4 Detroit Lions
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They're in for a batch of trouble if their quarterback doesn't
By Josh Elliott
Night after night last season Lions quarterback Charlie Batch lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, waiting for sleep that wouldn't come. His right leg throbbed with pain from the excruciating deep-tissue massages he underwent six nights a week in his continuing recovery from the knee injury he had suffered in the off-season. Though he would start 15 of Detroit's 16 games, destructive thoughts would creep like bedbugs through Batch's mind: It's not worth it. It's not getting any better. I am defeated.
Bruised ribs suffered in Week 11 against the Giants added to his misery, and then came the capper. With Detroit needing a win at home in its regular-season finale against the 4-11 Bears to qualify for the playoffs, Batch was knocked out of the game late in the first half after reinjuring his ribs, and Chicago shocked the Lions 23-20. The loss cost interim coach Gary Moeller his job and haunted Batch for months.
"It was a long year," he says in typically understated fashion. "I came back too quickly [from the knee injury] and tried to do too much. I had to choose between playing and rehabbing, and I felt I had to play. It's been a long time, but I finally feel healthy again."
He'd better, for after three NFL seasons in which his stats have fluctuated more wildly than the NASDAQ, the margin call on Batch is nigh. Last year he threw more interceptions (15) than touchdown passes (13) while completing just 53.6% of his attempts. Among the 16 NFL quarterbacks who attempted at least 400 passes, Batch's rating (63.7) was next to last. True, he was essentially playing on one leg, and his offensive line allowed 53 sacks, fifth worst in the league, but no matter. New team CEO Matt Millen and new coach Marty Mornhinweg, after failing to trade for Seahawks passer Matt Hasselbeck before the April draft, have made it clear to Batch that he must be more consistent if he wants to be the Lions' long-term quarterback.
Making Batch's job more difficult will be the intricate, timing-based version of the West Coast offense favored by Mornhinweg, a Bill Walsh disciple who was the 49ers' offensive coordinator for the last four seasons and under whose care quarterback Jeff Garcia went from journeyman to Pro Bowler. While supportive of his new charge, Mornhinweg is frank about Batch's need to improve. "Charlie's not quick, and he's not a great athlete like a Mark Brunell or a Steve Young, so he's got to make up for that with decision-making and accurate throws," says Mornhinweg. "At times he's missed some easy ones, and we can't have that. But he's a hard worker, and, when it comes to accuracy, I've found that improvement can come fairly rapidly."
Last year's offense, which ranked 27th in the league, languished in former coach Bobby Ross's limited (some might say prehistoric) offensive schemes. Batch's options were mostly restricted to one side of the field and rarely involved more than two receivers. Batch will now have four or five reads on a given play, and he will be expected to use the entire field. Because the offense is designed to gain yards after a catch, Batch will have to hit his receivers in stride -- and more often. Mornhinweg wants the career 55.3% passer to be close to 65%. "In this offense you can't just complete a pass," says Mornhinweg. "You've got to hit a guy, say, on his left shoulder pad just as he makes a cut."
The new scheme has the Lions' impressive trio of wideouts, starters Germane Crowell and Johnnie Morton and veteran Herman Moore, licking their chops. "Last year I would see the game plans each Wednesday and just shake my head, they were so basic," says Morton, Detroit's leading receiver a year ago with 61 catches for 778 yards. "Now it's like getting a new toy at Christmas -- it's that exciting." Tailback James Stewart gained 1,184 yards last season but was often pulled on third down. He must become a more reliable receiver -- as well as a safety valve -- for Batch in the flat.
Offensive fireworks will also depend on the performance of a retooled line, which has four new starters: top draft picks Jeff Backus, a tackle from Michigan, and Dominic Raiola, a center from Nebraska; right guard Brenden Stai, a free-agent pickup from Jacksonville; and Stockar McDougle, who was a backup in 2000.
After a late July practice in Saginaw, Mich., Batch went through a mock series of reads to show how he's adjusted his footwork in favor of shorter, crisper drops. "I've had to relearn everything, even the basics," he said. "Everything I've known for three years is gone." Then he paused as the full impact of that statement sunk in. "It's like a breath of fresh air."
Issue date: September 3, 2001