if it sounds too good to be true . . .

>> 9.03.2009

Less than a week ago, Lions fans were practically floating.  After years of not having a single decent quarterback, it appeared that the Lions suddenly had three.  Daunte Culpepper was flashing a little of his old speed and a lot of veteran savvy, Matthew Stafford was proving to be every bit the golden boy, and Drew Stanton was showing he can make plays and win games. The Lions, for arguably the first time ever, had three legitimate and/or promising NFL quarterbacks on the roster.

Then Monday happened. Word came down that Daunte Culpepper had torn the webbing between two toes by stubbing it on a carpet; Lions fans everywhere started kicking their rugs, trying to figure out how on Earth Daunte ended up needing eight stitches. Worse yet was the news that Drew Stanton's knee--not that knee, the other knee--had swollen, and he was flying to Alabama to be seen by orthopedic surgeon extraordinaire, Dr. James Andrews.

With Matthew Stafford suddenly the only healthy quarterback on the roster, the Lions signed veteran QB Brooks Bollinger. Bollinger was one of three "short list" quarterbacks the Lions brought in for workouts at the beginning of camp, along with Cleo Lemon, now with the Ravens, and Craig Nall. Clearly, Bollinger would give the Lions an emergency option while Dr. Andrews went to work on Stanton's injury.

Then, the Lions claimed recently-released-by-the-Patriots QB Kevin O'Connell on waivers, smearing mounds of mud on the Lions' crystal-clear quarterback picture. What are we to make of this mess?

We can start with the assumption that the Lions plan to keep Drew around; flying him down to the world's greatest sports injury doctor for an examination and 'scope is no small investment. It's how you treat a valued piece of the puzzle, not a guy who'll be handing in his playbook sometime soon. We also know that Matthew Stafford is the future of the franchise. That, however, is about all we know for sure.

Daunte Culpepper has played well in the preseason, showing some of his old elusiveness. He also showed, perhaps for the first time in his career, a conservative, thoughtful, veteran's approach to decision-making. He seems to be making all of his reads, and heavily using the runningbacks as safety valves when nothing is open. Shockingly, I find myself criticizing him for dumping it off TOO often; for the first time ever, Daunte has been gunshy with the downfield pass. However, he is certainly playing like a decent NFL quarterback, one who will at least be a net positive rather than a net negative at the position.

However, that's about as far as it goes with him . . . he is most definitely a stand-in, a straw man, a tackling dummy; there to get the Lions by until Stafford is ready. Moreover, Daunte's entire contract is set up so that if the Lions can wash their hands of him any time before Week 1. If the Lions plan to start Stafford Week 1, then there's really no point in keeping Daunte around; he won't be here next year either way--and to suggest he'd be an insurance policy for a playoff run is even more optimistic than I'm willing to be. So Daunte is the nominal starter, but the Lions could effortlessly trade or release him before the season. Remember that.

Brooks Bollinger is a former Wisconsin Badger, who was the Jets' 2003 sixth-rounder. After three years with the Jets, he spent two years with the Vikings, and has been staying employed here and there ever since. Stanton's likely to miss only a few weeks, and it doesn't seem possible that a team so desperate to impove their roster would carry two kickers and four quarterbacks into the regular season, Bollinger seems to know his window is small indeed.

Kevin O'Connell, a 2008 third-round pick who barely spent a full year with the Patriots, is still regarded as a talented prospect around the league; Quoth The Grandmaster:

