Chairman Matt Millen & the Freedom of Commentary

>> 1.03.2009

It was a stunning sight.  Matt Millen on NBC's Football Night In America, in between Jerome Bettis and Bob Costas.  Millen providing reactions, commentary, analysis . . . like nothing ever happened.  It was breathtaking, mind-boggling, even.  For eight years, Matt Millen had been a headshot on a website, a quote on, a figurehead.  Millen became the focal point of all pro-Lions propaganda, and the rallying cry of all anti-Lions dissention.  Matt Millen became, for Lions fans, the Mao Tse Tung of the Twenty-Aughts Detroit Lions: someone who we felt like we knew intimiately, yet never saw or heard.  Trusted with the leadership of that which we hold so dear, and yet simultaneously the source of all of our misery.  Permanently ensconced in the Forbidden City (Allen Park), Millen was the target of protests, demonstrations, and public effigy-burnings.  "Fire Millen" became both the rallying cry and watchword for rebellious Lions fans.  Millen's secret police tried to quell the uprising, but eventually the world at large heard of our plight.  Millen's many disastrous failures were at first sold to the public as great successes.  But even once the failures of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution were apparent, Millen still could not be deposed.  No matter the public outcry, or the obvious failures in management, Millen's hold on the Presidency of the Lions was absolute.  Only when the Emperor's son spoke out against Millen, was Millen's hold on the Lions finally released.

And yet . . . the man whose face had been seen only in newspapers and bumper stickers was on my TV tonight.  He was breaking down the game, offering opinions and insight, and even affably talking about his days at the helm of the Lions.  It was clear--and in fact, it's already been suggested by that Millen has merely picked up where he left off: as the heir apparent to John Madden.  What I don't get is, how can Millen maintain his credibility?  My inner response to almost all of his analysis was, "How in the hell would you know?!?", or "Who cares what you think?  0-16!!".  Is this the result of being a Lions fan, or will this be the national response as well?

Moreover, what if he proves to be--as he once was--really, really good in front of a camera?  If he returns to being a standout analyst and/or broadcaster, will that pull the curtain back on modern football analysis?  Will fans finally realize the gaping chasm that exists between the senseless yammering that goes on on sounstages in NYC and Hartford and what is really happening in the Allen Parks of this NFL world?  That being able to talk pigskin with aplomb and elan does not a great business man, manager, or talent evaluator make?

Eh, probably not.  Chris Collinsworth for President, CEO, GM, head coach, and concessions manager!!!

Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,matt millen,nbc,


Steve Spagnuolo Coaching Resumé: to whom it may concern

Yikes!  Ol' Spags kinda jumps off the page at you there, doesn't he?  If this is what happens when you ask Steve Spagnuolo to "smile", then I think he'll be just fine as the Lions' next head coach.  For all the official-bio stuff, click the picture.

Spags comes from an excellent lineage, most notably spending seven years with the Philadelphia Eagles and studying under the master of the hyperaggressive 4-3, Jim Johnson.  Spagnuolo has been a defensive line, linebackers, and defensive backs coach and a defensive coordinator at the NFL Europe level or higher.  Intriguingly, he broke into the NFL as a player personnel intern with the Redskins in 1983.  Before you ask, Martin Mayhew was drafted by the 'Skins in 1988, so no, Spags didn't evaluate Mayhew as a player twenty years before interviewing with Mayhew for the Lions gig.  Spags also served as a scout for the Chargers in 1993 . . . if he hadn't left to take the DC gig at the University of Maine, he might have scored a AFC Championship ring from Bobby Ross' 1994 squad.

Since we just looked at the absolutely disgusting team defense stats of the Lions this year, let's cleanse our pallette by looking at the stout performances of Spag's Giants squad:

  • The Giants were ranked fifth in scoring defense, allowing just 18.4 points per game.  What I'm about to do just screams "internet football nerd who doesn't get it", because football is way too complex for a simple translation like this to have any real meaning, but . . . the Lions' offense mustered 16.8 points per game.  If they'd allowed an average of anywhere near 18.4 ppg, instead of the hellacious 32.3 they really did allow, they might could have got a win or two.  God, we allowed twice as many points as we scored . . . no wonder we went 0-16.
  • The Giants were also fifth in yardage defense, allowing only 292 yards per game.
  • New York also finished sixth in sacks with 42, compared to the Lions' 30.  Amazingly, this was accomplished despite losing franchise DE Michael Strahan to retirement, and heir apparent Osi Umenyiora (who's lead the Giants in sacks the last four years running).

