The Best And The Worst Detroit Lions Quarterbacks

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Adam Ostermeier Breakdown The Best And Worst Detroit Lions.

Welcome to the latest installment of the Detroit Lions Best and Worst All Time series. If you’re interested in following along from the beginning click here to go back to the introduction. If you see something you agree or disagree with or even if you just want to share your feelings on a particular player or moment share your thoughts in the Detroit Lions’ subreddit.

The Best: Matthew Stafford

Despite being only 29 years old, Matthew Stafford is unquestionably the most talented quarterback in franchise history. Taken first overall in the 2009 NFL draft, this product of the Lions’ infamous 0-16 season has been a blessing for a team that desperately needed it.

One of the most powerful arms in the NFL, Stafford exploded on to the scene in 2011 after struggling with injuries his first two years. He became just the 5th quarterback ever to throw for 5,000 yards in a season and also tossed 41 touchdowns. When looking at the statistics he’s already 44th all time in passing yardage and 49th in passing touchdowns.

If he can simply continue on with his average yearly performance, Stafford should be in or around the top 10 of both those categories in the next 4-5 seasons. Blazing trails as the youngest QB to reach many season and career milestones there’s no telling where he can get to on the NFL’s all time numbers list.

After several years of being the NFL’s high octane boom or bust arm cannon, Stafford matured and altered his game over the 2015 and 2016 seasons with new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter.

The results have been less high risk, high reward plays, reduced interception numbers, and an almost 10 point boost in his completion percentage. Due to an early exit from Georgia at only 21 years of age, he has the distinction of being both one of the best young arm talents in the game, and a seasoned veteran in his prime entering his 9th year in the league. Truly taking over as the leader of the Detroit Lions now, with a developing young team that can support him going forward, it will be fun to watch what Stafford can do going forward.

The most notable point that will be remembered about Matthew Stafford when he is discussed in the future however will be the comebacks. Stafford has always been known for his countless examples of late game heroics, starting with his rookie year against the Cleveland Browns.

On the second to last play of the game Stafford scrambled and threw a deep ball prayer to the end zone before getting levelled and suffering a major separation in his non throwing shoulder. The rest became history that I will let the great Steve Sabol tell:

In those few minutes Stafford won over the city of Detroit and took one big step toward becoming a legend in the city. Since then he’s contributed to his comeback resume with the fake spike against Dallas, the miracle in London, and of course last year’s record setting most comebacks in a season. While I like the stability that a new regime is providing through talent around the roster and settling down Stafford’s play, here’s hoping we get to ride this Stafford-coaster for years to come.

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Honourable Mentions

  • Of course worth also mentioning is the clear number two Lions quarterback of all time Bobby Layne. The hard partying gunslinger was the Tom Brady of the 50’s leading the Lions to four championships and three NFL titles in eight seasons. Truly beloved by his teammates, he was the consummate leader that got an elite group of players to rally behind him on the way to dominating the competition. While he had his share of controversies, Layne was an exciting talent, forever changing the game as the innovator of the two-minute offence. Despite the curse he’s bestowed upon the franchise after his unceremonious trade to Pittsburgh in 1958, he will always be one of it’s favourite and most recognized players.
  • If you want one QB moment that truly was one of the greatest in Lions history you cannot forget Eric Hipple’s Monday night game against the Bears in 1981. Season starter Gary Danielson was already out for the year with a dislocated wrist and backup Jeff Komlo just wasn’t getting the job done, so coach Monte Clark decided to start his third QB Hipple in a hugely important divisional game to the surprise of almost everyone. Hipple paid his coach back and then some for the opportunity, scoring six touchdowns in a 48-17 demolishing of the Bears. Hipple created a career for himself in one game, playing another seven seasons for the team with varying levels of success.