"We've said all along that we're gonna look every way we can to improve the team. (O'Connell) was a guy that we had pretty good grades on coming out of college. He came available, we had a situation where we could take a look at him, so we're gonna do it."
So O'Connell is a kid the Lions are going to want to take a look at, just like they took looks at guys like Glenn Holt. He could make the final roster as a prospect for next season, or he could be out in the next round of cuts. So . . . scenarios:
  • Culpepper starts Week 1, Stafford is the #2, Stanton is expected to miss just a few weeks. In this scenario, the Lions would have to choose between keeping O'Connell around for a few extra weeks, thoroughly evaluating him at the expense of keeping a Zack Follett, or rolling with two healthy QBs and hoping Nick Harris or Derrick Williams can hand it off reliably if called upon.
  • Culpepper starts Week 1, Stafford is the #2, Stanton is going to miss 8+ weeks and is IR'd.  Now there's a roster spot for either Bollinger or O'Connell; my guess is that no matter how well Bollinger plays, it will depend on whether O'Connell flashes enough potential. If he does, it would set up a Stanton-O'Connell battle for the #2 job next season. If he doesn't, he'll be traded to one of the other teams that wanted him, and Bollinger will be kept on as the #3.
  • Stafford starts Week 1, Culpepper is the #2, etc. This really doesn't change the battle for #3 much, except that Bollinger's chances would be practically nil; with Culpepper as the "veteran backup", #3 needs to be a developmental prospect (Stanton if healthy, O'Connell if not).
  • Stafford starts Week 1, Stanton is the #2, Bollinger is the #3 NOW things get interesting. If Culpepper is traded or released, the Lions could simply promote Stanton as the #2, carry Bollinger into the season as the #3, and do with O'Connell as they will. Bollinger could hold down the fort as the #2 until Stanton is healthy, and then Stanton could relieve Stafford in spots, see garbage time, and maybe finish a game with some off-the-bench heroics in case of injury. Bollinger would provide a veteran hand in case of a (God forbid) long-term Stafford injury.
  So, while the Lions' quarterback situation is dramatically cloudier than it was a few days ago, the quick signing of Bollinger and the clever claim on O'Connell gives the Lions both insurance and leverage. Even if Stanton's okay, they cut Bollinger after the Buffalo game, and trade O'Connell for a sixth-rounder, it's all a net gain for the Lions. And if, again God forbid, Stanton's NOT okay, they'll have two different insurance policies. And if, in the admittedly unlikely scenario someone offers a third-rounder for Culpepper, the Lions have the flexibility to make that move, too. Soon, folks, you'll be able to resume floating.  


Imperical Evidence,  September 3, 2009 at 10:38 PM  

Imperical Evidence

What team would trade for Culpepper , a QB with a one year contract? They would have to give up a younger prospect or a solid veteran , and in both cases , with a few years left. What team wants to trade for a 1 year contract?

Pacer,  September 4, 2009 at 5:50 PM  

Ty-nice breakdown but I tend to disagree with you and a lots of others re: Culpepper. I don't see the wisdom of waiving, cutting or trading Dante. While he is not the future of the Lions it would appear that he has developed into a solid short term starter or backup for 2009. Relying on Stanton to remain healthy is not sound strategy and even if the "scope" goes well, knee injuries are notoriously fickle.

Depending on the projected time for recovery, Stanton may end up on the PUP list-able to rehabilitate and be part of team meetings but not able to practise or play for the 1st 6 weeks. That assumes the Lions would wait until the beginning of the season to place him on PUP.

While most everyone is clamoring for Stafford to start and trade Culpepper ( to who, for what, barring major injuries to other teams' starters or backups,) I think trading Culpepper and praying for Stanton to be healthy is short sighted in the extreme.

While Culpepper does not have Stafford's arm, the offense has functioned more smoothly under Dante than Stafford. Assuming you start Stafford, why would you take away the best possible back up you have with Culpepper? And while I thought that Stanton had been shamefully misused in his first 2 years in Detroit, the fact that he has done well against the 2cd and 3rd teams defensive opponents in preseason does not mean he is ready for a solid back up year in 2009, especially coming off another knee injury.

If Stafford get injured I would much rather have Dante that Drew backing him up. So I envision this scenario, Culpepper or Stafford to start, Stanton on PUP and either O'Connell or Bollinger at # 3. I think O'Connell is actually more valuable to a trading partner then Culpopper. If Culpepper starts I don't see a scenario where he would go beyond the bye week, coincidentally close to when Stanton would come off the PUP list. Then things would get interesting depending on how Bollinger and/or O'Connell have done in practise.

Lots of fun.

Joe Willy,  September 6, 2009 at 10:47 AM  

I'll argue the benefits of cutting Daunte, even if I don't necessarily agree with them:

• Save money by not paying roster bonus to a guy who may not start after week 6.
• Reduce pressure on Schwartz/Mayhew by eliminating the only person who "threatens" the starting status of the $40+ million kid.
• Reduce locker room divide potential by cutting the veteran leader (see Raiders cutting Garcia and Vikings trying to trade Tavaris).
• Allow a look at younger QBs for the future.
• Allow Stafford to develop without fans and media questioning why #2 isn't starting/playing (some will still call for Drew is he's here but it won't be as loud as having Culpepper in waiting).
• Allow Stafford to get all practice and game snaps, increasing his ability to learn.

I almost think with Culpepper here you have to start with him since it's easier to pull him for the rookie after a few losses that is to try to go with the rookie during the early, brutal schedule and then later bench him for the veteran. And why pay Daunte if he's going to sit anyway?

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