    That Spagnuolo's defense could simply plug in Justin Tuck and Matthias Kiwanauka and still be a fear-inspiring, quarterback-eating, Top 5 defense, speaks highly of the Giants' drafting, Spagnuolo's football teaching abilities, and Spags' scheming and system as well.  It's worth comparing his system to his mentor Jim Johnson's in Philly: lots of good, decent, and/or okay DEs and LBs have rotated in and out of Johnson's defenses in the past decade, yet the Philly defense is always amongst the leagues' best (this year the Eagles were ranked 4th, 3rd, and 3rd in the categories above, respectively).

    I think that Spagnuolo's system is an ideal fit for the defensive talent we have--lots of one-gap pass rushers up front, lots of fast and aggressive linebackers (IMAGINE Ernie Sims blitzing every down instead of playing a short zone!).  The Lions' secondary doesn't match up to the perennially star-studded defensive backfield the Eagles boast, but in terms of talent back there, the Giants frankly don't have much the Lions don't also.  Their two starting corners are Corey Webster, a fourth-year second-round pick, whose three INTs more than doubled the two he racked up in his first three seasons, and a second-year first round pick in Aaron Ross.  Yeah, they are highly-drafted guys, but corner is the defensive mirror of WR: most CBs take several years to master technique and get burned enough to learn when to gamble and when to not gamble.  The Giants boast 17 INTs as a team, but no more than 3 by any one player (10 different players have at least one).  This suggests that the defense is working the way the Tampa 2 is supposed to: the pressure up front is creating rushed, panicked throws.  This shortens the field for the corners and safeties and prevents the defense from getting beaten deep.

    Spagnuolo's teaching ability and experience at every level (line, linebackers, DBs, coordinator) of the defense is apparent.  His system would not only be a good fit for our talent, his aggressive style will make for a quick "buy-in", too.  Sims sees himself as the leader of the defense; don't you think he will react well to getting the leash taken off him and being told "Kill, Ernie!  KILL!"?  Spags is highly respected around the league, and highly sought after by other teams (he will interview for the Broncos' coaching gig today, and has already talked to the Browns).  With his background in scouting and player personnel, he will be a great help for Mayhew in finding the right defensive talent to aid a quick turnaround.  Spags is my #1 choice for the next Lions head coach--and he ought to be yours, too.

    Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,steve spagnuolo,st. louis rams,new york giants
  •

    Jerod Mayo named Defensive Rookie of the Year

    >> 12.31.2008

    What might have been . . .

    Jerod Mayo was the Lions' Plan B.  Rod Marinelli openly coveted the blazing natural speed of Florida DE Derrick Harvey, but it was a foregone conclusion that the top 4-3 pass rushing end would eventually get drafted much higher than the mid-to-low first round he'd been projected at by most obvservers.  As Harvey's stock rose, it became apparent that the Lions would not get the chance to draft him.  Jerod Mayo looked like a perfect Tampa 2 MLB; fast, agile, intelligent, senior starter on an SEC defense . . . he had all the physical and mental tools to be a plug-in starter.  When Harvey went off the board at 1.8, that wasn't that suprising.  When the Pats "reached" for Mayo at 1.10, it was like a kick in the groin.  I said to my assembled friends and family, "Well, if the Patriots took him, at least we were on a guy who was going to be good."

    By the time the Lions went on the clock, the doomsday scenario had unfolded--none of the Lions' targets were there, save for Boston College RT Gosder Cherilus (who would have been a pretty big reach at 1.15; I believe the Lions had scouted as a guy they might trade up for if he were available in the late first or early second.  Millen wisely moved back to pick up an extra pick, and then took the guy he probably would have taken at the original spot anyway: Cherlius.

    Now Gosder the Gozerian got off to a rough start--a rough false start, that is!  Ha!  Gosder, like all of the rookies, got put on the Rod Marinelli "earn your starting spot" schedule, and that proved to be a longer timetable than most assumed it would be.  He looked great against Aaron Kampman and Green Bay when he came in for the second half of the Week 2 game.  However, more playing time revealed some of the same flaws that plagued the veteran, George Foster, that he was brought in to replace: namely, an unacceptable level of mental-mistake penalties (the aforementioned false start), stiff hips and high pad level, slow to move laterally and quick to lose his temper.

