Ihad long planned a vacation for early September, which meant missing the Lions’ season opener Sunday. “No big deal,” I figured upon boarding the plane,
“how much can happen in an opener? …”
Here’s how much. Charlie Batch, the quarterback, has an awful game. Marty Mornhinweg, the coach, blows a gasket.
Marty looks at film. Marty benches Charlie.
Marty hands the starting job to Ty Detmer — He’s on the Lions? Why doesn’t anyone tell me anything? — because Detmer knows the West Coast offense, even if he doesn’t know his teammates’ first names.
Ty is living in a hotel.
He has been a Lion for just over a week.
And he hasn’t played since 1999.
So the lesson is clear.
I take no more vacations.
“The standard for quarterback play will be high here,” Mornhinweg declared in announcing the switch. “I was unsatisfied with the level Charlie played at. I expected him to play at a much higher level against Green Bay.”
Wow. As we used to say about my sixth-grade math teacher, “He’s strict!”
Let’s hope so. Let’s hope this is a move about standards, and not a standard move. For if the level for play is so high, how come the Lions are trusting it to a guy who, thanks to a ripped Achilles, hasn’t played in an NFL game since last millennium? No knock on Ty Detmer, a terrifically nice guy. But you generally prefer a starting quarterback who doesn’t have his airplane ticket still in his front pocket.
And what about Batch, the incumbent starter with the big contract? He’s done? Like that? Really, this is an incredible move. I can’t recall a new head coach benching his starting quarterback after one game since — well, since Ty Detmer was benched after one game as the starter for the Cleveland Browns in 1999.
That was different. The Browns had a No. 1 draft pick, Tim Couch, waiting in the wings, and a stadium full of fans hungry for youth.
The Lions, in turning to Detmer, are different. They are saying a guy who just got here, a guy who doesn’t even have an apartment to live in, is still better than Batch.
No wonder Charlie disappeared without comment.
Something to talk about
“I’d be upset, too,” Detmer said Monday when asked about Batch. “It happened to me in Cleveland and Philadelphia. It’s frustrating and disappointing.
“I was just as surprised as anyone. Coach called the quarterbacks in after a walk-through and said, ‘Here’s the deal. You’re the starter.’ “
Here’s the deal. You’re the starter. And just like that, Mornhinweg has given Detroit sports fans more to talk about in a day than the Tigers did all summer.
He also has put his neck on a chopping block just 60 minutes of football into his head coaching career.
You don’t change quarterbacks without knowing what you’re doing. It is like changing pilots in a bomber. Like changing horses in a chariot race. Very precarious business. Detmer, an unflappable fellow ever since his Heisman-winning days at Brigham Young, has started only 21 games in his nine NFL seasons with Green Bay, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Cleveland. He admits that while he knows the West Coast offense — he played in it during his time with Green Bay, when Mornhinweg was an assistant — he hasn’t played in it full-time since 1998 with San Francisco.
“It’s like a foreign language,” he said. “When you grow up in it, you don’t forget it just because you leave the country for a few years.”
Then again, your vocabulary gets rusty. Detmer needs to start with some new words: Morton, Crowell, Sloan, Moore …
Let’s face it. Leading men into battle is always easier if you know who is who.
“Leadership is the thing I’m most concerned with,” Detmer said. “Usually you want to know your receivers’ tendencies and how the guys react to you in the huddle.
“But we’ll do what we have to do. We’re all professionals here.”
Right. And the lesson professionals quickly learn is, it doesn’t matter who you are or how long you’re here, your job is on the line every minute of your career.
Not the guy they wanted
Which leads us to Batch. Now, admittedly, he had a lousy game Sunday. He got sacked seven times — and the West Coast offense is supposed to avoid sacks. He overthrew receivers at crucial moments. He held the ball too long. He missed reads. And his interception in the end zone was a killer.
But under other circumstances, that would just be a bad game, not a career killer. Here are a couple of questions: If Batch really isn’t the guy for this West Coast offense, why did Mornhinweg and Matt Millen stick with him all through the exhibition season? And what are they going to do with him now? It’s one thing to bench a quarterback late in the year, when a team is desperate for a spark. But when you’re benched after the first game, the message is clear: You were never the guy we wanted.
Which is what Millen has been saying — by not saying — ever since he took over. In his opening press conference he refused to give Batch a ringing endorsement. He pretty much said, “If he’s who we got, he’s who we got.”
As recently as last month, he told me in an interview, “He’s not a stiff, that’s the good news.”
When not being a stiff is the good news, you’re on shaky ground.
So Millen and Mornhinweg have been anticipating a Batch failure ever since they took over the team. They didn’t believe in him. He was sort of like the dining room table that came with the house. You keep it for the time being, but you’re always dreaming of replacing it.
They got their wish. And no doubt some people, who are unhappy with Batch, can’t wait to see Detmer in there. But history is nothing if not repetitive with the Lions. And so you might recall how happy you were to see Charlie Batch take over when a certain Scott Mitchell was benched.
Make no mistake. This is a huge risk. A new coach needs to be in control. Needs to make the ship run smoothly. Instead, on Saturday, the Lions suddenly and surprisingly cut defensive tackle James Jones, on Sunday they played terribly, and on Monday they benched their starting quarterback.
The S.S. Minnow had a smoother ride.
“On paper it’s all great,” Detmer said. “But things are different under the lights.”
Those lights just got hotter at the Silverdome.
And I am never going away again.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.
BUSINESS AS USUAL
More recent dramatic moves by the Lions:
* Coach Wayne Fontes was fired after the Lions went 5-11 in 1996, and replaced by Bobby Ross.
* After an 0-2 start in 1998, Ross benched Scott Mitchell and replaced him with rookie quarterback Charlie Batch.
* Star running back Barry Sanders retired on the eve of training camp in 1999.
* Ross resigned after a 5-4 start last season. He was replaced with assistant Gary Moeller, the former Michigan coach.
* After a season-ending loss to Chicago cost them a playoff spot, the Lions named Fox broadcaster Matt Millen team president. He replaced Moeller with San Francisco assistant Marty Mornhinweg.
* After Sunday’s 28-6 loss at Green Bay, Mornhinweg benched Batch and named Ty Detmer starter. Detmer was acquired from Cleveland last week.