He was wearing a Detroit Lions cap and he stood under a Detroit Lions banner. He was still wearing his Detroit Lions pants.
“Had you ever played in the Silverdome before today?” a reporter asked.
“No,” he said.
“Had you ever been in the Silverdome?”
“Had you ever been in Detroit?”
Ladies and gentlemen, our new starting quarterback. Rusty Hilger had practiced all of three days with the Lions before Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears. Three days is not much time in the NFL. Three days is very little time. Three days is barely long enough to say to your receivers:
“How’s it goin’?”
And Chuck Long went down.
A knee injury. Second quarter. He hobbled off the field. The regular backup, Eric Hipple, was already gone, out last week with a broken ankle. And so, with the Lions already drowning under a 1-4 record, and the Motor City already braced for another miserable football season, all eyes turned to Rusty, who was, well, let’s be honest here, rusty.
No matter. They gave him the helmet, a handful of instructions, and command of the night brigade.
“Weren’t you kind of hoping for a little more time to learn the system?” Hilger was asked, after the Lions lost again, 24-7.
“Well, if I can be a little funny here,” he said, ‘I told Chuck before the game if he was going to get hurt, he better go to the hospital or else I’d kill him.”A tough way to meet people It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. Here, inside a home stadium filled with more — or at least louder — Chicago fans than Detroit fans, the Lions were trying to win a game with a quarterback who last week was coaching a high school team in California.
High school? Yes. Cut from the Raiders before the season started, Hilger, 26, had been biding his time working with the quarterbacks at El Segundo High School near Manhattan Beach. Last week, the Lions called. Hilger was happy. He might have been happier if they’d waited until he got over the jet lag.
“Wasn’t it strange throwing to players you didn’t even know?” someone asked.
“Well, yeah, it was. Sometimes, when we got back into the huddle, I didn’t know who to say ‘Good job’ to or who to say ‘You do this, or that.’ Sometimes I didn’t know who was catching the passes until they spun around and I saw the name on their jersey.”
Not that he had that many completions. These, after all, are the Lions. Hilger’s final numbers were 13-for-43, 186 yards, with one touchdown, one interception, a lot of bobbles and a fair share of balls that just sailed over everyone’s head. But hey. What do you expect for three days? A new system? New plays? Against the Chicago Bears? Do you know how tough that is? It would be like landing in Afghanistan and being asked to do somebody’s taxes.
“The play calling was the toughest part. Someone would run into the huddle and say, ‘East, Under Strong.’ And I’d say, ‘Uhhh . . . OK . . . East, it’s east, it’s under, let’s see, that means . . . right, it’s strong, it’s 872 wide, right, OK, and meanwhile the 30 second clock is going tick tick away. .
The Lions coaches tried to simplify things. They stuck with eight or nine basic plays. They abandoned signals from the sideline and sent in each play. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes it didn’t.
“I thought he did a real good job considering the circumstances,” said Pete Mandley, who caught three of Hilger’s passes, including a 56-yard heave and a seven-yard strike for the Lions’ only touchdown. “Every once in a while he’d call something and we’d have no idea what he was talking about. But we’d just tell him to call something else.”
Hey. If they’d tried that with Chuck Long, they might have won a few games by now. A silver and blue lining
But such is the state of affairs with our NFL football team, funny and tragic at the same time. Even when they started to move Sunday, in the third quarter, their momentum was squashed when Steve Mott snapped the ball about 20 feet into midair. He thought Hilger was behind him. Which he was. Way behind him. In the shotgun formation. Ooops.
The Bears recovered.
And the Bears won. Easy. You wonder if they knew this was an away game, considering how many of the 64,526 Silverdome fans were rooting for Chicago. They could have been visitors from the Windy City. If so, they had damn good seats.
How disgusting. There were Bears banners and Bears costumes everywhere. Doesn’t the home team at least deserve a home crowd? At one point, Bears fans grew so loud that Hilger had to step back from scrimmage until they died down. In his own stadium? Can you believe it? “I have never played an away game at home before,” Hilger said.
Might as well get used to it. Sad? Ugly? We call it football. And face it: This quarterback situation is amusing, but the Lions are going nowhere once again. Their season is already a wash. They are 1-5, they play the Giants twice in the next three weeks and you can forget it.
A bright spot? You want a bright spot? OK. I saw something in Hilger that is encouraging. When asked about his performance Sunday, he quickly said:
“A veteran quarterback should be able to step in and play a little better than I did today. I’d like to give a public apology to the people of Detroit.
One week with the Lions and he’s already apologizing.
The man is obviously a fast learner.