    Multiple times, Marinelli cycled Foster and Cherilus, presumably trying to motivate either one of them to step up and get their head in the game.  Goz was showing flashes here and there, but also continuing to make stupid penalties at the worst possible times--most notably against the Saints in Week 16, he was flagged for lining up too deeply on a play that would have been a game-tying 43-yard bomb to Megatron.  Still, his technique steadily improved.  I watched him against Julius Peppers--and while Carolina was certainly teeing off against the Lions in every phase of the game, on many plays Goz looked composed, his technique looked good, and he did not at all seem like he was hopelessly overmatched, while playing against one of the very best.

    I believed at the time of the draft that Mayo was and would be an excellent linebacker in the Lions system.  I think the upgrade he would have provided this season for the linebacking corps would have been far more noticeable this year than the upgrade Goz provided for the offensive line.  However, Jerod Mayo would not have been the difference between 0-16 and anything worthwhile, and furthermore we now enter this offseason with the RT spot solidified for years to come.  Bookended with an elite LT like Andre Smith or Michael Oher, and with Backus moved to guard and Raiola in the center, Goz will be the first step towards repairing an offensive line that has been irretrievably broken since the untimely death of Eric Andolsek and the paralysis of Mike Utley.

    THAT, I have always believed, has been the systemic problem that has poisoned so many coaches and draft picks during the Millen tenure: no holes for the running game, no running game to take pressure off the passing game, no protection for the passing game either.  You simply cannot draft talent at the edges and hope to overcome the deficiency up front!

    Congrats to Jerod--I would have loved to see him in a Lions uniform.  But Goz might be the first massive stone placed in the real foundation of this franchise.

    Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,gosder cherilus,jerod mayo,new england patriots


    Detroit Lions Coaching Search Rumors and Lies

    >> 12.30.2008

    According to regular poster 'Blog' on the Lions fan forum Lions Red Zone, former New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini spent last night at the Dearborn Ritz-Carlton.  Mangini may well have interviewed with Mayhew/Lewand/Big Willie Style, but I doubt that he is the leading candidate and I doubt that the Lions are his most favored suitor.

    To wit: Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that the Browns will be interviewing Mangini--this is significant because Mangini not only began his career with the Browns as a ballboy, the Browns are the only team that has been reported to attract reciprocal interest from Patriots VP of Player Personnel Scott Pioli.

    Terry Foster of the Detroit News did an interview with 97.1 FM host Mike Valenti, and said that former Ravens head coach and current Fox broadcaster Brian Billick queried the Lions brass about their interest.  Apparently the Lions wanted to bring Billick into the process immediately, but Billick got cold feet, and the Lions were not going to stall their interview process to wait around for him.  It sounds as though Billick wanted to keep his options open, but the Lions are trying to move on this as soon as possible.

    I've thought before that Billick would make a good fit--Jim Colletto was Billick's OL coach, RB coach Sam Gash played under Billick in Baltimore, Billick broadcast several Lions games this year and would practically not shut up about what opportunities the Lions had, what they could do better, his respect for Marinelli, etc. etc. etc.  Still, it looks as though Billick thought he might have a better gig elsewhere if he waited around, and the Lions thought they could do just fine with the candidates they have.

    Early on, Billick was my favored candidate--intelligent, has a Super Bowl ring, has won in Minnesota with explosive offense, has won in Baltimore with punishing defense, kind of splits the difference between "pretty boy players coach" Mariucci and "sawed-off field general" Marinelli . . . I figured with a strong veteran GM in place, like Floyd Reese, Billick could be the right personality to get moving in a different direction.  However, with Mayhew and Lewand in place, the Lions' brass is going to be looking for a pure coach, a young fiery guy who'll stick to Xs and Os and speeches--and won't be second-guessing and undercutting them all the time.  Just a case of bad timing?  A missed opportunity?  Or the Lions making the right call in looking for someone they know is thrilled to take the job?  Only time will tell.

    From John Niyo of the Detroit news, comes an interesting quote from cornerback Leigh Bodden.

    If it was a coaching staff that really appreciated me and really liked what I did as a player, then, of course.  That's really what I didn't get here, and it's hard to play for somebody like that. If they bring somebody in that respects the way I play -- because I'm one of the best in the league, and if a coaching staff can respect that -- then I'll be happy anywhere.

