old mother hubbard: the tackles

>> 2.24.2009

Thanks for your patience folks!  I'm getting these cranked out so they'll be done before free agency . . .

Jeff Backus:  Backus is the man of the hour; the discussion of whether or not the 6'-5" 305 pound veteran could physically play guard--after 128 straight games at left tackle--dominates the Lions blogosphere dialogue (blogologue?).  Backus, as we all know, was an all-world beast at U of M, the capstone of a nigh-legendary college offensive line.  Coming into the draft, there was great debate as to whether Backus was better suited to play guard or tackle.  He had sufficient height and frame, grit and strength to play left tackle, but didn't have either elite size or elite athleticism.  When he was drafted, I hoped he'd be moved inside to guard, but Matt Millen made sure he was installed at LT.  Thus began eight long years of Lions fans not forgiving Jeff Backus for not being Jonathan Ogden or Orlando Pace.

Backus is a warrior, a smart player who (mostly) makes up for his lack of extraordinary gifts with relentless effort, good strength, and great technique.  Backus is a good drive blocker, and there were some running lanes opened up on the left side between him and Ed Mulitalo over the past couple of years.  However, his lack of lateral agility has caused him to consistently struggle against pure speed rushers.  As Matt Millen's first draft pick, Backus has been here much much much longer than the vast majority of the roster.  The 'standout OT' was signed to a six-year extension in 2006, so the Lions are committed to him financially for at least 2009 and quite possibly 2010 as well.  I think a lot of the tide turned on Backus in 2007, when he injured his rib cartilage in Week 3 against Philadelphia, then tried to play through it.  Ask anyone who's had this happen to them, or known someone who has: rib cartilage injuries are extremely painful.  Backus' limitations with the injury were apparent; he immediately let through a crucial sack and was removed from the game.  He didn't practice all week afterwards, but then started the following game to keep his streak intact.  Streak or no, he was pretty much awful that game, and for the rest of the season.  I have to believe that if the Lions had had a legitimate option to start ahead of him, Backus would have been benched right then, as the Lions were in the thick of the playoff race.  That's when he turned the corner from "okay but overpaid and I'd love an Ogden or Pace instead" to "completely blows" in most fans' minds.  It's difficult to really get a grade on him, because throughout his career, the Lions have so often been in down by two or three TDs, in desperate passing situations.  Opposing teams, throughout Backus' career, have been able to pin their ears back and really attack Backus' biggest weakness, the speed rush.  I do believe he's a servicable left tackle, better than most give him credit for, and one of the vanishingly few veteran leaders on this team.  Bottom line: Backus is a net asset to the Lions with his grit, effort, and leadership.  His play is mediocre, but good enough for 2009.  If the Lions drafted a franchise LT for the future with the 1.1, and plugged that player in at guard, or moved Backus to guard, I wouldn't mind that at all.

Gosder Cherilus:
  Gosder the Gozerian, as I call him, was part of the Great Tackle Run of 2008, an unexpected passle of offensive tackles selected in the middle of the first round of the 2008 draft.  Standing 6'-7" tall, and relatively light for that height at 318 pounds, Gosder possesses great size, strength, and an absolutely vicious mean streak that has gotten him in trouble a time or two.  Assigned to work with Lions legend Lomas Brown, Gosder came in pretty raw, and pretty stiff.  Still, in a competition with veteran RT George Foster, Cherilus got some near-immediate PT, getting in against the Packers home opener when Foster was benched.  He got his first start the week after, at San Fransisco, and acquitted himself fairly well--however, Cherilus had trouble mastering the snap count, and therefore racked up many false starts.  He also looked fairly stiff in pass protection, and tended to use his size and strength to maul rather than 'block' people--infuriatingly, these were the twin sins of Foster, the incumbent veteran.  Marinelli would bench one, then the other, then the other, trying to get one to step up and play well.  Ultimately, the light started to come on for Gosder towards the end of the season.  Even if he didn't completely eliminate the mental mistakes (in Week 16, he was flagged for lining up too deeply on what would have been a game-tying 43-yard bomb to Megatron), his hips started to drop, his lateral moves started to look good, and we saw a glimpse of a young right tackle with Pro Bowl tools instead of a big mean dude in football gear.  Many were hoping that Gosder would blossom into the elite franchise LT that Backus is not and never will be--after all, he played LT in college, didn't he?  But the truth of the matter is that Cherilus will be an oustanding right tackle for years to come . . . let him be what he is instead of what he is not.  Bottom line: a prototypical RT body, posessed by a nasty mean streak.  If he can get his head in the game and get his footwork down, he will be among the league's best right tackles.

George Foster: a 6'-5", 338 pound walking false start.  I would be surprised to see him here next year.

SUMMARY:  The tackle position has two solid starters but no depth whatsoever.  Speculation is rampant that the Lions will use the first overall pick to select a left tackle; if that happens either Backus or the pick will probably slide over to guard.  If the first pick isn't a tackle, look to see at least one drafted in the middle rounds, as there is no backup except Foster, and he may be gone.


Steve,  February 25, 2009 at 1:28 PM  

Ty, you do a good job of being fair with Backus. Given the prominent position he holds in the organization monetarily I don't think it is unfair for the fans to expect more from him.

In Backus' case, you are right, he is serviceable. The timing of the sacks he allows, or flags he draws, are the ultimate problem.

The Lions have had the "red zone holding penalty" in their playbook for about 30 years or so. That being said, there is no more consistent proponent of executing that particular play, than Backus.

Your defense of him is grounded, though. The Lions fans, with all of their frustration, are constantly on the search for an overpaid scapegoat. Unfortunately, Backus has been all-too-willing accomplice to draw their ire with his average to below average performances.

Ty,  February 25, 2009 at 2:23 PM  


I'm doing my best to be fair with all of these guys; it's tempting to say "cut everybody but Calvin", but the roster can't be turned around that fast. And some of these guys are in fact serviceable players seems to be lost on some folks--"servicable" means they're good enough for now, not "you need to immediately replace them with a first-rounder". I think Backus, either at LT or at OG, is going to be "good enough" for this year. Part of the foundation of the future? No, not at LT.


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