old mother hubbard: the cornerbacks

>> 1.31.2009

Ever since Bryant Westbrook went down in the midst of a Pro Bowl-to-be season in 2000, the Lions have struggled to find quality cornerback play.  This situation looks like it's unlikely to change for 2009.

Leigh Bodden: When they traded Shaun Rogers for Cleveland CB Leigh Bodden and a third-round draft pick, it was hoped that the young (27) veteran could step in and cover opposing teams' top recievers.  While the Tampa 2 defense relies mostly on short zones--and asks its corners to step up and play run defense--Bodden is more of a traditional man-to-man cover corner.  Still, with his size (6'-1". 193), it was hoped that he'd be able to make a natural transition to the play of a Tampa 2 corner.

 . . . not so much.  Bodden seemed lost early on, neither playing well in coverage nor in run support.  Bodden quickly became a favorite target of the naysayers, especially as the huge hole in the middle of the defense became obvious.  However, in the middle of the season, the light started to go on.  Against Washington he had 8 tackles (7 solo), and in the first Minnesota game he had his sole interception (down from six in 2007).  That, by the way, was the ONLY interception registered by ANY Lions defensive back.  That is . . . that is horrible.

At the end of the season, it was obvious that Bodden disliked the defensive system he'd been shoehorned into--and the coaching staff who did the shoehorning:

“You've got to be unpredictable, and I feel like sometimes we were kind of too predictable in what we were calling -- and that costs you,” Bodden said. “If the offensive coordinator can pretty much tell what you're about to run, then he's going to beat whatever you have.”

Amen, Leigh.  Amen.  I still believe that Bodden is an extremely talented and confident young corner, and will almost certainly be a better starter in the new system than anyone else we can acquire, either through free agency or the draft.  However, Bodden will be due an $8.6 million roster bonus in March, and it seems unlikely that the Lions would want to exercise that bonus.  Most are treating his departure as a foregone conclusion, but don't be so sure--cornerback is probably the thinnest position on the roster.  Bottom line: a talented young cover corner in his prime, horribly misused in the T2, and probably out the door for contract reasons.  Should be excellent in 2009 whether he's here or somewhere else.

 Travis Fisher: Fisher is yet another constant target of Lions fans' ire, yet he's quite good at the things Tampa 2 corners must do: he's stout against the run and provides good short-zone coverage skills; in 2007 he had 78 tackles (60 solo) and two interceptions.  The problem is that he has neither the athleticism nor the deep speed to cover opposing teams' #2 wideouts.  In 2008, he had a very slow start, missed a few games with a knee injury, and then had a very slow finish as well.  I see Fisher as a good nickel back or situational short-zone corner, a guy who can tackle and jump slants.  However, the guy is regularly scorched on medium and deep routes.  I would say that we need to acquire a starter to replace him at #2 corner--yet if Boddenis cut, and he's re-signed, he'll be our #1 corner!

Vomit.

Bottom line: Fisher is cheap depth, forced into a starting role.  His "skills" are best suited to the Tampa 2 we won't be running anymore.  His contract is up, and he is due to be an unrestricted free agent.

Stanley Wilson:  A 2005 third-round draft pick, fourth-year speedster (and Stanford grad) Stanley Wilson exploded at the tail end 2006, earning a starting spot and the team's Chuck Hughes award for 'most improved player'.  It seemed like Wilson was well on his way, and began the 2007 season as the starting RCB.   While he had some great individual games (8 tackles against Chicago!), he was in and out of the lineup due to injury, eventually being put on IR after the Thanksgiving game.  in 2008, Wilson blew out his Achilles tendon in the first game of the preseason.  Wilson at this point is a totally unknown quantity . . . his youth, blazing speed (4.36 @ the combine), decent size (5'-11". 189), and his play at the end of 2006 points to a very bright future.  However, his inability to stay healthy, inconsistency, and the Tampa 2 scheme he played in make him an enigma.  Even if he rehabs to 100%, his contract is up--Wilson will be an unrestricted free agent.  Bottom line: Wilson is a bright and talented young man who can't stay healthy.  Moreover, his contract is up.  If he attracts little interest, the Lions may re-sign him to a "prove it"-type contract to see what he can do in the new scheme.

Ramzee Robinson:  Famous mostly for being the 2007 draft's Mr. Irrelevant, Robinson has been cut, assigned to the pratice squad, signed, cut, and assigned to the practice squad about 237 times in two years.  He got signed for good in the middle of 2008, and made a little noise on special teams and in the dime packages, getting 25 tackles.  As an Alabama starter with a little size to him (5'-10", 186#), Robinson should make the squad next year--due to attrition if nothing else.  Bottom line: a seventh-round draft pick with a smidge of upside, who ought to make the team next year.

Keith Smith: a third-round pick in the 2004 draft, Keith Smith has seen some time at nickel and dime, and has occasionally been pressed into starting duty when others have been injured.  Smith has never made much of an impact, and at age 28 he's probably peaked.  Smith played 10 games in 2008 before being placed on IR . . . he's a placeholder at best.  I believe he's an unrestricted free agent.  Bottom line: Smith never amounted to much, and if he somehow re-signs with the Lions will be strictly a cheap warm body.

SUMMARY:  The situation here is dire.  Bodden is a legit NFL #1 CB who could excel in the new system, but is due a monster bonus they might cut him to avoid paying.  Travis Fisher is a nickel back at best, and is a free agent.  Stanley Wilson has the talent to be an exellent man-to-man cover corner, but he can't stay healthy and is a free agent.  Robinson is depth with a little upside, and Smith is a scrub and a free agent.  If Bodden is let go, we will need three new corners, two of them starters.  I hope Bodden is kept, and we draft a corner with legit speed and excellent return skills--hell, maybe two of them.  A veteran starter would be nice, and Titans fourth-year CB/KR Chris Carr is reportedly interested in getting out from under the shadow of Cortland Finnegan & Co. in Tennessee.  Sounds good to me.  Bring friends Chris; bring friends.

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old mother hubbard: the linebackers

>> 1.30.2009

Initially, I was going to break this down into the "middle linebackers" and the "outside linebackers", but . . . who are we kidding?  There isn't a natural middle linebacker on the Lions' roster.  Hence, "the linebackers":

Ernie Sims: coming out of high school, Ernie Sims was the #1 overall recruit (as ranked by Rivals.com).  It's no surprise; even in high school he had an NFL body.  He passes the eyeball test with flying colors--he has truly alarming biceps.  He selected Florida State, and after a very productive career there, was drafted by the Lions with the 8th overall pick of the 2006 draft.    There were a lot of questions about his size (listed at 6'-0", 220; perhaps in platform shoes?), but as Sims said, "When I tackle a person, they don't ask me how tall I am".  Sims was rampantly compared to fellow FSU standout and Tampa 2 LB Derrick Brooks, though Brooks is taller, leaner, slightly faster, and a SSLB--much more like former Lions LB Boss Bailey.  In his first season, Sims was a force, leading the Lions in tackles (124, 81 solo) and often looking like the only guy out there.  The sky seemed like the limit, and I started saving up for an Ernie Sims jersey.  He took a small step forward in productivity in 2007 (134 tackles, 91 solo, 1 sack, 1 INT), but compared to expectations he underperformed.   He also looked like he was freelancing at times, overpursuing in the run game and getting caught out-of-position in the pass game--both cardinal sins in the Tampa 2, which relies on everyone staying home and removing options for the offense.  Sims REALLY started freelancing this season, trying to do everything himself, MUCH to the detriment of the defense.  Sims's productivity fell way off (113 tackles, 71 solo, 1 sack), and he often seemed to disappear out there.  My personal theory is that Sims lost all respect for the defensive coaching staff and the system they taught.  Whether he wasn't going full speed, or he was playing with total disregard for the system, Sims was definitely mentally checked out.  I think a switch to a system where he gets to blitz, to attack, to run downhill and hit people will be MUCH more to his liking.  Sims was named as one of the "three untouchable Lions" by NFL.com's Adam Schefter, and there's a good reason why.  Sims' athletic ability is incredible, and when he's engaged he plays with tremendous fire and passion.  In a traditional 4-3, where the WLB is asked to attack, attack, attack, I think Ernie Sims could be a tremendous force; a perennial Pro Bowl level defender.  In a 3-4, Sims could pair with Cliff Avril to make a vicious OLB combo reminiscent of the Steelers' Lamarr Woodley and James Harrison.  Bottom line:  Sims mailed it in last year, but I expect a Pro Bowl year from him this year, regardless of alignment.  Schwartz and Gunther will know how to use this enormous talent.

Jordon Dizon:  Who knows?  Incomplete.

Paris Lenon:   . . . I'm not going to get away with that one, am I?

Jordon Dizon:  He was the Lions second-round pick in the 2008 draft, one where every early pick was desperately needed to contribute in order to avoid a disaster . . . and he didn't . . . and they didn't.  The confusion, inconsistency of vision, and infighting amongst the Lions over Jordon Dizon was one of the key examples of why the Lions went 0-16.  Dizon was extremely productive at Colorado.  Despite being a little undersized for a Mike, even by college standards (6'-0", 229#), Dizon was a four-year starter who slid between the Mike and Will spots.  He finished at Colorado with 463 tackles, eighth-best in D-I history, and after his senior year was Big XII Defensive Player of the Year (please refrain from making the obvious Big XII/Defense/oxymoron jokes).  Here is what I believe is the timeline of what went down:

* Millen and Marinelli agree that the Lions need a middle linebacker, preferably the kind with "of the future" attached to his position designation.