    This jibes neatly with my earlier post--Bodden's a very good cover corner in a system that doesn't really need one.  My guess is that with a strong defensive head coach, preaching the right system, Bodden will come around.

    New Lions President Tom Lewand and GM Martin Mayhew held a presser today.  Amongst the more interesting tidbits was a clarification on the power structure: Mayhew will in fact hold "final say" authority over all football matters.  However the Lions are still looking for a third authority figure to serve as an assistant GM to Mayhew.  This 'assistant GM' would almost certainly be a player personnel expert to help Mayhew out with draft and free agent acquisitions.  Tom Kowalski of had hinted at this possible arrangement, and floated the name of former Giants GM Ernie Accorsi as the type of candidate they'd be looking at.  If we could get Accorsi in-house to do any kind of personnel work, I would be absolutely ecstatic.

    Technorati Tags: nfl,detroit lions,brian billick,martin mayhew,tom lewand,eric mangini,cleveland browns


    Martin mayhew moving quickly For defensive coach

    >> 12.29.2008

    The shakeup in Allen Park has been both swift and decisive.  "Decisions" coming from Big Willie Style (+posse) usually involve a lot of leaked rumors, contradictory press releases, and sometimes even contradictory press conferences (Millen: "we have decided to retain Marty Mornhinweg for next season.  Wait, what?  They fired Mooch?  Uh, everyone turn around and plug your ears for a minute while I make a couple calls .  . . ").

    The way this organization typically does business, I expected the Marinelli firing midweek, the announcement of the promotion of Mayhew and Lewand in a couple-three weeks, and the coaching search to begin shortly after that.  But for once, the Lions have a least a few of their ducks in what appears to be something not unlike a row.  The power structure is in place, and the huge list of variables has already been winnowed down to one: the Head Coach.

    Evidently Mayhew knows exactly what's at stake; he must get the best available candidate as soon as possible.  There are a ton of openings this offseason, and if the music stops and there are no chairs left, we're looking at a repeat of the Mornhinweg hire.  Millen waited on his first choice, Mooch, and when Mooch didn't come available, Millen poked around for a little while, and eventually settled for Mariucci's right-hand man, presumably to lay the foundation for the glorious day when Mooch would come home--we all know how both of those hires played out.

    Mayhew, however, has spent his first day on the job lining up a Who's Who of hot candidates.  Adam Schefter reports that the Lions have sought permission to interview, in a mildly particular order:

    • Giants Defensive Coordinator Steve Spagnuolo
    • Cowboys Offensive Coordinator Jason Garrett
    • Titans Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz
    • Vikings Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier
    • Redskins Defensive Backs Coach Jerry Gray

    I'll be breaking each of these down over the next couple of days, also in mildly particular order.  However, we can see a pattern emerging here: coordinators (or former coordinators) with no head-coaching experience; most from solid coaching trees; some are former players.  With the exception of Garrett, they're all defensive coaches.  I think this speaks to the crucial point: as awful as the Lions' woes at quarterback and offensive line have been, it's been the wet-newspaper defense that's really pounded the nails in the Lions' coffin.  Just look at the numbers:

  • Scoring Defense: Ranked 32nd--and it isn't close for 31st--with 517 points allowed (32.3 per  game!).  That's over double the amount of points that either the Steelers or Ravens allowed.
  • Yardage Defense: Ranked 32nd, with 6,470 yards allowed.
  • Passing Defense: Allowing a mere 3,716 yards passing makes slots the Lions' D 27th here, but that's highly misleading as no team had fewer passes attempted against them (an average of only 27.7 attempts per game against).  Opposing QBs, on the average, had a passer efficiency rating of 110.9--just think about that; every quarterback in the league becomes Steve Young at his peak when facing the 2008 Lions.
  • Rushing Defense: Ranked butt-naked last.  2,754 yards allowed on 536 carries; despite getting run at more times than any other defense save Seattle and Oakland, the Lions still allowed a mind-boggling 5.1 yards per carry.  Every running back in the league became Jim Brown against the 2008 Lions.

    I knew the defense was dire . . . but looking at the numbers, this is simply unbelievable.  What's worse is that the numbers can't show how inopportune this defense was; stuffing the run on first down, getting the sack on second down, allowing the 35-yard completion on third down.  Over and over and over and over, the Lions defense would show flashes of what they were meant to be for a play or a series or even a quarter--but when it mattered, the Lions defense could be absolutely counted on to play like they had forgotten to put a few guys out on the field.

