Niyo: Lions’ backup plan with QB Nate Sudfeld isn’t foolproof, but it’ll have to do

Detroit News

Allen Park — Hindsight is 20-20, so it’s easy to say this now. But to be honest, most of us have been saying it for months — if not years — with the Lions.

This team needed a better plan for the backup quarterback position. And that has been the case for a long, long time here, dating back to the end of Matthew Stafford’s time in Detroit.

This new regime doesn’t have to answer for all that, obviously. But it is worth asking why it took so long for them to find the “clarity” — to use head coach Dan Campbell’s word — that finally led to Thursday’s admission by his boss and co-collaborator, Lions general manager Brad Holmes.

“We had a plan in place,” Holmes said, when asked to explain how it is that the Lions found themselves breaking in a brand-new No. 2 behind starter Jared Goff just 10 days before the 2022 regular-season opener. “But it kind of took a detour that was unexpected.”

Now then, the game of expectations is always a subjective one. And before we get to the actual games that matter, let’s be clear about this, too: History tells us if your backup quarterback is starting multiple games for you, your season’s probably over, regardless.

Particularly if you’re in Year 2 of a well-advertised, HBO-endorsed rebuild. Nate Sudfeld isn’t gonna lead you to the playoffs. But neither Gardner Minshew nor Jacoby Brissett was going to, either. (Sorry, Cleveland.)

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Still, that said, there was plenty of eye-rolling back in March when the Lions — fresh off a 3-13-1 season — started free agency by re-signing a bunch of their own players, including both of Goff’s backups from last season, Tim Boyle and David Blough.

The latter had been with the team since 2019, when then-GM Bob Quinn made a preseason swap with Cleveland to bring in the undrafted rookie. Blough was a third-stringer to start that season, behind Stafford and journeyman vet Josh Johnson. A plucky competitor with some mobility, Blough ended up starting five games that season when Stafford was shut down due to a back injury and Jeff Driskel, who’d replaced Johnson in mid-September, also was injured.

But Blough went 0-5 in that rookie stint and has played briefly in just two regular-season games since. He’s 27 now, and nobody’s idea of a future NFL starter. Yet, he’s a smart, high-character guy who’s a solid addition to any quarterback room as a No. 3, which is presumably the role he’ll have now with the division-rival Vikings.

Boyle, on the other hand, was the quarterback the Lions were holding out hope for as a developmental project. It’s why Holmes signed him as a free agent coming off a three-year stay in Green Bay as one of Aaron Rodgers’ understudies. And it’s why Boyle got another shot this year, after an injury-altered 2021 season that saw him make three starts — again, all losses — in place of an injured Goff.

Boyle has the requisite physical tools — arm strength, size and athleticism — but was still searching for the accuracy and the consistency that’s required to play in this league.

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“The wins didn’t come in those games that he played, but … we saw some things that encouraged us to keep working with him,” Holmes said.

They worked all spring and summer, but those encouraging signs did little more than flash occasionally for Boyle in training camp. Then in the preseason games, the warning lights came on again with both backups, even as Goff was lighting things up and looking rejuvenated in new coordinator Ben Johnson’s offense.

“They just didn’t quite make the jump that we expected them to make,” Holmes said.

There’s that word again. And Holmes certainly understands the knee-jerk response is, well, what did you expect?

You could see and hear the frustration from Campbell the last few weeks, and it reached a breaking point on the sideline Sunday in Pittsburgh when Boyle’s final audition proved to be a complete flop.

“If you lose your starter for two or three games, can they win those games for you, is what you’ve got to decide,” Campbell said Monday, ahead of the Lions’ final cuts. “So, that’s what we’re wrestling with.”

But even before that, the Lions were exploring other options.

“When we kind of saw where it was going,” Holmes said, “every avenue was looked at and exhausted.”

Which is how we ended up here, listening to Sudfeld talking about the strange chain of events that brought him to Detroit.

Sudfeld officially got the news he wasn’t needed anymore in San Francisco on Tuesday, when the 49ers made their final preseason roster cuts. But he had an inkling before that, when the team announced they were keeping (for now) Jimmy Garoppolo — their former starter supplanted by 2021 first-round pick Trey Lance — on a restructured one-year deal.

That left Sudfeld as the odd man out, released in favor of undrafted rookie Brock Purdy as the 49ers’ No. 3 quarterback. Hours later, he boarded a red-eye flight from San Francisco to Detroit, landing at 5 a.m. and then heading straight to Allen Park, where he met with Lions coaches, took a physical, signed a contract and joined his new teammates on the practice field.

“I was going off an hour of ‘flight sleep,’” Sudfeld laughed. “But last night, I was able to get nine hours, so I felt really good today.”

The Lions, too, felt a bit better, though I’m sure Sudfeld’s track record won’t thrill fans. He has a history with Goff: the two northern California natives share an agent (Ryan Tollner), were in the same draft class (2016) and occasionally work out together in the offseason. And he has a familiarity with some of the Lions’ staff, most notably Duce Staley, with whom he won a Super Bowl in Philadelphia.

Now that he has landed in Detroit, he’s getting a crash course in learning a new playbook — and new teammates — just as the team shifts into regular-season mode, game-planning for next week’s home opener against the Eagles.

As best-laid plans go, this is hardly ideal. But it’s the one the Lions chose.

“I mean, there’s a lot of different options you can go,” Holmes said. “You could trade a bunch of draft capital for a backup quarterback. … But we did the best thing for the Detroit Lions.

“Is it foolproof?” Holmes said. “No, I have too much respect for the unknown to say that. There is a little bit of risk. But I think we’ve got the plan in place where Nate will get caught up to speed and we’ll be in good shape.”

That’s the new plan, anyway. Same as the old one? We’ll see.

Twitter: @johnniyo

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