One of the best ways to examine a team’s performance over the course of their franchise’s history is to look at the evolution of the starting quarterback position through the years. The Detroit Lions have had a long run as an NFL franchise, but they have not had a great deal of success, especially in recent years. Historically speaking, the Lions have had great players at a number of different positions, and very good players at others including quarterback, looking at the stability of the quarterback position may give some insight into the team’s history though.
The Detroit Lions were founded in 1930 and played their first four seasons as the Portsmouth Spartans. The game was played vastly differently in the early days of professional football with no player serving as a true quarterback in the way that modern football fans would recognize. Through the first seven years of the franchise’s history, including their 1935 NFL Championship, the leading passers on the team were quarterback/tailbacks Dutch Clark, an eventual Hall of Famer, and his backfield mate Glenn Presnell. During that stretch the biggest numbers were put up in 1933 when Presnell passed for 744 yards. Clark would remain a member of the team, but in 1937 Bill Shepherd would be the team’s leading passer. Vern Huffman would lead the team in passing in 1938 and Dwight Sloan would finish off the decade as the Lions’ leading passer in 1939. The Detroit Lions would put up a losing record of 5-6 their first year in the league, 1930, but would be above .500 every other year in that opening decade.
In 1940 the legendary Byron “Whizzer” White would come to the Lions from the Steelers and make an immediate impact. White would lead the league in rushing attempts and rushing yards in 1940, and lead the Lions passing in 1940 and 1941, before changing his career path and eventually ending up on the United States Supreme Court. Harry Hopp would be the team’s leading passer in 1942 before making way for Frankie Sinkwich who would lead the team in 1943 and 1944. The 1940s would end with a number of different players leading the Lions in passing beginning with Chuck Fenenbock in 1945 and Dave Ryan in 1946. 1947 would see the Lions start their first true full-time quarterback, Clyde LeForce, with Ryan Zimmerman as his backup. While LeForce would lead the team in passing in 1947 and play significantly the next season, 1948’s team leader in passing would be Fred Enke. While LeForce and Enke would remain active players in 1949, the team leader in passing attempts, passing yards, and passing touchdowns would be rookie Frank Tripucka. This would be Tripucka’s only season with the Lions as he would eventually move on to the Cardinals and then after 1952 into coaching. He would come out of retirement to join the new American Football League in 1960 as the first starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos. For many years the 1940s would have the reputation as the worst years in team history for Detroit. During that decade the Lions would post a winless season, 0-11 in 1942, as well as a one-win and two-win season in 1946 and 1948, respectively. 1944 and 1945 would be the Lions only two winning seasons during the entire decade.
The 1950s would be the most successful decade in Detroit Lions history, thanks in large part to their new quarterback, eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer Bobby Layne. Layne would come to the Lions in 1950 with two years of pro football experience and in his very first year would lead the league in passing attempts, passing yards, and passing yards per game. He didn’t slow down there as in 1951 he would lead the league in pass completions, passing attempts, passing yards, passing touchdowns, and passing yards per game. The solid play of Bobby Layne through the early and mid-1950s combined with the productivity of teammate Doak Walker would help the Detroit Lions win three NFL Championships; in 1952, 1953, and 1957. Layne would be traded away to the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1958 season and the Lions would not see similar success on the football field since then. The primary starting quarterback for most of 1958 would be Tobin Rote, although backup Earl Morrall would be sitting on the bench in the third season of his 21 year career. Rote had been the longtime starting quarterback in Green Bay and after three seasons in Detroit, would finish his career with three years in the upstart AFL on the rosters of the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. 1959 saw Rote and Morrall split time at quarterback with Rote starting more games but Morrall leading in more statistical categories. The Lions would only put up one losing season during the Bobby Layne era, but immediately following his departure the team would finish the decade with consecutive losing seasons.
After enjoying a number of years of stability with Bobby Layne at quarterback in the 1950s, the Lions would return to their pattern of shifting instability at the quarterback position. 1960 and 1961 would see Jim Ninowski as the team’s starting quarterback. Milt Plum would arrive to takeover the quarterback duties in 1962 while backup Earl Morrall would emerge to lead the team in 1963. Though performing well during that year, Morrall would be relegated back to backup duty in 1964 eventually move on and become the starting quarterback for the New York Giants. Plum meanwhile would be the starting quarterback during those years, with George Izo replacing Morrall as his backup in 1965. Karl Sweetan and Milt Plum would split time at starting quarterback in 1966 with Sweetan barely edging Plum in games started eight to six. This formula would stay the same in 1967 with the starting opportunities divided exactly the same. Big changes would greet Lions fans at the start of the 1968 season when Bill Munson would emerge as the new starting quarterback and rookie Greg Landry as the backup. Munson and Landry would remain in these roles to finish the decade off as well.