    This is Marinelli's greatest failure (though arguably not the failure that actually got him fired, more on that another time): brought in as a tough-minded defensive coach who taught fundamentals, execution, and consistency above all else--hell, to the exclusion of all else--the fundamentals, execution, and consistency of this defense were all putrid.  In fact, considering the meh-to-adequate run game, the tepid efficiency + occasional Megatron passing attack, and outstanding kicking game, it was the Pop Warner tackling, blown assignments, awful run fits, overpursuing LBs, and the complete and total inability to prevent TEs from catching and scoring at will--everything Rod Marinelli preached as being vital to a team's success--that were the things most lacking from this team.  I can't explain how or why, but what he preached in practice (and if you believe everyone in Allen Park's repeated insistence, what was happening in practice) wasn't making it onto the field.  I do believe this is partly due to lack of talent--a big part of "talent" is football intelligence and instincts; you can show a horse film and give him grades but you can't make him cover a tight end downfield.  However, Rod consistently pushed to acquire raw prospects he thought he could 'coach up', yet few of these ever became more than what they were.

    Speaking of which, the defensive larder is now full of Marinelli projects: DT Andre Fluellen, DEs Dewayne White and Cliff Avril, DE/DT Ikaika "Five-O" Alama-Francis, LBs Ernie Sims and Jordon Dizon, safties Daniel Bullocks and Gerald Alexander.  There are also the holdovers from the Mooch era that fit the Marinelli mold: DTs Cory Redding and Shaun Cody, LBs Paris Lenon and Alex Lewis, and CB Travis Fisher.  Finally, the Marinelli/Tampa microwave-nuked leftovers: DT Chuck Darby, LB Ryan Nece, CB/S Dwight Smith (CB Brian Kelly was released midseason).  

    There are quite a few good players on that list.  The roster of presumable "keepers", starting with Marinelli's speciality, the defensive line:

    Dewayne White, when healthy, has shown the ability to consistently get at the passer--though he does it more with size and strength and technique than sheer speed.  To be honest, he reminds me quite a bit of Robert Porcher.  The difference is that Porcher manned the left side, where he could square off against slower right tackles who couldn't keep pace with his speed.  White was being asked to fill the Dwight Freeney/Simeon Rice role in Marinelli's Tampa 2, where he often did well anyway.   Cliff Avril, the OLB/DE 'tweener that some saw as a 3-4 blitzing OLB (see Woodley, Lamar), didn't get much time early.  But late in the season, he consistently showed the edge speed tenacity, and awareness to sack the quarterback.  Believe it or not, Cliff Avril led all NFL rookies in sacks in 2008, with five, along with 18 solo tackles, 5 assists, 4 forced fumbles and 1 recovery.  He did this despite starting only 4 games.  The fact of the matter is, the kid's a player.  Andre Fluellen, on the other hand, barely saw the field until the bitter end, but when he did I noticed something.  Andre Fluellen was bringing guys down in the secondary for eight yard gains.  He was forcing running backs out of bounds.  He was wrapping up wideouts on WR screens, after said WRs juked the corners.  He wasn't ever collapsing the pocket or throwing guys around, but Fluellen-at 296 pounds mind you--was frequently the second or third guy in on every tackle, everywhere on the field.  That speaks volumes about A) his level of effort, and B) his athleticism.  Five-O is a DE/DT, who hasn't seen the field much, but we've heard lots about him in practice.  There's no doubt that at 6'-5" and a lean 280, he passes the eyeball test.  Yet with moderate playing time--13 games, 2 starts--he only made a mild impact: 23 tackles and 1 sack.  That level of production would probably seem like "showing good flashes" for a rookie, but he's played two full seasons now and barely made a blip.  He was supposed to be a project from the get-go, but after two seasons you'd think we'd have a little bit more to go on.  Shaun Cody, the star of not-hit reality TV show "Super Agent", spent three whole seasons on the side of a milk carton only to suddenly make an impact in rotation: in 16 games and 4 starts, Cody racked up 25 solo tackles (for a DT!), 11 assists, and 3 passes defensed.  Those numbers approach his totals for his first three seasons combined.  Again, he certainly did not set the world on fire, especially for a second-round pick in his fourth year.  He should be a RFA this season--I'd think he'd be worth tendering an offer.  The rest of the lot (Darby, Langston Moore, Jared DeVries, Landon Cohen, Corey Smith, etc.)  are veteran backups with varying degrees of value, who may or may not have a place in the new regime.