* Millen and Marinelli agree that Jordon Dizon has the talent, instincts, and frame to someday be a great middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 system.

* Millen drafts Jordon Dizon in the second round.

* Millen presents Marinelli with Dizon and demands he install him as the MLB.

* Marinelli retorts that Dizon will not be mentally or physically ready to play MLB for at least a year, maybe two, and should start off on the strong side while Paris Lenon brings the mediocrity.

* Millen insists.

* Dizon holds out of the first week of training camp, missing the installation of the base defense and killing any chance he had of making an impact at MLB in 2008.

* Marinelli plants Dizon's butt on the third-string bench behind Buster Davis.

* Millen cuts Buster Davis.

* Millen is fired.

* Marinelli immediately switches Dizon to the strong side, where he is promptly injured and lost for the year.

Bottom line:  From what very, very, very little we have seen, Dizon is a short-term project at SLB, long-term project at MLB, and possibly too small for either--essentially the second coming of Teddy Lehman.

Paris Lenon:  Paris Lenon is the man Lions fans love to hate.  Listed at 6'-2", 235 lbs., Paris Lenon is--by far--the biggest linebacker on the Lions roster.  An undrafted free agent who paid his dues in NFL Europe and the XFL, Lenon has been very steady, really hardworking, and totally unspectacular.  He hasn't missed a game since 2002--and even though he's arguably a natural SLB, he's started every game at middle linebacker throughout his tenure with the Lions.  He doesn't posess great size, speed, or strength, but he's one of the few sound tacklers out there for the Lions, and he keeps his wits about him out there.  If the Lions are going to play an attacking 4-3, Lenon absolutely cannot be the starting MLB.  The Lions must acquire a real MLB with a frame that lets him athletically carry 245 pounds or more, let Lenon back him up, or fight Dizon, and Ryan Nece fight for snaps on the strong side.  In a 3-4, the Lions will have to both sign a veteran starter AND burn one of the first five draft picks on an MLB.   Bottom line: Lenon is an okay starter/terrific backup SSLB with a high motor, playing WAY out-of-position at MLB.

Ryan Nece:  Another of the Tampa Bay Misfit Toys, Ryan Nece was signed just before the season opened, and very soon found himself the starting SSLB.  Weighing in at 6'-3", 224 pounds, I completely wrote Nece off--just another skinny OLB off the trash pile, right?  However, Nece is a man full of surprises: his father is Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott.  Moreover, while Nece didn't have his pinky finger cut off to stay on the field last year, he played with an impressive amount of fire and tenacity.  He pulled down 68 tackles (45 solo) and 1.5 sacks in just 10 starts.  He's not a long-term solution--at age 29 he'll never be any better than he is right now--but he was more than worth the street FA contract he signed.  He's also a quality special-teamer, many of whom got run off by Marinelli's "I don't waste roster spots on special teamers" approach.  Bottom line: excellent heart, attitude, depth, special teams ability, no contract to speak of.  If he stays on the roster, I don't mind at all--but I'd hope Dizon or Lenon could beat him out for the starting SSLB gig.

Alex Lewis: 6'-0", 230 lbs.  Fast.  Athletic.  Can't tackle.  Good special teamer.

Anthony Cannon: 6'-0", 228 lbs.  Fast.  Athletic.  Can't tackle.  Good special teamer.

SUMMARY:  Sims should be an impact player at the weakside, and between Lennon and Dizon the strongside should be handled as well.  However, the Lions absolutely must address the middle linebacker position, preferably through both free agency and one of the first five picks of the draft.  Paris Lenon is small for an NFL linebacke, but is the biggest of the bunch.  In an aggressive 4-3, the MLB must be a traditional run-stopper like--speaking strictly hypothetically (wink, wink)--James Laurenitis of Ohio State.  In a 3-4, the Lions may have several quality veteran starters on the free agent market to pursue: young standout veteran Dolphin Channing Crowder (who I was rooting for us to draft originally) is one example.  In a bizarre but intriguing piece of news, a close friend of Pittsburgh stalwart ILB Larry Foote told the Free Press Foote would love to come to Detroit--much like his old teammate Earl Holmes did.  Larry, good God, would we love to have you.  The Lions would have to both sign AND draft multiple MLBs to switch to a 3-4, though; Lenon is currently the only "MLB" on the depth chart.

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old mother hubbard: the defensive ends

>> 1.28.2009

As we saw, several of the defensive tackles (Redding, Cody, Fluellen, Cohen) have a build, athleticism (or both) suitable for flexing to the outside in a 3-4, or even 4-3 alignment.  Let's now take a look at the ends . . .

Dewayne White: Signed to a moderately lucrative free agent contract after the 2006 season, White was a Tampa Bay understudy who'd shown promise as a situational pass rusher, but hadn't been able to crack the starting lineup.  At 6'-2", 273 lbs, White is a protoypical 4-3 strongside end, reminiscent of Robert Porcher.  He possesses the natural size and strength to not be a liability in the run game, while still being athletic enough to be effective as a pass rusher.  Initially he was supposed to be a bookend to former Lion Kalimba Edwards--but when Edwards couldn't generate the pressure that the Tampa 2 requires, White was frequently used out-of-position on the weakside.  This means that instead of trying to beat bigger, slower right tackles, White was usually lined up against the opponent's best pass blocker.  There were doubts that White had enough speed to be consistently disruptive there--yet, in his first seven games as a Lion, White had 23 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 interception and three passes defensed.  This included a monster performance against his former team, the Bucs: 8 tackles (7 solo), 3 sacks, and 1 pass defensed.  Anyone who watched this game had a hard time not feeling like the Lions might have finally gotten a free agent signing right.  At the pivot point of the season, however, when the Lions were 6-2 and riding high, White injured a tricep.  He missed the debacle at Arizona, and the brutal home loss to the Giants (two of the worst football games I can remember watching).   Though he rushed himself back to help stop the Lions' bleeding, he wasn't as effective.  White finished with 43 tackles and 6.5 sacks--five of those tackles coming in the last game of the year.  In 2008, it was practically the same story: White roared through the first half of the season, including 5.5 sacks and a monster 10-tackle game against Houston--then got injured, missed 4 games, and ended up with just 38 tackles and 6.5 sacks.  White is a fiery competitor and a great 4-3 strongside end, but he has to find a way to stay healthy for 16 games.  If he could keep up his typical first-eight-weeks production, he would be an 80-tackle, 12-sack guy; Pro Bowl material.  Unfortunately, in a 3-4 White would be lost--3-4 ends take up blockers and stop the run, they don't rush the passer.  And at 273 pounds, White may be a good athlete but he's no LOLB.  In the 3-4 he'd be asked to cover tight ends in space, keep contain on screens . . . I don't see it happening.  As a point of pure interest, White played at Louisville, and his freshman-through-junior seasons were during Scott Linehan's tenure there as the offensive coordinator.  Bottom line: When healthy, White is an excellent all-around 4-3 SDE in the Porcher mold, but injuries have hampered his productivity.  His contract alone will keep him around for '09, but a shift to a 3-4 would make him a fifth (fourth?) wheel.

Cliff Avril:  Avril was drafted in the third round of the 2008 draft.  Avril was an outside linebacker at Purdue, though he was pressed into service at the defensive end spot his senior year.  He was ranked as an OLB by just about every scouting service--though most noted that his ability to put a hand down, combined with his size (6'-3", 252#), made his a prime candidate for a 3-4 pass-rushing ROLB.  He expressed suprise to the media at the time (though can't find a quote right now) that an NFL team saw him as a down lineman, but made the commitment to be the best end he could be.  He came through, and then some.  Marinelli seemed to be intent on keeping Avril under wraps--he didn't see the field until after the bye week.  He got his first sack against Washington in Week 8, and kept it up from there.  By Week 14 he was the starting rush end, and he ended up leading all rookies with 5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles.  Avril displayed the rare edge speed and natural burst--what Marinelli disturbingly calls "get-off"--to blow past left tackles and sack the quarterback.  Not only did he get actual sacks, he generated consistent pressure: flushing the QB out of the pocket, forcing a hurried throw, getting him to step up (and be sacked by a DT).  THAT is the kind of pressure that the Tampa 2 requires to be successful.  Had White and Avril been at their peak production at the same time, and the Lions been able to hold a team to less than five yards per carry rushing, you would have seen a lot more of the defense Rod Marinelli was trying to build.  Now, Avril hasn't done it for anywhere near a whole season, and he hasn't had to face double-teams yet.  In a 4-3, he must spend all offseason trying to add upper-body strength and honing his technique.  He's going to have to be able to get and keep hands off of him, and he's going to have to develop a strong inside move to keep OTs honest.  In a 3-4, his upside is practically unlimited--he could easily be the next Lamar Woodley. At Gunther's introductory press conference, he gushed about Avril's potential and how he'll use him in many ways.  Bottom Line: Avril is a real gem, and possesses legitimate pass-rush ability, either as a 4-3 rush end or a 3-4 ROLB.  He should get double-digit sacks in 2009, almost regardless of scheme.

