Lions Take the Long Way Back

One question can tell you flat out whether a quarterback has the right stuff. One question, above all the others, separates the sharks from the fish, the guys who fire from the guys who just tickle the trigger. One question. And we are going to ask Chuck Long that question.

In a minute.

But first we are going to ask him this: Chuck, have you got everything? Helmet? Pads? Shoes? Good. Because it’s time to go.

He gets the long pants now. No more knee socks, no more little beanie, no more walking hand in hand with kindly Detroit football fans, who look at his blond hair and youthful expression and sigh about what a fine quarterback he’ll be someday. Someday is here, Chuck. Hut one. Hut two.

“WE WANT LONG! WE WANT LONG!”

Remember that? All last year? Every coming defeat? Every dismal fourth quarter? Every sack of Eric Hipple? “WE WANT LONG!” — as he stood like an innocent cadet on the sidelines? Well, now we got him. All 6-feet-4, 211 pounds. A full-fledged starter.

And what — as they say downtown — do we got?

Is he the real thing? Well. What makes the real thing? Quarterbacks will say you need a hell of a lot to play their position; talent, obviously, and precision and accuracy. Patience like Gandhi. Guts like Dillinger. Strength, poise, the grit to withstand a bulldozing sack.

But mostly you need . . . the personality.

“There are lots of guys out there with great arms and great bodies,” says Hipple, the quarterback whom Long will eventually (if not already) replace.
“They’re fast, they can throw 80 or 90 yards. But they never made it. They’re selling cars or something. They didn’t have it. It’s the intangibles that make the difference.”

This is true. And this is why we are here. His talent and toughness will reveal themselves in nine days, when the season begins; but does Chuck Long, 24, have that profile? Can he answer that one big question?

Here is a quarterback personality checklist — five major characteristics shared by the great ones.

Let’s check Chuck out.

1. I AM THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Consider these images: Joe Namath with a bevy of girls. Bobby Layne in the middle of the bar crowd. Johnny Unitas, crouched in the mud, 10 guys huddled around him. A quarterback — a great one, anyhow — has to love to be the center of things. No matter where. It has to happen. Come naturally.

Now, of course, you can’t just go up to a young quarterback and ask him whether he fits this pattern. He’ll say yes. It’s too obvious. Ask him instead, what his favorite moment in the game is.

“I’ll tell you,” Chuck Long answers, without hesitation. “You step up to the line of scrimmage. You see a lot of guys moving, you hear a lot of shouting, and then you call the play, and there’s this split-second of silence. It’s right there. Just you. Center stage. You’re in control. You’re all alone. You’re on an island. Make the decision. That’s my favorite part.”

He stops and grins; his eyes are far away. “I guess I’ve always liked that,

being the center of attention. When I played baseball in high school, I always pitched. With football, I began as a receiver, but I always wanted to be quarterback. When I got the job, it just felt . . . natural.

“My junior year, we won the (Illinois) state championship. It was the first time people I didn’t know came up to me and said, ‘Great job.’ All of a sudden, everywhere I go, I’m shaking hands.”

“Was it at all uncomfortable?” he is asked. “All those people around you?”

“Oh, no,” he says, laughing. “I said, ‘This is great. Is this what it’s like?’ I was addicted from then on.”

Center of attention.

Check.

2. I AM NEVER RATTLED

Few things in life rival the hellstorm of the quarterback on a pass play. Try to imagine your house caving in as you attempt to change a light bulb — and if you don’t change it by the count of four, the ceiling comes down on your head. “That’s where a lot of guys lose it,” Hipple says, “the panic throw.”

Yes. The difference between great quarterbacks and good ones is the extra second the former will remain calm, find the secondary receiver, allow the chaos around him to shift to a more advantageous position. There is no room for fear. No room for impatience. No room for confusion.

“Tell us about that moment,” we ask Long, disguising our purpose.

“Well, as soon as you take the snap,” he says, “nobody’s where they were; sometimes a hole splits open in front of you, sometimes guys come right down the middle. You got safeties sliding, and corners sliding, and out of the corner of your eye you’ve got to spot your receiver, but you’re watching the defense. You have to know what everybody’s doing, every guard and every tackle, all 11 on both sides, because those guys want to cream you. . . . ”

“Sounds confusing,” we say.

“It can be real confusing,” he says. “It can be very unnerving to a lot of guys.”

“And you?”

“Me? I love it. Standing in that pocket. Yeah. My favorite part.”

Check.

He has a lot of favorite parts, doesn’t he?

3. I AM SOOOOO CONFIDENT

You think Ken Stabler ever burped a moment’s doubt? You think Unitas ever visited an analyst? You think Namath ever confided in his receivers: “Hey, guys. I’m not that good. Cover for me.”

Uh-uh. You lack confidence, you go nowhere in football. You go backward. Bravado. Braggadocio. Whatever word you choose, you need it by the gallon. Nothing can shake you. Not dropped passes, not three straight sacks. And not the fans. You might think it’s easy coming off the field in a rain of boos.

Just try it.

“Remember Gifford Nielsen (Houston) and Marc Wilson (LA Raiders)?” Hipple asks. “Here were guys who were outstanding quarterbacks, they were always loved, but in the pros they got booed, they got in bad situations, and they fell apart.

“I talked to Gifford before he retired, and he said, ‘You know, that’s never happened to me before. It was a shock.’ I know it shattered Marc, too. I talked with him. He was kind of beaten down by all the adversity. It can get you. It really can.”