    Next, the much-beleaguered linebacking corps: Ernie Sims, who was rated as the #1 recruit in America coming out of high school, has all the physical tools (eyeball test!) and mental tenacity to be an outstanding weakside linebacker.  But within this Lions defense, from his rookie year forward he has increasingly seen himself as a one-man team.  Especially in 2008, he was freelancing like crazy, and doing so increasingly to the detriment of both his production and the defense as a whole.  By the end of this year, I don't think Sims was playing for Marinelli or Barry, he was just going out there and flying by the seat of his pants.  That's a disastrous failure in the Tampa 2, which relies heavily on linebackers carrying out their assignments to a T--but with the right coach and system, Sims has the physical talent and mental tenacity be a Pro Bowler.  2008 second-rounder Jordon Dizon?  He's a total mystery.  Both Marinelli and Millen wanted Dizon, but it was obvious from the get-go that Millen thought he was drafting a Day One plug-in starter at MLB, and Marinelli thought he was getting a backup strong-side LB who could claim the starting SSLB job by the end of the season, and then be slowly tutored over the next offseason and regular season in the mysterious ninja art of the Tampa 2 Mike.  Millen forced Marinelli to put Dizon in at MLB, which he did, but only at third-string.  Dizon saw almost no reps in the middle once the bullets went live, and the instant Millen was broomed out the door, Dizon was the backup SSLB.  His body type and production scream strong-sider, but he might not have the speed to keep up with TEs and slot WRs in the Tampa 2 short zones.  Of course, if he's not playing in the Tampa 2 . . . he could concievably play Mike, his college position, in a straight 4-3, but he's quite undersized for that.  He might be best suited to play ILB in a 3-4.  Unfortunately, all the rest of these guys (starting Mike Paris Lenon, Alex Lewis, Ryan Nece, and Anthony Cannon) all fit the same mold: varyingly athletic, uniformly undersized (Lenon's the giant of the group at 235 lbs.), all veteran backups with varying degrees of value who may or may not have a place--as special teamers--in the new system.

    Now, the roundly lambasted defensive secondary: Leigh Bodden came to the Lions with much fanfare: the guy we got for departed he-beast Shaun "Big Baby" Rogers.  Bodden was sort of an odd fit; a talented cover corner with ball skills, but with the frame and attitude to hit people.  A traditional Tampa 2 corner needs only to blanket a reciever for 5-7 yards, and then be strong in run support; Bodden's best talents weren't of much use.  He struggled in the system early on, and many fans labelled him a bust.  But towards the end of the season it became obvious that Bodden was the best corner the Lions had had in a long time--you just couldn't see it due to the system he played in, and the fact that every other spot on the field was a soft spot for opposing offenses.  Why throw at Bodden when you can run for 5.1 yards a carry, or throw at a green backup like former Mr. Irrelevant Ramzee Robinson? Daniel Bullocks has shown good speed and awareness at the strong safety spot; he's also shown he both loves to hit people and is good at hitting.  Third on the team with 94 tackles in (64 solo), I think he's going to be a solid piece of the puzzle for years to come.   After being drafted in the second round in 2007, Gerald Alexander showed an impressive tool set, awareness, and the makings of an outstanding free safety (even while filling in at the strong side).  I don't know what happened in the offseason, but Alexander looked completely lost this preseason--he lost his starting gig to Dwight Smith and then went down for the year with an injury in Week 5.  Who knows which Gerald Alexander will report to 2009 camp?  Travis Fisher has, to me, always been a very good nickel back and an awful starting corner.  He's got great ball skills, but has neither the deep speed, nor size and strength, to consistently cover starting wideouts in the NFL.  You can see this in his career stats--his first two years, in the Rams' corner rotation, he had 14 passes defensed and six picks.  He's had 18 PD and 3 INT in the five years since, as he's repeatedly been pressed into starting duty.  I think he'll find a way to contribute in the next regime.  I'd do the "The Rest of These Guys" roundup . . . but between injury and attrition, that's just Keith Smith.

    So . . . now what?