The new decade would start off with teammates Bill Munson and Greg Landry splitting duty as the starting quarterback. Roles would be somewhat reversed in 1971 and 1972 with Landry starting all fourteen games each season. Munson and Landry would revert back to sharing the starting quarterback position in 1973 with each player starting seven games. Munson would return to the primary starting quarterback role in 1974 while Landry spot started a few games and backed up in others. Interestingly, on this 1974 Detroit Lions roster was another backup quarterback, eventual NFL head coach Sam Wyche. In 1975, the Detroit Lions would acquire quarterback Joe Reed and he would see starting action in eight games that year. The remaining six games would be split between longtime teammates Bill Munson and Greg Landry. 1975 would be Munson’s last with the team and Landry would comeback into the starting role in 1976 with Reed backing him up. Landry would continue in this role in 1977 with Gary Danielson joining Reed in the role of backup quarterback. Danielson would be the primary starter in 1978 with Landry returning to his now familiar role as the backup quarterback and spot starter. The Lions would end the decade by starting a quarterback new to the team, rookie Jeff Komlo. Komlo didn’t fare too well, with the team going 2-12 in his fourteen starts that season. Other quarterbacks seeing action that season were Joe Reed, Scott Hunter, and Jerry Golsteyn. 1970 would see the Lions win ten games, the team would not reach double-digits in victories again until twenty-one years later in 1991.
Following his dismal performance in 1979, Komlo would be demoted to backup quarterback for his next and last three seasons in the league. Rookie quarterback Eric Hipple would join the team in 1980 and over the next several years he would grow to share the starting quarterback duties with Gary Danielson. Danielson would emerge as the team’s leading quarterback in 1980, 1982, and 1984; while Hipple would serve in that role in 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1986. Longtime Buffalo Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson would join the team as a backup quarterback in 1985 and 1986. During the Hipple-Danielson era the best record the Lions would put up would be 9-7 in 1980, they would also post two four win seasons and a five win season during that time as well. 1986 would see the Lions attempt to leave all their past quarterback troubles behind them when they would draft Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Chuck Long out of the University of Iowa. Long would spend most of his rookie season backing up Hipple, going 0-2 as a starter, and then have the team turned over to him in 1987. Long would go 3-9 in his first season as a starting quarterback with the Lions going 4-12 overall. His primary backups that season would be Eric Hipple and Todd Hons, this would be Hons’ only season seeing action in the NFL. Rusty Hilger and Chuck Long would end up splitting time at the starting quarterback position in 1988, though it wouldn’t help the Lions improve much as they would again finish with a 4-12 record. 1989 would see big changes once again come to the Detroit Lions franchise as it would be the first full season for new head coach Wayne Fontes and quarterbacks Rodney Peete and Bob Gagliano would join the team. Peete, Gagliano, Hipple, and Long would all see action during the 1989 season, with Gagliano getting most of the starts followed by Peete. This would be Hipple’s last season with the Lions, and in the league in general, and the team would finish with a disappointing 7-9 record.