The Worst: Karl Sweetan

Surprisingly in this process it was one of the greatest challenges to crown one player the worst Lions quarterback of all time. Why you ask? Simply put: because there have been a whole lot of bad ones. That being said however, for me Karl Sweetan takes the cake. Sweetan was the Lions starter on and off for the ’66 and ’67 seasons, leading them to a 6-12-2 record in games he played. It became quite obvious to every fan his carelessness with the football was his biggest issue.

Sweetan averaged an interception every 19 throws in Detroit, completing only 47.5% of his passes, and 14 touchdowns. This resulted in him having a 53.1 quarterback rating in that two year period, one of the worst of all time among starters.

To put that number into perspective, the worst quarterback rating a starter has received in this decade was Jimmy Clausen in 2010 at 58.4, over 5 points higher then Sweetan’s two year average. While it may not be fair to jump on a 249th overall pick for sucking after getting thrown into action he was never ready for, he still deserves this title.

The Lions cut ties with Sweetan after drafting Gregg Landry and trading for Bill Munson in the 1968 offseason. He went on to actually play his worst football as a backup in New Orleans. In three starts and 5 total games he put up an absolutely ridiculous 34.6 completion percentage, completing only 27 of 78 throws, and a quarterback rating of 12.6. After two years riding the bench for the LA Rams he called it a career, only to pop back into the news a few years later for trying to sell one of his play books for some quick cash.

Outside of his poor play and forgettably short time as a Lions quarterback, Sweetan will probably be best known for either one of three things. He’s tied for the longest completion in NFL history at 99 yards…. in garbage time of a game the Lions lost to the Baltimore Colts 45-14. He also remarkably managed to take his teams to three ties in 19 starts, two of those ties coming for Detroit. His most infamous reason for being known however might be that he played himself in the film Paper Lion. Instead of celebrating the tail end of a great era of Lions football with Gregg Landry, or catching the earlier domination of Bobby Layne, if you want to watch this fun little movie literally based around the Detroit Lions you have to suffer through knowing that the worst Lions quarterback of all time is immortalized with a great group of Lions legends. Through no fault of his own that might be Sweetan’s biggest sin as it will never go away.

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Dishonourable Mentions

  • If we’re going for worst Lions disappointments of all time, it would be tough to argue against Joey Harrington for that title. Seen as the Lions saviour at long last, Harrington was taken 3rd overall in 2002 and could never come close to living up to the hype. Rather then getting the time he needed to develop as a player, our good friend Matt Millen and the Detroit Lions front office totally botched Harrington’s development from every aspect. He got no help from any decent picks around him either on the o-line or at skill positions, and he went through drastic scheme changes under Steve Mariucci. By the end of his time in Detroit he was physically abused and emotionally distraught. While some fans may want to give him the title of the lions worst due to the pain he caused, he still showed flashes of ability that will keep him away from that title. Unfortunately he just never had a chance to put it all together.
  • I may be playing with recency bias here, however Dan Orlovsky running out of the back of the end zone in the lions 0-16 season of 2008 might be the single most painful moment in Lions history. When things were at absolute bottom in the middle of an absolutely abysmal season Orlovsky, terrified and running for his life from unblocked Jarred Allen, turned the Lions through the bottom to unknown dark matter shadowy depths of despair territory. Forever after known as ‘Safety Dan’ he had an alright tail to his career as a nice backup to Matthew Stafford, but that one moment is arguably the worst quarterback black spot in Lions history.

If you would like to see more in this series follow the link below:

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About the Author

Chris is the founder of everything you see here. A former radio presenter and Detroit native, he now resides in sunny California – and like so many of us, he found himself marooned on an island devoid of other Lions fans. After spending a few years in the Detroit Lions Reddit community he decided to start the Detroit Lions Podcast. Its become the #1 Detroit Lions podcast, and regularly ranks with the top podcasts in Detroit. With a mixture of pre-recorded shows, live & recorded phone-ins, and live post-game broadcasts - this is his slice of Honolulu Blue heaven.