Ikaika Alama-Francis: The man they call "Five-O" (he's from Hawaii . . . GET IT?!?!?!) is a 6'-5", 280 lb. SDE who, theoretically, possesses a rare combination of size, speed, and strength.  He dominated at Hawaii, despite never having played football until then-Hawaii-DC Jerry Glanville (yes, he who used to leave tickets for Elvis at the Georgia Dome) saw him play on the basketball team and invited him to try out for the pigskin squad.  Apparently Glanville called him "the most talented defensive lineman" he ever coached, which is saying something.   Still, when he was drafted in the second round, the Lions staff made it clear that "Five-O" was a long-term project.  Brutally raw in technique and use of leverage, Marinelli thought he could grill this rare slab of meat into a 290-pound DE steak.  We have not seen much of IAF--he barely saw the field his rookie year, and played in 13 games with 2 starts in 2008.  In those two starts, he garnered a mere three tackles combined.  However, he showed up big in two road games, at Houston and at Indianapolis; in both games he had four tackles and half a sack.  I'd like to say this shows flashes of his promise being fulfilled, but . . . well, it doesn't.  Five-O is still completely green, and it remains to be seen if the light will go on in time.  If he somehow put it together, with his frame and athleticism could make him a true force against the run at the 4-3 SDE spot.  He could be a great rotational combo with Dewayne White, possibly flexing to under tackle on obvious passing downs.  For that matter, IAF's frame and game make him a perfect 3-4 DE; perfect for demanding and occupying blockers.  He and Shaun Cody, at the peak of their potential, could be hugely disruptive wingmen if centered by a proper nose tackle.  Bottom Line: Five-O might remind MSU basketball fans of Marquise Gray: a potentially devastating talent who hasn't yet put it together--and may not ever.  For now, throw him on the "4-3 SDE/UT project who'd make a theoretically ideal 3-4 DE" pile.

Corey Smith: a sixth-year journeyman who started his career in . . . take a guess?  Yes, Tampa Bay.  At 6-2", 250", he seems undersized, but he plays bigger than that.  As the backup rush end, I intially wrote him off, but Smith seemed to have a way of getting in on plays.  In just 12 games and 3 starts, Smith racked up 30 tackles, 3 sacks, and an interception; rivalling Cliff Avril's production.  Towards the end of the year, it seemed like I was always mumbling to myself, "Hey, there goes Corey Smith again." However, where Avril was a rookie in 2009, at age 29 Smith is in his theoretical prime.  Smith appears to be a hardworking, high-motor guy who doesn't give up on plays and has good instincts.  He's a valuable reserve who's shown he can come off the bench and rush the passer.  I haven't seen him play in space, but he could probably translate to OLB in a 3-4 quite easily.  Bottom Line: Smith is a low-cost hard worker--and could probably rush the passer out of any scheme.  A depth keeper.

Jared Devries: DeVreis, Iowa's all-time #1 sackmaster, has found a way to stick on the Lions' roster through ten seasons, six head coaches, and an almost unfathomable number of losses.  A third-round pick in 1999, DeVries persevered, and started a career-high 10 games in 2007, and 9 in 2008.  A quintessential case of effort and heart overcoming lack of talent, the 6'-4", 275 lb. Iowa farmboy has put up just 16.5 sacks in his ten-year career, 6.5 of which came in his breakout year in 2007.  However, with Avril and Smith at the rush end spot, Devries will have to go back to waiting for someone (Dewayne White) to get hurt.  Unfortuately, he may not have to wait long . . . Bottom Line: a great guy, all effort and heart.  One of the very very very few pre-Millen Lions left.  I'd love to see him retire a Lion, but he might have to fight for a roster spot next season if the Lions stay in a 4-3 . . . can't see a place for him in a 3-4.

SUMMARY: The defensive ends are a classic case of perspective.  If you put on the rose-colored glasses, Dewayne White and Cliff Avril are double-digit sackers when healthy, and could be very dangerous when paired.  IAF could play a "Justin Tuck"-ish role in the defense, going both inside and outside to maximize his strengths.  Corey Smith and Jared Devries are both high-effort veterans.  OR . . . Avril hasn't proved anything, getting five sacks in some meaningless games, Dewayne White is always hurt, IAF is a project and will always bee one, and Smith and Devries are scrubs.

Given all the other holes, I'm choosing optimism here.  In the middle of the season, I wanted a blazing 4-3 rush end like Brian Orakpo . . . but I've since become an Avril believer.  Considering how all-around awful the defense was, ANY depth or talent added to ANY defensive position would be nice.  If a third-rounder was spent on an eventual Smith/Devries replacement, I would consider it wise for sure--but, I don't see a real need to acquire a starter at defensive end this year.  At 4-3, we're okay, and at 3-4, we have about six possible 3-4 DEs to fight for two starting spots.

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old mother hubbard: the defensive tackles

>> 1.26.2009

To analyze the defensive line properly, we're going to have to briefly review whether the pentagonal peg that is the talent is going to be hammered into a square or round hole: a scheme that utilizes four or three down linemen.  Schwartz and Cunningham have actively evaded this question as they're going to try to fit the scheme to the talent and not the other way around.  Since they've only just begun the process of evaluating the talent they currently have, in theory they have no better idea whether they will run a 4-3 or 3-4 than you or I.  Let's evaluate the talent from both perspectives.

Cory Redding: Redding is the highest-paid defensive lineman on the Lions' roster.  Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2003 draft, he was a strongside DE at the University of Texas, and a linemate of Shaun 'Big Baby' Rogers.  He was drafted as a DE/DT 'tweener, a guy who could dominate against the run on first and second-and-short, and then move inside and rush the passer on second-and-long and third down.  This past season was his sixth, and at 28 he should just be entering his prime.  He's listed at 6'-4", 295, though I thought he looked at least 15 lbs. heavier than that this season.  When Rod Marinelli came to town to install the Tampa 2, Redding was tabbed as an 'under' tackle in the making, a one-gap pass rushing DT in the mold of a young Warren Sapp.    As many know, Redding had a breakout season in 2006, playing like a stud in Shaun Rogers' absence, garnering 8 sacks.  However, when Rogers came back in 2007, rather than pick up where he left off, Redding mostly disappeared.  He took another step back in 2008, even though Rogers was gone once again.  Playing in only 13 games due to a late-season knee injury, Redding was completely pedestrian, getting 38 tackles and three sacks.  Redding is nothing like the force the Lions thought they were getting when they signed him to a monster deal after the 'o6 year.  He's definitely got the athleticism to be a disruptive presence in the middle, but either he has quit on the Lions or he's lost something.  Out of shape?  Less weight work, more twelve-ounce curls?  It's difficult to say.  Of course, it's significant that he's the only Lions lineman that ever commands a double-team, so that can account for some of it--but then he rarely beats the double-team like a premier DT can.  In a 4-3, he is definitely too big and too slow to play defensive end, but with the right motivation he could still be a solid starter at the smaller tackle spot.  In a 3-4, he would make a very good defensive end--he'd just stand there and take up two blockers so the LBs behind him can make a play!  As a 3-4 nose tackle, however, I think Redding would be overmatched.  He could take up a double-team, but not regularly shed it or split it to make plays.  From an off-the-field perspective, Redding is extremely popular in the locker room and is typically voted a captain.  As one of the few holdovers from the pre-Marinelli era, Redding is a rare Lions veteran and a strong, vocal leader.  Even if his play on the field doesn't justify his exorbitant salary, now is not the time to start ditching positive locker room leaders.  Bottom Line: The Lions are committed to Redding money wise for at least 2009 and maybe 2010, so look for him to be starting as a 4-3 UT or 3-4 DE/NT in '09.

Shaun Cody: Four years ago, Cody came into the league as the star of the not-hit reality TV show "Super Agent", a second-round pick in the draft, and the Pac-10 defensive player of the year.  Listed at 6-4", 310, Cody played both inside and outside at USC.  Lacking the speed to be a full-time pass rusher, yet lacking the bulk and strength to throw people around, Cody was prized for being a hardworking, talented football player who was productive at the highest level of college football--sure to find a place in the NFL.   After being drafted by the Lions, Cody immediately got into the rotation, playing in every game, and even started two.  He got 27 tackles and 1.5 sacks in his rookie year . . . up until Redding went down with a knee injury in late 2008, it was Cody's most productive year.  Shaun Cody has been mostly invisible in his tenure with the Lions, not exactly what you want out of a highly touted second-round pick.  Until late 2008, he didn't flash much heart or motor, and even when he did he failed to make an impact.  This year, however, as he matured and his opportunities grew, he was starting to get upfield, make solid tackles, and collapse the pocket.  He didn't get any sacks, but he did get 36 tackles (25 solo) and three passes defensed--all three numbers are career highs.  Of course, these are still very mediocre numbers for a DT that played in every game and started four--but at least the needle moved.  Moreover, Cody's body type and game are ideally suited for the end position in a 3-4 alignment--if the Lions were to move to a 3-4, keeping Cody would make sense--however, this being the offseason after his fourth year, Cody is now due to be an unrestricted free agent.  Bottom Line: the Lions' interest in retaining Cody will probably depend on the chosen defensive alignment.  If they choose a 3-4, they may pay to keep him as an end.  If they stay in a 4-3, he could be allowed to walk.