The 1990s would show the Lions taking advantage of eventual Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders who would provide great stability at his position over the next decade. Sadly, instability at the quarterback position had become standard operating procedure in Detroit and would continue through the new decade as well. 1990 would see Rodney Peete emerge as the main starting quarterback, though Bob Gagliano would also see time at the starting quarterback position. Rookie and Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware would also start one game, but none of these passers could help the Lions finish above .500, ultimately putting up a record of 6-10. The Lions would rebound however in a big way, going 12-4 in 1991 and advancing all the way to NFC Championship Game which they would go on to lose to the Washington Redskins by the score of 41-10. The starting quarterback position would be split during that great 1991 season with both Rodney Peete and newcomer Erik Kramer receiving eight starts, each one going 6-2 as the starter. The yo-yo 1990s theme for the Detroit Lions would show itself off the next season as in 1992 the team dropped back down to a 5-11 record with both Peete and Kramer again sharing the starting quarterback duties. Andre Ware would also return to start three games and because of the team’s 2-1 record in those games, he would be the only Lions quarterback that season to have an above .500 record. No Lions quarterback would have a below .500 record in 1993 as the team would go 10-6 with Peete again serving as the primary starter and Kramer and Ware each starting multiple games as well. 1994 would see the Lions make drastic changes at quarterback with Scott Mitchell and Dave Krieg both joining the team and seeing ample time at the starting position, despite these changes the team would go 9-7 that year. Scott Mitchell would start all 16 games in 1995 and the team would put up a record of 10-6 and return to the playoffs. One of the backup quarterbacks that would appear on the roster that season was former Green Bay Packers quarterback Don Majkowski. Mitchell would remain the starting quarterback through the 1996 and 1997 seasons as well, though after team records of 5-11 and 9-7, the Lions would once again decide to go in a new direction. 1998 would see rookie quarterback Charlie Batch go 5-7 as the starter while backups Scott Mitchell and Frank Reich would each go 0-2. 1998 would also see other big changes as longtime starter and future Hall of Famer Barry Sanders would shockingly announce his retirement. Journeyman quarterback Gus Frerotte would join the Lions in 1999 and end up splitting time with Charlie Batch to end the decade. After advancing all the way to the conference championship game in 1991, the Lions would go on to make the playoffs five more times (1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, and 1999), each time losing in the first round.
The new millennium would start out with Charlie Batch again as the starting quarterback and in a season shared by two head coaches, Gary Moeller and Bobby Ross, he would go 8-7 in that role with the one remaining starting opportunity going to Stoney Case. New head coach Marty Mornhinweg would watch Charlie Batch go 0-9 as the starting quarterback in 2001, but only a little bit better were the other quarterbacks to get starting opportunities that season as Ty Detmer would go 1-3 and rookie Mike McMahon would go 1-2. After using the third overall pick on him in the 2002 NFL Draft, the 2002 season would usher in the highly anticipated Joey Harrington era in Detroit. In rookie year with the team he would go 3-9 as a starter while McMahon would go 0-4 in that role. Former San Francisco 49ers head coach Steve Mariucci would helm the team in 2003 and stick with the highly touted Harrington for the next two seasons as the Lions put up records of 5-11 and 6-10 with him starting all sixteen games in both years. 2005 would see another head coaching change as Mariucci was let go during the season and replaced by Dick Jauron. Harrington would split starting time this year with Jeff Garcia, but neither quarterback would have a winning record while the Lions team put up an overall record of 5-11. Jon Kitna, who had experience as a starting quarterback both for the Seattle Seahawks and the Cincinnati Bengals would join the team in 2006 and start every game that year. Though he would throw for over 4,000 yards and more than 20 touchdowns, the team would still finish poorly with just a 3-13 record. The team would more than double those wins in 2007 as they rose to 7-9 with Kitna again starting every game and again throwing for more than 4,000 yards. 2008 would see more changes at quarterback in Detroit as Kitna would remain with the team in a more limited role as Dan Orlovsky would see most of the action at starting quarterback with former Minnesota Vikings great Daunte Culpepper also seeing some time. The Lions would put up a dismal record of 0-16 that season and in the following offseason Orlovsky would test the free agent market, Culpepper would discontinue his association with the team, and Kitna would be traded to the Dallas Cowboys. The following year, 2009, saw Matthew Stafford come to the team and he would go on to lead them to multiple playoff performances and make the Pro Bowl in 2014.
The Detroit Lions have one of the longest histories of any team currently in the National Football League, in fact very few teams can trace their history back to before the Portsmouth Spartans debuted in 1930. The Lions experienced some limited success early on, winning an NFL title in 1935 and then some massive success during the 1950s when they would win three league championships in six years thanks in large part to the stability at quarterback with Bobby Layne and the talent in the backfield with Doak Walker. Since that time the Lions have shown an amazing ability to continuously change quarterbacks on a regular basis. Since Bobby Layne left the team in 1958, no Detroit Lions quarterback has been the team’s regular starter for five or more consecutive seasons. This constant fluctuation and instability at the starting quarterback position may not be the only reason for more than fifty years of little on-field success, but it probably plays a large role in the problem. When you look back at some of the great teams in NFL history, even most of the teams that have just modest to good rates of success, you start to see a pattern of stability at the quarterback position as well as that of the head coach. Both of these are areas that the Detroit Lions have found challenging, to say the least, to maintain any sense of stability and consistency and that is probably one of their main reasons for not being as successful as they would hope to be.