old mother hubbard: the centers

>> 2.15.2009

With the combine nearly upon us, it's time to resume the position-by-position roster breakdown.  As with the defense, we'll start with the players closest to the ball and move out.

Is there any more controversial Lion than center Dominic Raiola?  The Hawaiian-born, 6'-1", 295 pounder was Matt Millen's second-ever draft pick, and a prototypical West Coast Offense center.  Coming from a long line of outstanding Nebraska Cornhusker offensive linemen, Raiola was anointed the interior anchor, signal caller, and (to use an apropos basketball term) pivotman of the Lions offensive line for the next decade.  His squat frame (I believe the '1"' at the end of that 6' is decorative) helps open up sight lines and passing lanes for QBs hitting short slants.  His ability to pull, agility in space, and second-level blocking makes him perfect for blocking on the screens and outlet passes that help the WCO stay "on schedule" and keep defenses honest.  So what's the problem?

Well for starters, the problem is that the Lions haven't run the WCO for years.  The other problem is that Raiola is a little undersized for a modern NFL offensive lineman, and has always lacked either the bulk, the strength, or both, to push the pile.  As a rookie, this was painfully obvious; he was absolutely abused in the interior of the line, and was a big reason why Lions power backs, like James Stewart, could never establish a rhythm.  I remember well watching him in his rookie year at the old SVSU open training camp, and cringing.  Lions DTs like Luther Eliss and Kelvin Pritchett absolutely had their way with him; it wasn't a great omen.  In the passing game, Raiola had good technique right out of the block, but his lack of bulk (and lack of experience facing elite DTs in the Big 12) meant that he needed help from a guard to block even average defensive tackles.  Raiola quickly earned the scorn of most fans as the first high-profile Matt Millen 'bust'.  Raiola put his head down and worked, and within a couple of years, his maturing body and NFL strength training began to caulk over some of the gaps in his game.  His toughness, consistency, and heady reads brought what very little consistency there was to an offensive line that has been a revolving door in more ways than one.  When Joey Harrington was on the ropes, it was often reported that Raiola was the only teammate that consistently had his back in the locker room.  Though the offense last year was not geared to his strength--emphasizing the power run game and deep passing game--to me, there was an immediate dropoff in overall OL play when he went out with an injury to his right wrist.  As testament to his toughness and committment, Raiola spent several weeks putting in extra time, trying to teach himself to snap with his left hand.  Keep in mind, the Lions were already approaching 0-16 at that point; Raiola and the Lions had practically nothing left to play for.

I am not going to suggest that Dominic Raiola is an elite center.  However, most Lions fans filed this guy in the "sucks" bin many years ago--and either have not watched for, or have not been able to see, the vast improvement he has made since.  He is among the top half of starting centers in this league--and having already had a cast of thousands be awful on either side of him, with no end in sight, the Lions desperately need him to stay right where he is for 2009.

Andy McCollum is a fifteen-year veteran, the meatiest nine of which were spent with the St. Louis Rams.  McCollum played on some outstanding offensive lines in the late nineties and early aughts with the Greatest Show on Turf, and continued to be a steady force in the middle for years after Vermeil, Warner, Faulk, and company pulled up stakes and left town.  McCollum was one of the many offensive linemen who were crumpled by the St. Louis O-Line Famine of 2007, and was released after the season was over.  The Lions picked up the 6'-4", 300-pound veteran for depth, and for the first time in well over a hundred games, the Lions had need of a backup center.  McCollum stepped and started against Jacksonville, and did an okay job.  Many Lions fans rejoiced at how the running game seemed to pick up--and it's true, it looked like RB Kevin Smith had more daylight up the middle than before.  However, in pass protection, the offensive line was quickly overmatched.  The meager amounts of the cohesiveness and toughness the offensive line had recently begun to show, especially in the Chicago game, evaporated.  Without Raiola calling the protections, it was clear that the offensive line was back to being five ill-fitting parts again, rather than a cohesive machine.  McCollum was definitely decent, and his size and leverage in the middle was definitely a more natural fit for the Coletto/Kippy Brown/Dumpster Fire 'offensive scheme' the Lions ran in 2008.  However, even if he were an overall upgrade over Raiola (he isn't), his best days are long since behind him.  I would not be surprised if McCollum hung 'em up after this season, or even before.

SUMMARY:  The Lions have a solid veteran center in Raiola, and only a veteran reduced by age to mediocrity behind him.  If the Lions were looking to go interior line with the 1.20, 2.1, or 3.1, and an outstanding center prospect with grit and size (like Cal's 6'-4" 316# Alex Mack) were sitting there, I could see them taking him and putting him at RG, with the understanding that he could someday usurp Raiola on the line.  If McCollum retires or is released, I could see the Lions signing a veteran OL with an outstanding special teams resume to take his spot as the 'warm body who can snap'.

8 comments:

Steve February 16, 2009 at 2:23 PM  

Doesn't Damien Cook, if he somehow manages to survive through camp, have the ability to snap the ball, too?

I think Raiola deserves the mulligan that Jeff Backus has continually received for his dependability. How many drive-killing penalties or sacks, especially in the red zone, has Raiola allowed, ever?

On the other hand, Backus has snakebitten this franchise so many times. Yeah, he's never missed a start, but he still F'N sucks!!! Not true of Raiola, I like your Alex Mack suggestion. Very solid late 1st, early 2nd pick, with an eye to the future, too.