Andre Fluellen: Fluellen was a rookie this year, a 6'-2", 296 lb. third-round pick from Florida State.  At FSU, he was a tenacious and disruptive interior run stopper--when healthy.  The coaching staff has repeatedly claimed he's a better player than any recent FSU DT, including guys like Darnell Dockett and Broderick Bunkley.  In the NFL, his height, frame, and athleticism projects him as candidate to see time both inside and outside (detecting a theme yet?).  As I posted earlier, "Flu" really started to flash his talent towards the end of the year:

"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."

I really like Fluellen's future in the two-years-out timeframe.  His motor and hustle would let him contribute as a 4-3 strong side end, but after adding bulk and strength, I see him as a replacement for Cory Redding: a big, lean defensive tackle with a motor and tackling skills.  In the 3-4, his size would make him seem like an end prospect--but I am not sure he has the point-of-attack strength and bulk to keep the linemen behind him clean.  Also, he wouldn't be used much on stunts or traps, where he could use his lateral and deep speed to get upfield and disrupt.  I think if he could add 20 or 30 pounds over the next several years and work on his strength and technique, his short, wide frame  and high motor could allow him to be a pocket-collapsing nose tackle.  Bottom line: a talented natural one-gap player who could blossom into a force as he goes through NFL training and nutrition.  In 2009 I see him as a 4-3 SDE/UT, or a 3-4 DE.

Landon Cohen:  Cohen was a seventh-round draft pick last year from Ohio.  Not the Buckeyes, the Bobcats.  He was a destroyer up the middle--despite his relatively light 6'-4", 278 lb. physique.  Interestingly Cohen was a 4-year letterman in track at his high school in Spartanburg, SC.  Track!  At Ohio, Cohen played the nose tackle position despite being a little undersized for that, even by MAC standards.  And yet, he was 2nd-team all-conference his senior year, with 59 tackles (27 solo), 12.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks, starting all twelve games.  Despite being a little taller and notably thinner than fellow rookie Andre Fluellen, Cohen is listed on the Lions depth chart as a nose tackle.  He saw time against several teams, setting his career high in tackles against the Colts (4).  I didn't get to see much of him, but from what I can find in scouting reports, he has excellent technique and leverage, helping him make up for his lack of beef.  He seems to excel in initial burst and shedding blocks with quick moves, but doesn' t have the range or athleticism to run around making plays on the edge or in space.  According to the info I can find, he's at his best as a one-gap upfield rusher.  Bottom line: Cohen is a true 4-3 one-gap nose tackle who was born a little too small.  If he could add a lot of bulk he could stay at NT--otherwise, he's another 4-3 UT/3-4 DE project.

Chuck Darby:  The "War Daddy" was one of the system players brought in by Rod Marinelli.  Darby was an undrafted free agent NT who spent 2000 on the Bucs' practice squad, then got signed in 2001, and finished the 2002 season by starting in the Super Bowl.  Darby left for Seattle as a free agent, and they were happy to get him.  By all accounts, Darby was a valued teammate whose intensity and relentless drive helped rally everyone around him.  Seattle wanted to keep him, but Marinelli pushed hard to get him signed first.  Not ideally sized at 6'-0", 297"  (DETECTING A THEME YET?), Darby plays with great passion and motivation.  When able to get the edge on his opponent, Darby can be a disruptive force up the middle on both passing and running downs.  However, he is unable to maintain his extraordinary effort for a great number of snaps, and with the Lions defense often being hung out to dry by the offense, Darby became a situational player.  Also, when facing elite interior linemen, Darby is erased--he posted just three total tackles in two games against Minnesota's Matt Birk and Steve Hutchinson--at some point, effort cannot overcome a lack of size and talent.  Bottom line: Darby could make a good 3-4 end, but would be a liability at NT.  No matter the alignment, Darby is a valuable rotational player who brings emotional leadership on and off the field--and comes at a low cost.  If he'll stay, we should keep him.

Langston Moore:  Moore is a 4th-year veteran still coming into his own.  He's made an impression ever since the Lions signed him late in the 2006 season.  A former sixth-round pick of the Bengals, he's on his third NFL roster--which is odd because for a sixth-rounder who's bounced around so much, he's seen plenty o f action.  At 6'-1", 305 lbs, Moore is a little shy on bulk for an NT (is there an echo in here?).  Moore has been an effective rotational body at NT, enough so that he was one of eleven defensive linemen kept on the original 53-man roster.  Moore is an intelligent, enthusiastic young player with burgeouning business interests off the field, but he's already behind Cohen on the depth chart, and I don't see that changing any time soon.  Bottom line: Moore will probably be the first guy cut . . . if he sticks around, he'll be 4-3 DT depth.

SUMMARY:

Going by listed height and weight, and the roles they typically play, the Lions have 4 guys who are somewhere between a 4-3 strongside run-stuffing DE, a 3-4 DE, and a 4-3 'under' or 'three-technique' DT.  The only natural 4-3 nose tackles they have are both sub-300-pounders.  In case you didn't notice, there is a recurring theme of 'undersized'.  The Lions do not have enough bulk up the middle, and were regularly pushed around in the run game.  This was most evident in the Thanksgiving Day debacle, where Tennesee's excellent offensive line and running backs were absolutely gashing the Lions for 7-, 10-, 20-yard chunks just by running up the middle.  It really looked like the Titans put it in the cooler before the first quarter was out--but just running the same four or five run plays was absolutely blowing holes in the Lions defense.  If the Lions stay with a 4-3, they are going to need to improve upon Chuck Darby as a starting NT, and either Redding is going to have to recapture his 2006 form, or Fluellen is going to have to take big strides and make an impact, or both.  If they move to a 3-4, the Lions will be absolutely destitute at NT.  The biggest body they have is Cody, and IMO he would be worthless as a two-gap tackle.  Redding could pound some cheeseburgers and be subpar there, but nobody else--Darby, Cohen, Fluellen--could even hope start at NT in 2009.  They would have to acquire a starter--either a proven veteran free agent, or a rookie acquired with one of their first three picks.  The good news is that there would be a surplus of young, interesting 3-4 DEs.  If you had a rejuvenated Redding, Cody, and Fluellen rotating between two DE spots, with a big fat dude in the middle, THAT could be an effective DL.

On the free agent market, the "big fish" is Titans DT Albert Haynesworth, a monstrous talent who is practically a run defense unto himself.  Many Lions fans hope that Haynesworth is looking to move with his defensive coordinator, new Lions HC Jim Schwartz, but that runs counter to everything Lewand and Mayhew have openly said about their plans to build through the draft instead of free agency.  Mayhew even explicitly said that the Lions won't be making the huge-money deal for the splashy guy at midnight the first day . . . which seems exactly the kind of deal Haynesworth will be looking for.  There are a few intriguing veterans who may get a look, like Tampa DT Jovan Haye, but I don't see a quick fix out there.  In the draft, the premium talent is a guy I suggested people watch a while ago, Boston College man-elephant B.J. Raji.  Raji is an honest 350 and is exactly the sort of dominating bulk you want as a 3-4 two-gap tackle--yet he shows burst and athleticism too.  His downfall appears to be consistent effort and motivation, but then many physical freaks run into those issues.  How many of you out there are clamoring for Shaun "25 Snaps and Four Tanks of Oxygen" Rogers back right now?  If Raji were available at the 1.20 spot, he'd be very hard to pass up--no matter the defensive alignment we choose.

Next up, defensive ends . . .

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. . . and so the poor dog had none

With the Senior Bowl in the history books, all but the international celebration of corporate America that is the Super Bowl behind us, and the Lions having completed the worst season in the history of modern  professional sport . . . it's time.

After three years of stirring the concrete, pouring the foundation brick by brick, then condemning the house . . . it's time.

With a President, GM, head coach, and offensive and defensive coordinators in place . . . it's time.

It's time . . . to take stock of the roster.  With several months yet to argue over players we really know nothing about, let's begin with a real analysis of what we've got.  Since I believe the team needs to be built from the trenches out, and I further believe that this team paired a seven-win offense with a negative-seven win defense, let's start with the defensive line . . .

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Bitter Swill: Lions Hire Scott Linehan

>> 1.23.2009

you've . . . you've got to be kidding me.

I'm sitting here looking at the sad remains of a pint of Guinness, what's left of the once-proud head lamely pooling at the bottom of my glass.  The nitrogen-fueled fury of the pour and surge is gone, memorialized by the dried lacing clinging to the inside of my pint glass.  I want more beer, but . . . is it worth it?  The last foamy mouthful?  The hollow, bitter swallow that covers my tongue but evaporates before it makes it to my gullet?

This is the worst possible hire.  I'm absolutely speechless right now.  Every move up until now, including the Bob Slowik hire that apparently wasn't a real hire, I've either loved or warmed up to.   But Scott Linehan?



For those not in the know, Linehan started his football career as the quarterback of the illustrious Idaho Vandals, playing for head coach Dennis Erickson (some of you might remember Idaho's defensive coordinator at the time, one John Lewellyn Smith).  He had a cup of coffee in the NFL, then quickly moved to coaching.  First, John L. hired him at Idaho to be the wide recievers coach, then he scored the OC gig at UNLV.  Linehan then returned to Idaho as the OC, then went on to the University of Washington as the WR coach and was quickly promoted to OC.  From there, John L. hired him away to coach Louisville's offense.  In his second year, Linehan's offense led the Cardinals to an 11-2 season, and he accepted a position as the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings.

