Last season Detroit Lion quarterback Eric Hipple's duties included charting games and holding for place kicker Eddie Murray. Even in practice, Hipple, an obscure fourth-round pick out of Utah State, said he felt slightly out of place and did his best not to get in anyone's way.
"I was a little disappointed I didn't play a single play last year," said the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Hipple, "but I realized I wasn't supposed to, and I was in a learning situation. I didn't know the system and I had no experience. I knew it was a matter of time."
On Sunday, Hipple, the former third-string quarterback who has guided the Lions to two victories in the three games he has started, will lead Detroit (4-5) against Washington (3-6) at RFK Stadium at 1 p.m.
"Washington has started to win, and we have to win to get back in the (Central Division) race," Hipple said, "so we'll pull out all the stops. We'll mix things up and try to keep them off balance. They'll be tough."
Hipple got his first playing time in the fifth game of season. With Gary Danielson hurt (dislocated left wrist) and No. 2 man Jeff Komlo ineffective, Hipple played during the final quarter of a 28-10 loss to Tampa Bay. He completed four of 15 passes for 102 yards and threw two interceptions.
"I guess you can say I went in only because Komlo was having a bad game and they thought this was a good time (for me) to gain some experience," Hipple said. "My first pass was completed for about 50 yards (48) and the second one was picked off. That's a tough situation to play in, but I was trying to show what I could do."
It wasn't enough, and Hipple resumed his normal clipboard duties during the next National Football League game, which the Lions lost to Denver, 27-21. But former De Matha High School star Komlo was ineffective again and Coach Monte Clark decided to start Hipple against Chicago.
Hipple surprised the Bears by passing for 336 yards and four touchdowns. He also ran for two touchdowns as the Billy Sims-less Lions won, 48-17.
The following week, Hipple had another strong effort, against Green Bay, throwing for 271 yards and a touchdown and running for two others, including the winning score in the final minutes of the 31-27 victory.
"The guys gave me game balls for those two games and that really did wonders for my confidence," Hipple said. "I was real surprised just how smooth things went. But the guys were behind me and played real well. I've made some mistakes and I know I'm still in a learning process. I gain a little more each game."
Hipple came back to earth Sunday. He completed only seven of 25 attempts for 193 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions as the Lions lost in Los Angeles, 20-13. To date, Hipple has completed 45 of 101 passes for 902 yards, six touchdowns and five interceptions. He has rushed for another 30 yards and scored four times.
"I didn't have a great game last week, and just that quick, everyone was saying I was burnt out after two games," Hipple said. "But L.A. was good. Everyone's timing was off a bit, including mine. The games don't get any easier this week, because Washington has a good secondary. I think they've played pretty good defense all year."
"He didn't have a good game against the Rams, but that wasn't his fault," Clark said. "Our game plan was to go long, and those are low-percentage passes. He's very intense and gets involved in the game. He won't hesitate to bark at his teammates when things go wrong. When Gary returns, that'll present a problem, but a pleasant one."
Danielson isn't expected back for another four weeks.
"I've always felt I could play in the NFL, but you have no idea how you'll do until you get that chance," Hipple said. "Having Billy Sims sure takes a lot of pressure off me. Teams concentrate on stopping him first."
Once one of the best-kept secrets in the league, Hipple now finds himself a central figure on opponents' films.
"I'm not a secret any more and won't be fooling anyone," Hipple said. "Everyone has seen me now. I'll just have to go out each week and keep showing people I'm for real."