    It's clear to me that the next coach must either be a defensive coach with a strong track record (e.g., Spagnuolo or Schwartz), or be an offensive coach who brings along a DC with excellent credentials.  Moreover, that coach needs to bring in a system that matches the talent.  It's easy to look at other Tampa Two disciples, but even though I don't think "the system" was the problem, I think the defensive players are going to more easily buy into a passionate coach with an aggressive scheme.  Look at what happened in Tampa: Tony Dungy walked softly but carried a big stick, preached discipline and coached his reactive zone defense for years and years--and when they brought in firebrand Jon Gruden, the whole team stepped it up to the next level.  I think that an aggressive, blitzing 4-3 would be the best fit for this talent.  With all the aggressive, undersized linebackers, and the defensive line that--poorly or not--was built to rush the passer without help from the rest of the defense, it seems like setting the front seven to attack, and allowing Leigh Bodden and the young safeties to hold down the back end, seems like it's going to be a lot more effective than setting the back seven to 'soft zone' mode and hoping that the medicore pass rush prevents Tarvaris Jackson from actually reminding people of Donovan McNabb.

    As a reminder, I'll be breaking down each of the rumored candidates--including deposed Jets HC Eric Mangini!-- in upcoming posts.  Thanks to all who've taken time to read so far!

  • in the bleak midwinter

    . . . in black and white.

    When I walked out the door into the early morning darkness, the wind was a stinging, bitter smack to the face. After a warm and lovely holiday weekend, where most of the near-foot of accumulated snow and ice melted off, last night Winter came roaring back. A silvery sheen of frost and ice glazed over everything, including my car. After cranking the engine, I began the routine: hacking, scraping, brushing, and scouring the exterior glass—while my car desperately tried to maintain a series of small fires inside a solid metal block chilled to a temperature well below freezing. With the grueling work done, I collapsed into the driver's seat. It was then that the voice on the local sports talk radio station smacked me in the face with an even colder reality: I'm a Lions fan.

    On this morning, the morning, the morning where the Lions are now officially the worst team in the history of professional football, I have never been more ashamed, despressed, dejected, and disgusted to be a Lions fan. And yet—I am suprised and pleased to discover that I am still a Lions fan. Despite the snow and wind and bitter, bitter cold, a little blue flame still dances and flickers on the ashes of what was once a roaring fire. So . . . now what?

    Since literally before I can remember, I have been a Lions fan. When I four, I went as Billy Sims for Halloween, despite the fact that his knees' connective tissues had long since frayed to nothing. I cherished my little Hutch-brand Lions #20 jersey. Of course, when the Lions eventually drafted Barry Sanders, it was like the best Christmas ever in the middle of April—suddenly instead of being the guy who can't afford a new jersey, I could rep the man who I knew would be the greatest Lion of all time. In 1991, I was ten years old, I nearly broke my thumbs pointing them up for Mike Utley. When the Lions pasted the Cowboys to advance to the NFC Championship, I was delirious for a week. Even getting slaughtered by the Redskins in that championship game 42-10 couldn't entierly erase my joy. The roar, my friends, was RESTORED—and the Lions were a team to be feared!

    That was—oh, my God—seventeen years ago. Being a Lions fan has been an excruiciating, tortured, squealing-brakes slide towards this freezing black nadir ever since. The Lions went from being a three-ring-QB circus act surrounding a sublime headline performer, to an explosive offensive team that lost a lot of big games but never failed to entertain, to a painfully mediocre franchise run to be profitable and not to win, to a grand experiment where a "football man" with no management or administrative experience was given the reins to a billion-dollar organization, to Jay Leno's nightly national punchline, to this: the Run to None, 0-16, the worst of all possible seasons, the Lions branded forever as the sorriest excuse ever to pass as an NFL football team.

    Head Coach Rod Marinelli: a man who I am convinced—more than any other coach since maybe Vince Lombardi—not only believes, but lives and breathes every single word he says about honesty, integrity, character, effort, and motivation—is fired. He will land somewhere as a defensive line coach, and do an outstanding job. His defensive coordinator and son-in-law Joe Barry, whom Marinelli would rather be fired with than fire, goes with him. The rest of the motley crew, including Joe Cullen, the man who drove through Wendy's drunk and naked and kept his job, Kippy Brown, the wide recievers coach-cum-"passing game coordinator", are gone—save only Jim Colletto, the offensive line coach in offensive coordinator's clothing, who's been . . . de-moted? Re-moted? to OL coach, RB coach Sam Gash, and WR coach Shawn Jefferson.