Ty February 16, 2009 at 3:58 PM  

Ah, right you are Steve. If the Lions can upgrade over him as a starter at guard (and oh, please God let them be able to!), Cook could be a backup center too.

I think some folks ride Raiola for failing to get push on 4th-and-1, goal line stands, etc., almost as hard as they get on Backus . . . I think Backus is definitely a worse LT than Raiola is a center. However, as bad as us fans ride Backus, we are frequently told that the coaches and scouts don't agree. I don't know if it's merely the contract that keeps him in place. Could it be that left tackles are SO hard to come by that starters--even crappy starters--are nearly impossible to replace without a major investment in money, or draft picks, or both?

Or maybe, just maybe, there's more to the story than what we seen on TV, and four different coaching staffs have seen something in Backus that we fans have not.

Maybe a little of all of the above?

Todd February 16, 2009 at 5:51 PM  

http://blogs.nfl.com/2009/02/16/lions-guard-peterman-agree-on-five-year-deal/

So much for your guard upgrade you wanted Ty haha. I'm not positive but I don't think I was really big on our guards last season, for what seems to be a semi-lucrative contract here. But then again our running game did pickup a lot towards the end of the year, can you confirm to me that Peterman was indeed starting during that time period?

Todd February 16, 2009 at 10:17 PM  

Hey Ty I posted this over at DetFan and I wanted to share with you too.

STAFFORD TAPE:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2nVLO39wB4

Definitely worth the 8 minutes. I am definitely not a Stafford advocate and don't think they should draft a quarterback with that pick, but like DetFan wrote here, you only have so many choices if we can't trade out of the spot it pretty much is quarterback. However, after watching this 8 minutes I am a lot less pessimistic about them picking him if they did. I know its pretty much a highlight reel, but the guy has a lot of highlights. He has a cannon and it is just so smooth. Every play seems like he releases so fast and gets rid of the ball (we need that type of qb). Time the plays in your head, 1 mississippi, 2 mississippi--balls out. I like the looks at that. And wait until you see him run on a few plays....he's fast! He even has some elusive moves. For some reason I had it stuck in my head that he was slow and almost like overweight but I have a different opinion and you can't really argue with me, he's surprisingly pretty quick.

Ty February 17, 2009 at 11:00 AM  

Hey Todd--

I did watch the entire clip. First, let me say that all the positives in there are real and true positives. Stafford has a legit NFL body (minus a little extra time in the weight room, which will surely come), and a more-than-legit NFL arm: there's isn't a throw he can't make; he can absolutely drop it in bucket from fifty yards. He shows great pocket awareness--he stands tall and delivers without hesistation in the face of the rush, but has the athleticsm to escape--and for the most part, knows when to do which.

The concerns I have about Stafford are thus: One, he doesn't show much touch (where in that clip is the gorgeous fade, the pillow soft screen?); he puts the hot sauce on every throw. Two, he was surrounded by exceptional talent at Georgia; they were preseason favorites to hoist the crystal football. Note that there were multiple "Matt Stafford highlights" in that clip that were really Knowshawn Moreno highlights. Finally, while Stafford absolutely violated lesser competition (most of the really jaw-dropping stuff in that clip came against CMU), he and Georgia were underwhelming in many (all?) of the big games they routinely played. That blackshirt game against Alabama was one of the very few non-Spartan, non-B11, non-bowl games I made time to watch this year, and Alabama absolutely destroyed Georgia in every phase of the game. Stafford was doing what he could, but by the time a lot of the decent-looking 20-yard passes in that clip were getting thrown, Alabama had long since taken their foot off the gas (watch the score as the clip progresses).

I'm going to watch the second clip here just for completenesses sake. Don't get me wrong, I think Stafford has as good of a chance, and probably a better chance than anyone in this draft to be a great NFL QB. But I look at him and I think "Joey". Too many parallels. Too many similarities. It's not not the right decision for the Lions, IMO.

Peace
Ty

Ty February 17, 2009 at 11:47 AM  

Oh, and yes, Peterman started from Week 1, broke his hand in Week 3, and started from Week 7 on.

Peace
Ty

Steve February 17, 2009 at 5:38 PM  

In regards to Peterman, don't forget he is very close with incoming Lions O-Line coach George Yarno. That doesn't hurt, he has some intimacy with Yarno's approach.

Peterman has always been someone that seemed decent and him developing a consistent partnership with Gos Cherilus on the right side could bode well in the future, at least on the surface.

In regards to Stafford, don't discount the Lions track record of "developing" talent at that position.

He is the classic case of the Lions ambivalent dichotomy. He will be a superstar elsewhere and a bust for the Lions.

Ty's points are spot on. He has never won a big game, ever. He has the requisite fastball, but touch and accuracy are not teachable, it's like plate discipline in baseball. It is an intangible quality that can be fine-tuned, but it is difficult to make huge improvements there.

Ty February 18, 2009 at 5:30 PM  

"He is the classic case of the Lions ambivalent dichotomy. He will be a superstar elsewhere and a bust for the Lions."

Man oh man, is that the truth! And as the truth often does, it hurts.

As far as Peterman goes, I think you're right; he'll play better in 2009 than, say, a fifth-rounder or a similarly-priced free agent.

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