Hill is Detroit's Billy Kilmer

Posted Oct. 13, 2010 @ 3:45 p.m.
Posted By Tom Danyluk

The last time we heard about Shaun Hill, the last time the name meant anything in football, was before an Orange Bowl match in January 2002 — Maryland, the freshly crowned ACC champs, set against Florida, Steve Spurrier's wicked, run-it-up Gators.

Hill was the Terrapins' QB that night, a mid-grade arm, good enough to maneuver his way comfortably through typical ACC waters. Knowing this, Maryland coach Ralph Friegden made a quick sign of the cross and sent his senior into battle, against all those U of F All-Americans and all that killer Gator firepower, and mumbled something like, "Keep us respectable, son."

Florida messed around for a while … then they got serious and it landslided into a 56-23 thing, and Maryland crept back home and that was the last time anyone paid attention to what Shaun Hill was doing.

Until now … nearly a decade later, when you glanced at the TV ticker last Sunday to see Lions 44, Rams 6, and the highlight voice told us it was the biggest spread of victory for a Detroit football team in 15 seasons. There was Shaun Hill, in that choppy, 21-for-32 backup way of his, chucking three touchdowns and running up the score on St. Louis. Strange that Lions coach Jim Schwartz didn't mention his quarterback in his postgame remarks, like they somehow single-winged or quick-kicked the Rams to death.

Hill is now 30, an age when most quarterbacks begin their transition into the downside years. But how can a guy have a downside when there never has been an upside? He wasn't drafted … no footspeed, rag arm, etc. … but somehow he found steady NFL work, and his eight prior seasons consisted of 16 starts for the 49ers — he even won the starting job there for a time before losing it back to Alex Smith in the middle of last season.

In March, the Lions traded for him, and now he's subbing for Matthew Stafford, the injured No. 1 draft pick. Stafford looks better in warm-ups, but watching Hill operate conjures warm feelings of a time when winning passers weren't always so meticulously drilled and manicured in their ways.

It's the second coming of Billy Kilmer — not the slicer-dicer Billy, who played tailback at UCLA and could cut you up with his bursts and moves. But the banquet-circuit Billy, the chunky, flutterball passer with New Orleans and Washington, playing above his playing weight and not giving a damn how his uniform fit … and moving his team.

Kilmer had no prayer in New Orleans, where the expansion Saints were still learning how to be a pro franchise. He took a whipping there. But George Allen had an eye for football players, and he had seen enough of Kilmer's quarterback genetics that he traded for Billy after he took control of  the Redskins — in 1971.

A single face bar protected Kilmer's jaw line, a dare-like gesture to pass rushers. That good-time beer belly. All of it said something about the way Kilmer viewed the game, and the team rallied around him. A year later, with Kilmer at the controls, Washington was the favorite in the Super Bowl.

One of the old CBS guys, Tom Brookshier, told me about a banquet he attended in Washington around that time. The subject was Kilmer.

"He never threw a spiral in his life," he said, "but his receivers caught every ball he threw at them. At this affair in Washington I was kidding around with Charley Taylor and a few other guys about Kilmer's wobblers. They got pretty heated about it. They told me, 'Don't you say that about Billy!'

"I was just kidding, but they weren't happy about it. You didn't make fun of Kilmer or Sonny Jurgensen in front of their teammates, even though Kilmer and Jurgensen were fun to make fun of."

Hill isn't Kilmer chunky, but he plays and moves like it. He's not a follow-through thrower, one who snaps down hard on his delivery. More of a flinger, a Nerf-baller. Like a guy pitching fruit at a wasps' nest, up in an apple tree. 

His rollouts consist of little pork-chop steps that can get him outside, where he can unload one of his soft floaters. Or he'll right-left-right inside the pocket then sidearm one over the middle. Or he'll lean backward and launch a quacker that somehow finds the right hands. None of his act is stylish, but what makes it attractive is the way the Lions' offense seems to respond to him.

In Week One, he relieved an injured Stafford and showed nothing for nearly a half against a ferocious Bears "D" before rallying the troops late, only to have Calvin Johnson scuttle what should have been the game-winning touchdown by being loose with the ball in the endzone. In Week Two, Hill yanked the Lions out of a 35-17 pit, at the end trying move his club into game-tying FG range against Philadelphia. And two weeks ago, Green Bay had him pinned down 28-14, and he rallied back to 28-26 then stood around as the Packers' offense burned out the last 6:32 of the game, as his young defense couldn't come up with a hard stop.

Then, finally, the bulls-eye at home over the Rams, giving Detroit only its third victory in its last 38 tries.

History gives us an idea how this is going to work out for Kilmer, Jr. It hints that Stafford, the high-dollar franchise man, will return from his injury soon (so we're told) and reclaim his job, which means Hill moves to the bench. That is, unless Detroit launches on some wild-eyed win streak in the interim and a full-blown quarterback controversy develops. That's how Tom Brady was uncovered, back in 2001, after Drew Bledsoe was stretchered out of a game. Bledsoe eventually skipped off to Buffalo.

But Brady was a young man when that happened. There was still a mystery about what he could do in the pocket. Meanwhile, the book has been out on Hill; so far, a short, boring read.

Maybe Hill's one of these late-bloomer QBs, which are rare but they do emerge on occasion. Rich Gannon was that way — a washout in Minnesota, out of football for a year, then gaining his footing at age 33 in Kansas City before turning All-Pro in Oakland; at 37, he won an AFC title.

You root for Hill because he doesn't look the part. An ugly golf swing that reaches the green. Put him in one of those QB beauty competitions — remember the offseason Quarterback Challenges of the 1990s? — and there would be chuckles in the gallery. All those fancy arms out there, while Hill launches his quacking birds and flings apples and takes huge divots.

It'd be refreshing to see him make it big.


Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His book on pro football, "The Super '70s," is available at Amazon.com. You can contact Tom at Danyluk1@yahoo.com.