- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- He has become one of the sturdiest quarterbacks in the NFL, starting every game for the Detroit Lions over the past three seasons. But Matthew Stafford’s new head coach, Jim Caldwell, knows too well what happens when a team becomes too reliant and dependent on its starting quarterback.
In Caldwell’s case, it helped cost him his first NFL head coaching job.
Peyton Manning missed the 2011 season for the Indianapolis Colts and the team plummeted to a 2-14 record after being a perennial playoff participant with Manning and either Tony Dungy or Caldwell as the head coach.
Indianapolis restructured its entire organization after the season, including getting rid of Manning, Caldwell and the Polian family, which had helped run the franchise during the Manning years. In some ways, the reason the team chose to start over was because of what happened when the team didn’t have a capable backup quarterback.
“You know, the thing is, you want to have, if you can, a guy that can step in there and can win you a few games,” Caldwell said. “You hope you never have to play him. That’s the key and you hope your guy stays healthy but the reality of it is it may not happen so you got to have a guy that’s capable in that spot.”
Up until now, this hasn’t been an issue in Detroit. Over the past four seasons, the Lions have had Shaun Hill as the main backup to Stafford and he was considered one of the top veteran backup options in the NFL.
Now an unrestricted free agent, the 34-year-old could head anywhere and while he didn’t rule out a return to Detroit, either he or the team could choose to move on without the other. What happens is still unclear as the team moves into free agency on March 11.
“That’s still kind of defining itself,” general manager Martin Mayhew said. “And we’ll get into the free agency market and see what it looks like and see if there’s a veteran out there that’s right for us that we feel comfortable with. And if not, then we’ll go into the draft.”
Whether or not Hill returns, Detroit still has a backup quarterback on its roster. Kellen Moore, who the Lions signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012, remains on the roster and is a restricted free agent after the 2014 season. Moore has not taken a snap in either of his seasons with the Lions, but the team needs to make a decision whether they feel he can be a capable backup quarterback or not.
Now, it is just too difficult to tell.
“I haven’t seen enough of him in actual games to say that you just roll with him and you feel great about it,” Mayhew said. “The idea of signing a veteran is appealing to us. However, he’s done a lot of things in practice that makes you feel like he’s very capable, so that’s kind of an open situation right now.
“We’ll get into free agency and see how free agency goes, and if we find the right guy at the right value, we’ll make a move there.”
Among the potential options available for Detroit if it were to pursue a quarterback through free agency are Luke McCown, who played under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi in New Orleans, and Painter, who was with the Giants last season.
But if the Lions don’t find what they want and can’t re-sign Hill, they could invest a mid-to-late round pick on a quarterback. Because as Caldwell has learned, he can’t go into his first season with a new team without a viable option if Stafford were to go down.