Ugh, excuse me for a minute . . .

Okay, I feel a little better now, but my toilet might never forgive me.

In his three years as offensive coordinator of the Vikings, Linehan drew up the schemes that allowed Duante (*urp*) Culpepper (*gag, choke*) to throw for 12,049 yards and 82 TDs . . . don't get too excited, the Vikes went 23-25 in that stretch.  On the strength of this, Nick Saban hired Linehan to run his offense in Miami.  After a stunning 2005 season where the Fins won their last six games to finish 9-7, the St. Louis Rams tabbed Linehan to be their new head coach. Late Rams owner Georgia Frontiere said of him at the time:

“It’s like picking a star for a movie, you want the right person. My first impression was that he was youthful and upbeat and had great energy. Just a down to earth person. Very genuine. He told me of his plans for the Rams, and it made me want to get the season started right away.”

He got started right away, lifting the team to a .500 season.  However, the 2007 Rams squad was absolutely decimated by injury, as badly as I've ever seen.  The best the Rams could muster was a 3-13 finish.  Hopes were high coming into the 2008 season, but the Linehan-led Rams were hopelessly overmatched, and dropped their first four games, getting outscored 147-43 in that stretch. Linehan controversially benched veteran starting QB Marc Bulger in the fourth game, looking for any kind of spark.  Like the Lions, the Rams had a week 4 bye.  Unlike the Lions, the Rams had seen enough.  Linehan was summarily fired.

So, what on earth does Jim Schwartz see in this guy?  Linehan had been on the sidelines for some really explosive passing games, but never for more than a few years, and in most cases the offense was successful either before he arrived or after he left.  It was never clear that it was his gameplanning or scheme or playcalling that made the difference.  When he finally got to call the shots on his own, he was an unqualified disaster.  Well, Schwartz gave us a clue during the search:

"The philosophy's gonna be ours.  We're not going to count on that guy to bring the philosophy. I think personality is going to be important, experience is going to be important -- those kind of things.  What I'm saying is, we're not looking to hire a guy to bring a scheme to us. We have a good vision of what we want the team to be, and what we're looking for is somebody to be able to execute that vision."

Well, wasn't the philosophy going to be "run and stop the run"?  What on earth is reuniting Scott Linehan with Duante (*hork*) Culpepper going to do for a running game?  We saw how pathetic Culpepper is; he was noticably worse than both Kitna and Orlovsky, and the numbers bear that out.  Sure, we have Megatron, and sure, we can play jumpball with him, but a consistent offense that does not make.  You can't run the ball and control the clock when you're constantly trying for the moonshot TD.  I mean, just look at the numbers:

* In 2002, Linehan's first year as coordinator, Michael Bennett, Duante Culpepper, and Moe Williams combined for 2,507 yards and 26 TDs, with a 5.3 ypc average--leading the NFL in all three categories.

Um.  What?

* in 2003, Minnesota's three-ring running back circus of Moe Williams, Onterrio "Whizzinator" Smith, and Michael Bennett spearheaded a rushing attack that compiled up a 4th-ranked 2,343 yards on 493 carries (4.8 ypc) and 15 TDs.

Holy wow.

* In 2004, the Vikings rushed much less often as Culpepper was going crazy through the air--they had the 4th fewest attempts of any team--but they maintained a 4.7 yard-per-carry average, 2nd best in the NFL, to rack up 1,823 yards.  This despite the fact that Onterrio Smith led all Vikings rushers with just 544 yards, and Culpepper was the next-highest rusher.

Criminy!

* In 2005, rookie Ronnie Brown and Ricky "Sticky Icky" Williams combined for 1898 yards on 444 attempts, good for an 8th-ranked 4.3 ypc average.

Remember, this was when Ronnie Brown was a bust.

* In 2006, Linehan's first year with a stud running back in the stable, Steven Jackson carried the ball 348 times for 1,528 yards (4.4 ypc) and 15 TD . . . not to mention 90 receptions for 806 yards.

As a friend of mine once said, "That's totin' it".

Color me stunned.  I thought Schwartz had foolishly decided that reuniting Culpepper with Linehan would recapture some sort of magic, and the Lions could play pitch-and-catch with Megatron in lieu of rebuilding the O-line or establishing the run.  Actually, Schwartz has already come out and said that the Minnesota reunion has nothing to do with it, and Linehan's hire will not affect whether Culpepper stays or goes. It turns out that Linehan actually has a bulletproof resume as a run-first coordinator, using a bruising rhythm many-carries-per-game run scheme to draw in the defense, then bomb it over their heads.  With Linehan in the fold, Schwartz has now hired two men who've both been coordinators and head coaches before to sit at his right and left hands.  He's unafraid to hire strong coordinators because he values their strength and experience--and confident in his own ability to lead.

I'm staring at that last bit of bitter, empty foam in the glass.  I suppose I'll have to swallow it--and my pride--on this one.  And with that, I propose a toast to the Grandmaster.  Salud.

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Gunther Cunningham: Lions Defense Will be Explosive, aggressive

>> 1.22.2009

Well by the time I finished my post on Gunther Cunningham, he'd done a con call with Detroit media that answered almost every question I'd raised. Gunther, are you going to attack and blitz and gamble like you used to, or are you going to go into a shell as you have been in Kansas City?

"I've gone through three years of playing zone defenses because I was loyal to Herm Edwards, that's what he wanted. People here in town knew that I was different than that. My idea is to put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, always has been, always will be. I think Jimmy knows that and I think he's a lot like that, although he was more zone conscious this year than he's ever been. But like I said at the beginning of this conversation I think the two of us will sit down and we'll decide what is the best thing that we can do and that's going to involve the organization's part of whatever Tom (Lewand) and Martin (Mayhew) decide on who we draft on defense and who else we get and how we do it. But my idea of coaching defense, it's explosive, it's aggressive, it's to go after people and make the players do things that they don't think they can do.

Well . . . sweet!  Damn, that sounds awesome.  So Gunther, what about our young defensive talent?  I don't know if you know, but Cliff Avril could really be an asset to you--you might not need to go after a  pass rusher if Avril suits your fancy.

"I know one thing that I liked (Cliff) Avril when he came out. I thought he was a special athlete and the ability to rush the passer. He's undersized, but you have to put him in the right position. I don't think it's any different than what the Pittsburgh Steelers did with (James) Harrison. He kind of bounced around there, got a couple sacks a year and Dick LeBeau did a great job of putting him in a place where you can use that. When you look at (Ernie) Sims, when he came out, I thought he was a human dynamo at the time. Well, you have to make sure you protect guys like that so they can make plays. And to me, with Jimmy and my's background of working together and him being a defensive coach, I'm sure we can go through and try to fit the players in the right position."

Holy crap!  That's like, the best possible answer, ever!  Now Gunther, we've had trouble with coaches and their assistants not being on the same page.  Can you describe your relationship with Jim Schwartz?

“The relationship we developed at Tennessee is one of those things that comes to you about once in a lifetime in coaching. I was fired (in Kansas City) as the head coach and went to Tennessee and I had other opportunities, but at that point in my life I felt like I needed to go back and prove to myself who I was and what I was good at. And to go to Tennessee and to meet Jim Schwartz and to see what he was all about, and for him to accept me the way that he did and have him allow me to help and send him on his way, when I left there he called me on the phone in the car and we had this good-bye session and he said, 'Gun, I love you.' And when he said that, basically broke a guy that had been in the league for a long time.”

Wow, that's . . . that's some real heavy stuff right there.  Dang.  Wow.  For all the talk of Gunther being a drill sargeant off his meds, that shows some real heart and a deep connection with Schwartz.  I am getting more excited for this hire by the minute . . . every time I hear more about these two and the defense they plan to build, I get more amped.  Let's hope this stops before training camp, or I'll get the vapors!

Another item of note: the next hire's already been made: former Broncos DC Bob Slowik is the new defensive backs coach.  Slowik certainly didn't cover himself in glory as the Broncos' DC . . . in fact, he was considered to be on the hot seat before it was discovered that his boss was getting PYKAG'd.  When he took over as Packers DC in 2004, much was made of his new blitzing, gambling, attacking defense that was going to kill everybody--and then Peyton Manning shredded it for 5 TDs in the first half of the first game and that was that.  So we know Slowik's natural instincts are to attack and be aggressive--and while it's true that he's not been a great defensive coordinator, he's overqualified to be a DB coach.  This is shaping up to be one very experienced, very aggressive coaching staff.  They aren't "hot" hires, they aren't "name" guys, they aren't "up-and-comers" but I LOVE it.