    COO and interim President Tom Lewand—the man who built Ford Field—is now the permanent team President. Assistant and interim GM Martin Mayhew—a former player with a law degree—is now the permanent GM. If you discount everything they did for and with deposed CEO Matt Millen, these two have fairly compelling resumés. Mayhew had the second half of a regular season, the worst possible time of year for a GM to show his stuff, to show his stuff. In that time, he consummated a jaw-dropper of a trade that has netted the Lions the 1.17 and 3.17 for a WR who has mostly coasted on YouTube clips and a gift for gab for the last two seasons. He also signed Duante Culpepper to do one thing—keep Drew Stanton off the field—and at that he was entirely successful. He also comes with a ringing endorsement from the best in the business, Colts GM Bill Polian.

    Those who were hoping that William Clay Ford, Sr. (the man I like to call Big Willie Style) would either launch a month-long campaign to hire a brilliant young personnel man from some other organization, or park a Brinks truck full of gazillions of dollars in the driveway of Scott Pioli, haven't been paying attention to how Big Willie Style rolls. Like Marinelli, the only quality WCF possesses more of than stubbornness is loyalty. Ford was never going to "clean house"; he did that when he brought in Millen and it got him this. WCF looks backwards, not forwards—and what he sees in Lewand and Mayhew are two men who have performed very well for him, and together they are going to start a search for a new coach.

    So . . . now what? Literally any direction from this point forward is up. Yet it seems like after three years of "stirring the concrete", while the foundation has not been laid, the hole for it has been dug. The deadwood has been cut (or traded) from the roster, many valuable role players have been found and polished, and the team looks like exactly the team Rod Marinelli wanted to build: Fifty-three men who all work hard, love the game, fight for sixty minutes, and Pound the Rock. The problem is, they suck. For everyone who's ever said, "I'll take 53 Wes Welkers on MY team", well, behold the results! Without superlative talent at key positions, without rare combinations of size, strength, and speed up front, without at least mediocre scheming, gameplanning, and adjustments, in the NFL you are bringing a knife to a gunfight. It is an absolute testament to Marinelli's coaching ability that this team fought tooth and tail to the bitter, bitter end. So what do you need to do? Add talent. This roster is full of guys you'd LOVE to have, just one notch down on the depth chart. Leigh Bodden would make an outstanding #2 corner. Paris Lenon can back up SSLB and MLB with equal aplomb. Mike Furrey is an absolute mismatch against any nickel corner. Dewayne White would be a monster SSDE, Jeff Backus is a Pro Bowl guard, etc. etc. etc. It seems like this team simply needs to add a few frontline starters in a few key positions, and they'd be competitive. And look at this draft! The Lions will have their pick of the litter at 1.1, and still have two more picks in the following 32. Three more in the two rounds after that—that's five picks in the first three rounds! As the staggering contracts of Joey Harrington, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, and Roy Williams roll off the books, there will in fact be plenty of cap room to try and plug some holes. And yet, and yet . . . 0-16.

    In a league where parity has been the watchword since the late, great Pete Rozelle took the reins and made the NFL into the all-consuming national obsession it is today, the Detroit Lions have failed to win a single game. There is absolutely no excusing or dismissing that fact. At 0-1, it was surprising. At 0-3, it was shocking. At 0-6, it was infuriating . . . somewhere in between there and here, the mind numbed. The senses failed. The apathy set in. A fanbase that had doggedly supported their team for exactly 75 years, with the last 50 of them a nearly unbroken string of futility and mediocrity, finally began to abandon ship. The Lions have played their home games this year entombed in a hollow jewel of a stadium. The atmosphere has been that of a memorial service; fans were showing up not to cheer, but to mourn the passing of something dear to them. Some have 'written off' the Lions, some 'are done' with the Lions, many more have sworn off spending any more of their hard-earned dollars supporting Ford's folly, and a few have even decided to find "new favorite teams". I don't blame them.

    But me? I'm a fan. I was born a fan, and I will die a fan. The hooting and derision of the American sports culture has set my resolve. I'm sick of getting snickers on the football-y corners of the Internet. I'm sick of getting reaction takes when I wear Lions gear around town. I've thought about starting this blog for years, but this morning I knew that today was the day. I've pulled my hood tight, I've loaded up the sled with wood, and I've got fuel and spark to spare. I'm going to reclaim my Lions pride. I'm going to fan that little blue flame into the great big bonfire it ought to be, and nobody's going to be prouder than me when thousands are once again carrying torches to rally behind this team.


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