(Or, Why Injured Reserve Ruined the Lions' Season)
By Kenny Ocker
Let's start this out by setting the scene.
Week five, the Chicago Bears come in to Detroit to play the Lions. In the third quarter, with the game already firmly in hand for the Bears, Jon Kitna, the starting quarterback for the Lions for the last three years, is taken out of the game due to back spasms. He's never to return to the field for the Lions, accelerating the descent of the Lions into the NFL's cellar.
What happened after this game is a disputed incident. The Lions elected to put Kitna on the Injured Reserve list, making him ineligible to come back this season. Kitna claims that he would have been healthy enough to play only two days after he was placed on IR and that the Lions were using his back injury as an excuse to get playing time for reserve quarterbacks Dan Orlovsky and Drew Stanton. The organization claims that's not so and that the team's medical director recommended that Kitna be put on IR due to the bulging disk in his back.
Kitna's disk has been bulging for years, however, and he's played through it in each of his two previous years in Detroit, even saying that he felt better on the day he was placed on IR than he did for the majority of the previous season, saying "I really feel like I could have played last Sunday at probably above 90 percent healthwise. I played the last two years most of the time probably 75 to 80 percent healthwise with different type of things."
Kitna's claim seems to be more substantiated than the Lions'. Many places reported that before placing the injured QB on IR, Detroit shopped Kitna around to teams that may have been in the market for an experienced backup. No team would have taken Kitna without him being able to pass a physical, so the Lions must have been confident in his health.
Had the Lions known what they really had with their backups (and eventual free agent/graveyard rescue Daunte Culpepper) and their eventual fate, would they have made this irresponsible move? You never know with Matt Millen, but conventional wisdom says differently.
Here's some statistics that back up the fact that Kitna was the best quarterback for the Lions and that their change was misguided:
Maybe it was the fact that he didn't even have 20 attempts on the season, but Stanton's statistics pop out. However, that's tempered by the fact that the coaching staff didn't think enough of Stanton to start him once Orlovsky was injured, instead going with Daunte Culpepper, who hadn't taken a snap in over a year and hadn't even spent a week with the Lions' playbook. Still, Jon Kitna's the best quarterback that the Lions had, and had they not benched him, maybe they would have won a game.
By no means was this Detroit's only problem, but the bureaucratic mess that this caused was definitely a detriment to the team. Not even considering his statistics, which were greater than his backups, Kitna's leadership ability, experience and rapport with the offensive players made his loss lessened Detroit's chances of victory.
The mistake of putting Kitna on IR against his will was one of the last mistakes made by Matt Millen, but in itself is a microcosm of football in Detroit during his tenure-- it's all about the inability of Lions leadership to make sound football decisions.