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Lions Hire Gunther Cunningham. Guten Tag, Guntherball

>> 1.21.2009

So Jim Schwartz has inked his top lieutenant: longtime KC defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham. Cunningham is the Lions' new defensive coordinator and assistant head coach.  Often the "assistant head coach" tag is applied to position coaches--either up-and-comers who are destined for coordinating gigs (a la Todd Bowles), or senior assistants who have the trust and ear of the coach (a la Rod Marinelli in Tampa and Chicago).  To be both the defensive coordinator AND the assistant head coach implies that Gunther will be Schwartz's right-hand man, having a very strong hand in gameplanning, calling the plays, and leading the defensive position coaches.  Cunningham and Schwartz coached together in Tennessee in 2001, where Cunningham had landed after a long tenure as the Chiefs' DC and then a short tenure as the Chiefs's head coach.  He was the linebackers coach and assistant head coach (ah ha!) while Schwartz served as defensive coordinator.  Cunningham left after three years to reclaim his headset as the defensive coordinator in KC--but now, with the uncertainty surrounding Chiefs head coach Herman Edwards, Gunther has taken on the task of rebuilding one of the absolute worst defenses in the history of the NFL.

This hire tells me quite a bit about Schwartz.  First, he understands the size of the task ahead of him.  Leading a group of talented veterans who know what to do and how to do it is one thing--he saw how that was done in Cleveland/Baltimore, and he did it in Tennesee.  However, rebuilding this defense from the ground up is not something that a first-time head coach can do and do well.  He sees that he needs a strong, experienced defensive coordinator who can handle a lot of the administrative tasks and grunt work of running the defense while he gets oriented in his new role as head coach.  Check out this excellent piece by Nick Cotsonika of the Free Press; it goes in-depth on how Schwartz is really starting to feel the magnitude of time and effort he's going to have to put in to do the head coach stuff the way he wants to; he knows he won't have time to carry the load doing the DC's job as well. Further, Gunther went from being a defensive coordinator with an impeccable resume to being a head coach, and was fired after only two years.  Having that 'what not to do' experience at your right hand--and in your ear--I would think would be an invaluable resource for a first-time head coach.  Finally, Gunther doesn't take lip, he gives lip (thanks John Madden!):

He's exactly the sort of guy I said I'd like to see as DC if Schwartz were hired; a guy with a lot of fire.  I don't know if Schwartz sees himself as a subpar motivator, as a Good Cop who needs a Bad Cop, or if Gunther's coaching style didn't enter into his decision at all.  Still, I think it's a good dynamic.  Finally, Schwartz has hired a guy who fits with his defensive philosophy.  What is that philosophy?  That's a very good question . . .

Remember this man?  If you don't, click the picture.  He's former (and, tragically, late) Chiefs badass Derrick Thomas.  In his nine-year career, he made the Pro Bowl nine times.  He sacked the quarterback 126.5 times, including seven in one game (still an NFL record).  Drafted as a pass-rushing linebacker, as he got into the prime of his career he started flexing between OLB and DE, being used situationally to wreak maximum havoc.  Gunther Cunningham was the man behind Thomas and that brutal Chiefs defense.  In my mind, the 90's Chiefs were the Ravens of their day: blitzing to sack the quarterback, blitzing to stop the run, attacking from snap to whistle, attacking from coin flip to final gun, creating turnovers, and just generally vicious.  Like the Ravens, they didn't feature much of an offense, yet were consistently contending for the AFC crown.  From Wikipedia:

"During his original tenure as defensive coordinator, Cunningham's defenses allowed an average of only 16.4 points per game, the best mark in the NFL and had a turnover margin of +30, tops in the AFC. Under his lead, a number of players excelled, including stars such as Derrick Thomas, Neil Smith, James Hasty, and Dale Carter. Cunningham's defenses led Kansas City to an overall record of 42-22."

Note the stats they used there: scoring defense, turnover margin, wins.  Not 'yards allowed', the official yardstick of NFL defenses.  Cunningham gears his defenses to excel in the exact same dimensions that Jim Schwartz believes are the real hallmarks of successful defense: allow few points, stop the run, get lots of quarterback pressure, generate turnovers, and stop drives.  Well, what's the problem then?  Why isn't this a slam dunk hire?

Because in 2008, the Chiefs didn't do any of those things.

* They allowed 27.5 points per game, ranking 29th in the NFL.

* They allowed 2,543 yards rushing (5.0 per carry); only the Raiders and Lions were worse.

* They sacked the quarterback only 10 times, the lowest total in NFL16-game-season history.

* They generated 24 turnovers, 19th best in the NFL.

So what's going on here?  How did Gunther Cunningham, well known as one of the most intense, demanding, aggressive, and successful defensive coaches in the modern era, build such a limp-wristed, feather-loafered defense?

The answer seems to lie in two maladies that have plagued the Millen-era Lions: coaches and staff leading the troops in different directions, and total lack of firepower on the field.  Cunningham was defensive coordinator under Herm Edwards--another Tampa 2 disciple.  As we know all too well, the Tampa 2 relies on the front four generating pressure with nearly no blitzing.  The Tampa 2 emphasizes stifling the opponents's passing game with quick pressure and a suffocating tight zone scheme.  The Chiefs were clearly playing Edwards's brand of defense over the past two years; never blitzing and always in soft zones.  Moreover, the Chiefs were essentially talentless on defense before Gunther took over; recently resigned GM Carl Peterson made few moves to address this, and even those were spectacularly ineffective (see Mitchell, Kawika).

So, Gunther had no talent to work with, and was running another coach's scheme that ran counter to everything he's traditionally believed in.  Is it any wonder that this failed?

Frankly, I'd be lying if I said this hire didn't give me pause.  Gunther's nearly a decade removed from being the mastermind of the most feared defense in football, and he's done very little in the interim to show he still has it in him.  Many Chiefs fans believe than in his 40th year in football, the game has passed him by.  At this point, only time will tell.   Either the Lions could build an aggressive, blizting, turnover-generating, 3-4/4-3 flex, flying from everywhere, smack-you-in-the-mouth defense, or they could be almost exactly the same unit they were in 2008: a soft zone defense that's both conservative AND ineffective.  Or, they could be somewhere in between--at this point, nobodycan possibly know.

This was probably Schwartz's most critical hire, and he erred on the side of experience, trust, and consistency of philosophy over 'hotness' or 'name value'--which is a choice I have to respect and agree with.  So say "Ja" to Guntherball--but pray the new Lions look like the old Chiefs, and not the current ones.

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Detroit Lions Asylum, est. 1929. The Inmates, proprietors

>> 1.19.2009

While trolling for information after the hire, I stumbled upon the Free Press article full of 'player reaction' quotes.  For a guy who most fans wouldn't mind seeing leave, they had a lot of quotes from Travis Fisher in there.  Overall, the impression I got was that these players have barely heard of Schwartz, but like the brand of football the Titans play.  The last quote in the article really caught my eye, though:

"I think having a guy in there is great," center Dominic Raiola said. "I think you needed to put a guy in there sooner than later. A lot of this stuff is starting to pick up, especially going down to the Senior Bowl, because that's the main thing. We obviously need people to help us. Hopefully he'll do a good job doing that."

At first, it didn't quite strike me--I mean, there's nothing about that quote that's false.  But it echoed around my head for a second, and a thought started brewing . . . Raiola was happy not that Schwartz was hired, but that somebody was hired.  In his mind, it was most important to have a coach in place before the Senior Bowl in order to hire a staff and evaluate talent, not to hire the "right guy".  To me, this seems backwards--obviously it's better to have a staff in place in time the Senior Bowl than not in time, but I would think it's paramount that they hire the right coach and staff.

But think about this from Raiola's perspective.  He was drafted in 2001, with Millen's first draft class.  I remember him in training camp that year, trying to fight off Dan Wilkinson while Millen played middle linebacker in dress clothes.  He's been through Mornhinweg and 'take the wind'.  He's been through the pomp and circumstance of Mooch's installation, and the well-coiffed mediocrity that came after it.  He's been through several bitter Thanksgiving failures, and firings thereafter.  He's been through "Millen's first post-Ford-meddling" hire, and he's been through 0-16.  He's been through the West Coast Offense, the New West Coast Offense, the Martz Offense, and the Power Run With Martz Routes I Don't Know What You Call That But It Sure As Hell Is Not Offense.  All the while, he's been booed at and hissed at, chanted and ranted and raved against, and derided as the source of all the Lions' numerous woes.  All he's done is given it everything he's got, week in, week out, for eight straight terrible seasons.  This season it got so unbearable, he spun around on a heckler and gave him the bird.  I'm not about to defend that, but it shows how the eight years of terrible football and a vicious crowd have ground down his spirit.

At this point, it must feel absolutely futile, bordering on irrelevant.  This will be his fifth head coach, and God knows-how-manyth offensive coordinator.  All he does--and all he'll do--is work his tail off, punch the clock, cash his paycheck, and get ridiculed for it.  At this point, how can he feel like anything about this hire will be anything different?  It's just a new name on the masthead.  Heck, he must be at least half as frustrated as some of the fans (sarcasm)!  Reading between the lines of his quote, it looks like he sees what Marinelli has hinted at and what Schwartz has outright said several times: nothing is going to change until the roster is rebuilt.  

The importance of this draft, with so many high picks and so many holes to be filled, cannot be overstated.  There's a desperate need for good evaluations, solid decisions, and--perhaps most importantly--a clear direction and consistent philosophy in this 2009 draft.  As the search continues for coordinators (Guntherball?  Really?), I am more concerned with getting a proven talent evaluator in house.  For what it's worth, my vote goes to former Broncos GM Ted Sundquist.  Fired after disagreeing too often with now-former Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan, he's done some really impressive work for PFT this season, scouting and breaking down games at a very high level of detail.  Since he's currently unemployed, the Lions could bring him in immediately to assist with this draft--and if he's not the right guy for the long term, fine, let him seek full control elsewhere.  But, for crying out loud, don't let any opportunity for more help slip by.

