fumes from last year's series of unfortunate events.
Last year happened. It was sad. It was pathetic. And it's thankfully over. But regardless of how you slice it, Daunte Culpepper was a part of it, and not in that helpful, Well, we'll-see-what-we-have-in-that-guy-next-year sort of way.
The loss of 30 pounds doesn't mean Culpepper will regain his Pro Bowl form from several years ago, unless they extracted it from the part of his brain that prevented him from reading an NFL defense.
Culpepper had one phenomenal year in 2004. That was five years, Randy Moss, and a career-threatening knee injury ago. The quicker people realize that Culpepper is nothing more than an adequate back-up (as proven by his stints in Miami, Oakland, and retirement), the better.
In Stafford, the Lions don't know exactly what they have, but what they do know should give everyone some semblance of hope. At least more than Culpepper can provide.
Stafford's arm has drawn rave reviews from the media to the coaching staff down to the locker room, which isn't in any particular quarterback's corner. Unlike a franchise that might have had recent success (and an established lot of players on a roster), the Lions' players are thirsty just to win, and will rally behind the player most capable of delivering.
He is a confident player that commands respect, and has every tool imaginable to become an elite quarterback in the league. Among those tools are Brandon Pettigrew, Kevin Smith, and Calvin Johnson.
The Lions shouldn't delay the future. They should embrace it.