Confidence. Cockiness. The I-am-right-and-you-are-wrong attitude. How will Long — who has never really been booed in his life — stack up in this department?

Based on performance, his resume is good: Remember his senior season at Iowa, the Michigan State game, which he won with a bootleg in the final seconds? Remember his three bowl games? The Peach Bowl (a record 11 straight completions, 304 yards passing); the Freedom Bowl (29-of-39, 461 yards, six TDs); the Rose Bowl (29-of-37, 319 yards)?

Remember Long’s first start for Detroit last year? Monday night. The world champion Chicago Bears. Big-time hype. Big-time pressure. He did OK. He enjoyed it. He didn’t crack.

Good signs. Pressure performances. Of course, once again, you can’t just come out and ask a guy whether he’s confident. Jeez. Be discreet. Work around it. Ask him instead whether he thinks any quarterbacks in the NFL might be flat-out better than he is.

“No, I don’t,” Long says. “I feel there are guys more advanced than me at this stage, but I never feel there’s someone better at my position. I always feel with more knowledge I can be just as good.

“When I watch guys play like Dan Marino or Jim McMahon, I’ll say, yeah, that guy is good. But he has his style, and I have my style, and I feel any style is OK as long as it gets the job done. I never say, ‘Man, if I had his receivers, if I had that line. . . . ‘ I just say, ‘I can do that.’ Or in time, I can learn how to do it.”

Hmmm.

Interesting.

Quickly, now.

“What was the last thing you failed at?” he is asked.

“I honestly can’t remember,” he says.

Check.

4. I AM SMART; THEREFORE I AM IN CHARGE

Football is the only major sport in which you look into the eyes of your teammates after every play. Every bad play. Every good play. Eleven men in a human circle, heads in, breath meeting breath, sweat dripping, blood, mud, huddle up, listen up. Look in the eyes of the quarterback. Ho, mama. You better see something there. You just better.

“In-tayl-eee-gence!” Hipple says, in a mock Southern drawl. “You need intelligence. You gotta make the right decisions, or those guys are gonna say, ‘What are we following this idiot for?’ ”

Intelligence. You step to the line with a play designed for a two-deep defense. And they have three defensive backs deep. What’s the decision? Or a strong-side play, but they’re lined up the other way. What’s the decision? Or a single coverage, but your guy is double-covered, a drop-back, but there’s a blitz. And these are just the basics, the ABC’s of quarterbacking. “In the regular season,” explains Lions coach Darryl Rogers, “the other teams are real good at disguising what defense they’re using. Disguises. That’s what gets a lot of young quarterbacks.”

Intelligence. It means figuring out disguises, knowing how much time is left, knowing who can really get open (and who’s just saying he can), where’s the guard pulling, where’s the tackle going, who’s coming, who’s your primary, who’s your secondary, who’s there for a dump-off? All this is in the brain. Whether you can throw hasn’t even entered the equation yet.

“Doesn’t always matter,” Hipple says. “I went to college with Craig Bradshaw (Terry’s brother). Talk about talent! That guy had a cannon and a half! He was 6-4, 220. He was drafted the same year as me. But he never made it. He didn’t have it. I guess he made too many of those wrong decisions — now he’s down in Shreveport somewhere.”

Intelligence.

Of course, there is no IQ test for this sort of thing; it’s as much how fast you think as what you think. But smarts were one of the things on which Chuck Long graded highly with scouts; for his part, Long thinks that’s his strength.

“I know for a fact there are some guys out there with stronger arms or faster legs.” He leans back in his chair, arms behind his head. “But a lot of guys have talent. Not everyone has smarts. I feel I’m smart enough to get the job done.”

“Do you still have much to learn?” comes the question — often a barometer of intelligence.

“Oh, yeah, lots,” he says.

Check. 5. I AM HUNGRY

Finally, without a taste for glory, there’s no reason to play football. It has to be ice cream, chocolate, sex, wealth, anything you can’t get enough of.

Why else put up with the pain, the impact, the head-beating?

Glory. It is true. Chuck Long was not raised in a shack with no running water. He is a suburban kid who will never starve. But money need not be your motivating factor in this game. Money you get when you sign. Success, fame, glory — that stuff comes only with winning.

Here are some good signs: Chuck Long stuck around his final season at Iowa for the simple goal of reaching the Rose Bowl. He wanted that glory. He did it, too. He dreams the same dream as every other quarterback now: to be the best there ever was. Numbers are OK. But Long wants your memory.

“Nobody remembers stats,” he says. “They remember wins and losses. That’s why nobody will really remember me unless I’m a Super Bowl quarterback. I . .
. wanna be in the Super Bowl. I know it sounds silly now. Like, Super Bowl, yeah, right, you gotta crawl before you can walk. But that’s my goal, if there’s any goal. Because that’s what people remember. . . . ”

Hunger. Glory.

Check. So he gets a nod on most major points. Which means absolutely nothing, if he doesn’t pan out. Ask any of the involved parties what Chuck Long has yet to prove in his job, and the answer is always the same.

“That he can win,” Rogers says.

“That he can win,” Hipple says.

“That I can win,” Long says.

Well. At least we’re all in agreement here.

He gets the long pants now. Gets to stand across from 11 guys who want to taste his blood. Gets to bow into the huddle, be the center of the universe, bark out his signals, show his smarts, gets to look into the eyes of his panting teammates and convince them of a fire deep within.

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