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Sharing Sparks of Lions fandom

>> 1.17.2009

I love coffee.  In the midst of one of the most bitter cold snaps I can remember, with sustained air temps below zero, there is absolutely nothing like a hot cup of joe.  The smell of freshly ground beans, the steam rolling off the cup, the heat radiating into my hands through the porcelain (or, you know, wax coated 100% post-consumer fiber content paper).  This morning, on the way back from ballet class, my daughter and I stopped at my favorite coffee joint to get drinks for both us, and the rest of the crew at home.

Today I'd worn a Lions fleece-- partly to rep the Lions in the wake of the hire, and partly because it's warm and comfy.  One of the baristas there is a Lions fan, and he and I often talk Leos when I come in.  I'm surprised at how often we disagree, but that just makes me more interested to hear his take.  Over the past couple of seasons, I've definitely noticed him wearing less and less gear.  He does a lot more eye-rolling and sighing when the topic of Detroit football is brought up--and he doesn't bring it up much, either.  Today he even chastised me for wearing the fleece!  "Real smart move by the front office, hire another guy with no experience", he said.  Well, I'd hardly call seven years at the right hand of Jeff Fisher 'no experience'--but then, I was predicting playoffs at the beginning of an 0-16 season, so what do I know? 

After taking my order, he said something to the other barista on duty, and that guy said, "Oh hey, you're a Lions fan?  I'm a season-ticket holder!"  Thrilled to find a fan like that around here (south end of Lansing), I began chatting him up . . . only to find he's probably not renewing his seats.  A guy who's been coming to Lions games since he was a little tyke (and Barry Sanders was a rookie), even he might finally have been driven away by this godawful season. 

Well, I gave him this link.  It's not much--just one fan's fight to fan the little blue flame.  Just one guy at a keyboard, fingers cracked and bleeding from the cold, eyes squinted against the blown and drifting snow.  Just one guy striking the keys like flints, hoping that the sparks can catch.   Maybe it's futile.  Maybe it's stupid.  But in the depths of the winter chill, when PFT is saying that they think "'The Los Angeles Lions' has a nice ring to it", I think every little bit of heat counts.

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I'm gonna go make some coffee.

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Detroit Lions Hire Jim Schwartz: The Afterglow

>> 1.16.2009

It's bizarre; after all the ridiculousness of the Mayhew/Lewand introduction, the boo birds, the jeers, the wait-and-seers, the media silence, the furtive hunt for scraps of info . . . after all this, we wake up today with a new head coach.  His name is Jim Schwartz, I call him the Grandmaster, and he brings an extensive and nigh-on-bulletproof resume to the table.  He's worked for Bill Belicheck as a scout and film analyst, and he's worked for Jeff Fisher as his right-hand man.  In an industry full of, frankly, glorified gym teachers, Jim Schwartz is a man who could have been a professor, an economist, a politician, or an investor--but instead he followed his passion, and he's built and overseen one of the premier NFL defenses of the past decade.

Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand can be ridiculed for being part of the Millen fiasco.  They can be questioned for having little demonstrable experience.  But--without knowing what the future will hold--they can't be mocked for how they handled this hire.  As they said they would, they kept a tight lock on information--yet wordlessly presented each finalist to the media to see how they handled themselves.   They interviewed many possible candidates, yet never tipped their hand.  It became clear after a while that even tapped-in reporters like Adam Schefter were just guessing as to what their next move would be.  And when the iron was hot, they struck.

It's impossible to say right now how this hire will turn out.  There are many 'fans' who are saying "Great, the Lions hired somebody.  If he was willing to come here, he MUST suck!"  I saw the two-inch-letter headline on the Free Press today: "LIONS ROLL DICE WITH ANOTHER UNTESTED COACH".  But Schwartz is a legit candidate who's interviewed for several other jobs in the past couple of years.  Now if the hire had been Jerry Gray, or, to an extent, Todd Bowles, then we as fans would have a real beef.  I can tell you that if Mayhew had quickly hired a former teammate who'd never been a coordinator, or even given serious consideration as a head coach by any other team, I'd be fuming right now.  For another, if Mayhew had pulled the trigger on the Grandmaster the instant he interviewed, I'd be wondering if we really got the right guy.  The fact that they did a second interview with another candidate--and a first interview with another--after Schwartz's big day on Monday, tells me they didn't just settle for the first guy who didn't show up for the interview drunk or naked.

Now . . . the coordinator watch is on.  This will tell us a lot more about the eventual X-and-O philosophies the Lions will utilize in 2009 then looking at Schwartz's past and extrapolating forward.  PFT is reporting that Broncos QB coach Jeremy Bates (who called the plays for the Broncos last year) is one serious candidate for OC, and Jets OC Brian Schottenheimer is the other.  I know Schottenheimer is a very well-respected young coach; in fact he's a finalist to be hired as the new head coach in New York--but something tells me the Jets won't fire the Mangenius just to then hire his top lieutenant.  Either way, we see offenses that feature one-cut power run games mixed with agressive downfield passing--exactly the kind of combination that suits both our talent, and what we as fans of NFC North football want to see from our team.

There is no word yet on potential defensive coordinators; most of the bright lights of Schwartz's old staff are also candidates to replace him in Tennessee.  Keep an eye on Titans DB coach Chuck Cecil--yes, THAT Chuck Cecil.  He would bring the fire and emotion that I said I'd like to see at DC if Schwartz was hired.  If Schwartz is the mastermind and Cecil is the fiery leader, I think this unit will respond like crazy.

The wait for news is over.  Long live the wait . . .

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Detroit Lions Hire Grandmaster Jim Scwhartz

>> 1.15.2009

PFT is reporting that ESPN is reporting that it's Schwartz.  Props to mlive.com's Tom Kowalski for predicting the hire would be today based on the complete and total radio silence from Allen Park.

Interestingly, Killer also claims that the Lions cut their full process short to bring in Schwartz partly because of Schwartz's ties to Scott Pioli (the newly-hired general manager of the Kansas City Chiefs).  Killer disputes the PFT report that Pioli and Schwartz despise each other, saying that the Lions 'knew better', and wanted to get Schwartz signed before Pioli could lure him away.  If this is true, it speaks volumes about the way this hire has been handled; in my opinion, the Lions played their cards perfectly from the get-go.  Keeping totally silent about their preferences, interviewing many different candidates--regardless of what they thought of previous candidates--even waiting patiently to interview Ron Rivera, two days after Schwartz likely gave the interview that sealed the job.  They had a very well-thought-out process and stuck to it--until they thought they might lose out, at which point they jumped and got their man.

If Killer's characterization of all this is accurate, then I would have to say that Lewand and Mayhew get A+ marks from me.  I think the Grandmaster is an excellent coach, a brilliant hire, and this fills me with optimism for the next couple of years.  What will be absolutely cruicial, however, is the staff Schwartz hires from here on out.  Marinelli's greatest downfall was his inability to hire a competent staff . . . will the Grandmaster's opening establish a more robust pawn structure?

. . . I apologize.  You're going to have to deal with some chess jokes.

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Todd Bowles Coaching Resumé: To Whom it May Concern

>> 1.14.2009

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Todd Bowles has snuck under the radar for quite some time.  While I've attempted to profile all serious candidates, I found myself finding reasons to put Bowles's piece off.  It's strange, because there ISN'T a good reason to.  He's a position coach with 'assistant head coach' appended to his title, which seems to mostly be a device for to keep other teams from hiring good coaches away.  He's known as an excellent motivator and teacher.  He comes from a great coaching pedigree, one that has spawned many excellent coordinators and skippers.

Oh wait, I know why I've mentally marginalized him: he's got Rod Marinelli's resume.  He seems to be cut from almost exactly the same cloth, a 'star' position coach with a great track record of making players and units he coaches better--but no coordinator experience at the NFL level, and not much at the college level either.  Like first interviewee Jerry Gray, Bowles played with Martin Mayhew in Washington, so it's been tempting to think the Lions interest in Bowles is on a similarly superficial level.

So what was Todd Bowles doing in Allen Park, addressing the media from the Lions' podium?  Yes, just like Jim Schwartz--the only other candidate to be invited back to meet with Big Willie Style--Bowles did a pre-interview presser to introduce himself to the media, as well as lift up a corner on the sheet covering his plan for turning the Lions around.  Bowles spoke energetically, explaining why he'd have it all under control:

"I've done this before. I know the blueprint of turning a team around," Bowles said. "The blueprint we have is to change the culture. The first thing you have to do is condition. You have to condition the players mentally. They have to buy into the system.

It's astounding; he really does seem to be channeling Marinelli with this quote.  It would be hilarious--if he hadn't just done it on the field.  He is a vital part of the Tuna-picked staff that came over from the Cowboys, and turned the Miami Dolphins from a team that needed an overtime miracle to avoid pulling an 0-fer themselves, to an 11-5 squad that wrested the AFC East crown from the preseason darling Patriots, Jets, and Bills.  Lions fans have already marveled at how perennial disappointment Andre Goodman has metamorphosized into a solid starting cornerback--well Bowles presumably played a big part in that.  In fact, the Fins started Goodman and Will Allen at corner this year--two players that were written off and released by the teams that drafted them.  Goodman and Allen each got every opportunity to start in Detroit and New York, both were high draft picks at positions of need, yet both were sent packing after their original team just couldn't get starter production out of them.  Under Bowles, however the secondary was decent even with those two guys starting.  The obligatory rundown:

* The Dolphins were the NFL's 9th-ranked scoring defense, and 15th-ranked yardage defense.

* The Dolphins picked off opposing quarterbacks 18 times, 8th best in the NFL.

* Despite losing Jason Taylor, the Fins still managed 40 sacks, also 8th best in the NFL.

* QBs facing the Dolphins posted a passer efficiency rating of just 77.0--to put this into perspective, opposing QBs facing the Fins played like Jamarcus Russell this year (77.1), whereas QBs facing the Lions played like Steve Young in his prime (average of 110.9).

* Despite that, the Fins were ranked only 25th in passing yardage defense, allowing 3,644 yards through the air.  I was curious how opposing QBs could be rated so poorly, and yet move the ball well against the defense.  Part of the answer is that the Fins were susceptible to the deep pass, allowing 49 20+ yard pass plays--tied for fifth worst in the NFL. 

It sounds like the Fins' DBs managed to hold down the fort very well from within 20 yards, forcing bad throws, picking them off, getting coverage sacks, and defending passes.  However, I don't know if it's corners getting beat or bad safety play, but the Dolphins secondary DID give up a lot of big plays.

To be perfectly frank, there's not a lot of information on Bowles.  He's obviously well respected around the League: he also interviewed for the Broncos gig.  He has the Parcells stamp of approval--witness this quote from his presser:

“From the time I got to the Jets, he told me I’d be a head coach in this league, and he taught me accordingly. I mean, he kept me by his side. He taught me step-by-step the structure of how to put a team in place and keep a team in place and not be a one-hit wonder. … Parcells has taught me more about, from the first guy on the roster to the last guy on the roster, how he fits in the system, why he fits in the system, why we want him on this team, why we do not want him on this team, and he taught me how to learn players.”

Taught him how to learn players, he did.  Like Candidate 1A and the Grandmaster, Bowles spent a year as a scout before getting into coaching.  In his case, he worked under Ron Wolf and the Packers for the '95-'96 season.  Out of curiosity, I looked up how the Pack drafted in 1996.  In the first round, they selected OT John Michels--he made the all All-Rookie team, but his career was devastated by injury.  Mike Flanagan, the stalwart center, came in the third, and they picked up Marco Rivera, the future-HoF guard, in the sixth.  If the Lions could duplicate that kind of success for this draft, a worst-to-first turnaround wouldn't be so farfetched.

“My philosophy on offense is to first run the ball, especially in the NFC North, when it gets cold in the wintertime. Although two of you have domes, you have to run the ball because that keeps the defense off the field, that gets time of possession correct, that makes us wear the other team down, and that wins ballgames. Passing game looks nice. Calvin’s a great receiver. You have to get him the ball. You have to have a great complementary passing game, but at the same time, you must be able to run the ball in this league to get by.”

This philosophy is exactly the kind of team that Lions fans would love to root for: punish them with a grinder like Kevin Smith, then kill them with Calvin Johnson over the top.  And what about the defense?

“Defensively, I come from a 3-4 scheme. I’ve been in a 4-3 scheme. You want to have the personnel to kind of fit what you do. If you don’t, you can have a hybrid version of a 4-3 until you can get a 3-4 scheme in place. … If Ernie (Sims) or (Cliff) Avril or those guys don’t fit a 3-4, we’ll play a 4-3. . . . I would be working towards [a 3-4] as long as I have the personnel. … Without having the defense in place here, you have to see what the personnel looks like on the other side of the ball, and you have to draft and do free agency accordingly.”

I've said before that the transition to the 3-4 is going to take a pretty huge roster overhaul.  We have the bodies for the 3-4 defensive ends, and a perfect 3-4 pass-rushing OLB in Cliff Avril.  However, the other linebackers are all all about 25 to 30 pounds too light to play in the 3-4, and we lack the centerpiece of the 3-4, the lynchpin, the key at the point of attack: the nose tackle.  A 3-4 NEEDS a physically dominating two-gap nose tackle--and not only are they really hard to come by in general, there's only one to be had in this draft: Boston College's B.J. Raji.  He might be available with the 20th pick . . . but even with him, you are looking at a two- or three-year reclamation project before this defense is even 'good', let alone 'great'.  Would Bowles have that long?

It all remains to be seen.  Bowles has been brushed under the rug by those talking Lions football, but as of right now he is one of two candidates to have met with Big Willie Style himself, and as of right now there are no others scheduled.  There are a lot of positive indicators around Bowles, but I'm not convinced that he's ready, or that now is the right time.  If Bowles is the hire, I will definitely be biting my nails until I see his Lions take the field in September.

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Detroit Lions vs. Green Bay Packers, 1993 Playoffs

>> 1.13.2009

Last night, I was flipping through my channel guide, and I saw on ESPN2: "NFL's Greatest Games: 1993 Divisional Playoff, Green Bay at Detroit".  I gasped and switched channels immediately.

Of course, I remembered this game.  Despite being only twelve years old at the time, I didn't forget.  I didn't forget the wierd twist of fate, where the Lions had to beat the Packers at home in Week 17 to make the playoffs at all--but then victory made them division champs, and so somehow they had the right to host the Packers in the playoffs a week later.  I didn't forget how Barry played a great game in the playoffs (which he "never did", according to his detractors); indeed, he had167 yards on 27 carries.  I didn't forget the gutsy quarterback play by Brett Favre and Erik Kramer, both overcoming pick-sixes to rally their team late.

What I forgot was William White, the silent leader of the defense.  What I forgot was just how good Sterling Sharpe was.  What I forgot was those little silver football patches on the uniforms that read "JRT".  What I forgot was how infurating it was to watch Barry cheering from the bench while Derrick Moore punched it in from one yard out--how many scores were stricken from Barry's totals like that?  What I forgot was that Brett Favre has always been a double-edged sword, and that we used to appreciate his incredible effort, and the great things he did, more than we hounded him for the mistakes he made while giving that effort.

What I never knew was Marc Spindler's grit and smarts (and mullet!) overcoming his lack of size.  What I never knew was how solid the upfront protection was, especially when compared to today's sadsack bunch.  What I thought I knew, but didn't really realize?  Just how important to the offense Brett Perriman was: being able to bail out the team on third and long was absoluely critical to keeping the ball in Barry's hands, and the wolves away from the door.  What I didn't know--but thrills me--is that Brett Favre is Chris Spielman's favorite football player of all time (and Chris Spielman is a student of the game for reals).

There's something magical about watching these Lions: the Big Buck himself roaming the sidelines--and looking young and vibrant!  A Lions defense that could collapse the pocket, flush the QB, and NOT be burned for thirty yards!  An exuberant Silverdome crowd . . . every time they cut to a kid in Lions gear, holding up a "We're #1" finger, I stopped in my tracks.  When was the last time you saw that on TV?  A little kid in the stands, swathed in Honolulu Blue, boasting of his Detroit Lions.  Sometimes, it's hard to remember that was ever me.

Barry, of course.  ESPN did a lot of editing on this film: zooming in, spot shadowing, slowing down, etc.; I don't know if they slowed down Barry's runs or what, but Barry looked slower than I remembered.  The thing is, he was even more elusive.  MUCH more elusive.  I forgot how much of Barry's effectiveness was based on his sheer ability to not be tackled.  More than once, I saw Packer defenders pull up and stand still because they figured that two teammates wrapped around Barry would bring him down . . . and it wasn't the case.  Barry had a way of shimmying his shoulders, twisting his hips, or .  . . or, I don't know, looking at defenders that would make them freeze, miss, whiff, grab air, even grab Barry but he would turn to smoke in their hands.

I am not sure what has made winning that elusive for the Lions.  My wife, who was raised a Spartan fan but didn't pay attention to the Lions (or the NFL at all) until we'd been dating for several years, has never known anything but these Millen-era Lions.  Sometimes I tell stories of 1991, of the Thumbs Up! motto, of the Lions winning seven straight games to squeak into the playoffs, of a decade of the Lions being almost awesome but never quite, and I get the feeling that she doesn't believe me.   My children are growing up fast.  My four-year-old daughter appreciates my love of the Lions, but for some reason she just thinks the Bucaneers are so cool.  I can bury them under a mound of silver and blue Lions gear all I want--but I worry that until this team can WIN GAMES, I won't be able to share my love of this franchise with them.  Who could blame them?  Even my own memories are starting to betray me.  I've clung so tightly to the 'good old days' of 9-7 (and they were so long ago!) that they're starting to fade, turning to smoke in my hands.

Last night I drunk deeply of the old spirit.  The stupid old Silverdome turf, riding on a cushion of air and sporting two sets of hash marks.  Brett Perriman snagging a TD pass one-handed when he could have gotten both paws on it.  Erik Kramer and Barry Sanders leading the team down the field for an almost-but-not-quite good enough lead.  The Lions defense pulling up when Brett Favre rolled left, and Sterling Sharpe all alone in the end zone 40 yards downfield.  At this point, I'd love to feel the pain of an excruciating home playoff loss, just to feel anything at all.


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