have the Lions left the safety off?

>> 6.30.2009

A few days ago, the excellent Chrissie Wywrot of the official Lions site penned a piece on embattled safety Daniel Bullocks.  It almost seemed like a direct challenge to recent articles by Mlive.com’s Tom Kowalski and the Detroit News’s John Niyo suggesting that Bullocks is simply not in the mix to start next to rookie Louis Delmas.  Wywrot discloses something only hinted at before: Bullocks never really recovered from the blown ACL that sidelined him in 2007. 

Safety play is something difficult for the HDTV-deprived fan to quantify (thanks, 4:3 aspect ratio!).  We see the strong safety come up and lay the lumber, and we see big interceptions.  Sometimes, on replays from alternate angles, we can see a safety get beat deep.  However, unlike front-seven defenders, it’s impossible for the average fan to simply watch a safety for a snap, or series of snaps, to see how they’re doing.  Therefore, when it comes to ‘grading out’ a safety, we’re beholden to those who have access to game film.  Kowalski’s sources tell him that Bullocks’ angles were all wrong in 2008, and that the fluidity, quickness, and aggressiveness he displayed in 2006 appeared to be “gone”.  Killer added that when a defense gives up many long runs (as the Lions did in 2008), that’s often the result of poor safety play.

Interestingly, the Niyo piece I linked above appears to have been edited.  Here is the original quote, as snagged from The Den, Scout.com’s Lions forum: Correction: the below quote is actually from rotoworld.com, adding their own analysis to Niyo's.  The article linked above is apparently as it was first published.

“Gerald Alexander and Kalvin Pearson split time at strong safety with the Lions first-team defense during Tuesday's minicamp.  While rookie Louis Delmas is locked in at free safety, the new coaching staff has been less than content with its option at strong safety. They no longer see Daniel Bullocks as a starter, and free agent Marquand Manuel was recently brought on board as another option.”

This jibes with the other reports: the post-trade safety pecking order has Pearson and Manuel splitting time with the ones—but Pearson is thought of as a valuable backup, but too athletically limited to be a starter in the Lions’ new symmetrical defense.  This leaves the door wide open for Bullocks—but Bullocks has to recover his physical skills, rebuild his confidence in those skills, learn the new system, and then incorporate it all, so he can play as aggressively and instinctually as he did his rookie year.  Both from published reports, and my talks with some folks in the know, it sounds like he’s got about 1.5 out of 4 down pat right now—and an uphill climb to be relevant this fall.

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big willie style struts his stuff

>> 6.26.2009

Recently, I wrote a speculative column about the role of Bill Ford Jr. in the day-to-day operations of the team.  Given the usual reclusiveness of his father, William Clay Ford, the Lions’ owner, and the recent sweeping changes in both staff and attitude, I theorized that maybe the baton had already passed.  Perhaps, the heir apparent had already ascended to the throne; the king abdicating in favor of the crown prince.

Apparently, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Big Willie Style rolled up on minicamp in dramatic fashion:

rashaun rucker – detroit free press

He proceeded to pimp slap his media bitches, making pronouncement after eyebrow-raising pronouncement, claim after jaw-dropping claim.  Fans who have followed this team obsessively for years, fans who have postulated and speculated as to this man’s behind-the-scenes actions, fans who have presumed and assumed they knew this man’s motivations , were told point-blank that they have no idea what they’re talking about.

The many, many quotes he dropped were spread throughout several stories on each of the major newspaper’s sites—but here are a few doozies:

  • I feel so sorry for the fans in Detroit. I mean, I give them full marks for showing up. We didn't perform the way we should've performed or the way we could've. I felt worse for them than I did for myself. I thought it was horrible every time we'd lose. But the guys who stuck through it, I can't tell you how great that makes you feel. And for the ones that walked away, I couldn't blame them. It wasn't much fun to watch. It was pretty boring because you could about guess the outcome.”
  • People were getting fed up. And I don't blame them a bit. We didn't put up much of a show for them. And God knows what's gonna happen this year, more than anyone else does. But I think we'll give an honest day's effort and I think that's all they want. Of course they want us to win, and so do I, more than anything, but I think if they realize we're going down with our guns blazing, I think that'll be a very positive thing to have happen.
  • [did he take fans’ protests personally] “I mean, not that the yelling at the stadium does much for you. You get a couple of drunks and they can say anything. But you pay attention. If there's a noticeable decline in attendance and the comments are not favorable, you pay attention to it. The fans are really the people you want to please here. God, especially now in Detroit, the shape it's in, we gotta try twice as hard to give them their money's worth. The money is tough to come by for all of them, I understand that. But the least we can do is put on a good performance for them. I think we will. I certainly hope we will.”
  • “No, I don't not, contrary to public opinion, interfere with the football side of it. I mean, if so-and-so plays lousy on Sunday, I think he's a bum (laughs). But no, I've never said, "Don't say play this guy or play that guy," uh-uh. These guys know more about the game than I do by 10 miles. So I'm not going to try and second-guess them. If something goes wrong, we'll talk about it.”
  • [on the hirings of Lewand, Mayhew, and—incredibly—Jim Schwartz] "Well, this is going to sound a little egotistical, and maybe it is, but because this was solely my decision. Rather than being influenced by a lot of other thoughts and people who -- I respected their opinions -- but they were not exactly the same as mine, which is fine. But they influenced the decisions that were finally made. If Jim Schwartz doesn't work out, you can blame me 100 percent. I just have confidence in him."

There’s a lot here to take in.  I can’t possibly do a review of everything he’s done for the past thirty years, and marvel at the sharp relief cast by those actions in light of these statements.  It’s easy to say, “well, this is all a bunch of mularkey from the mind of a senile old man with delusions of grandeur who happens to have more money than God and owns my favorite football team.”  However, let’s ignore Blore’s Razor for a moment (Blore’s Razor being the maxim: “when presented with two possible theories, take the one that is funnier”), and work on the premise that absolutely every single word he said is true.

First of all, this is validation for both the “optimists” such as myself—the fans who espouse, you know, rooting for the team you say you root for—and the most virulent pessimists—the kind of worthless jerks who say stuff like “DIE FORD DIE” on message boards, or espouse boycotting the games.  It’s validation for everyone who ever said that the Millen Man March, orange-out, walkouts, etc. don’t matter and won’t work--they didn’t, and they didn’t.  Now, all the protests and chants didn’t fall on deaf ears, per se—they were willfully ignored by a man who pointed to his sold-out stadium and said “the real fans still care”.  It wasn’t until those fans, too started turning their backs on the team that he knew he had a problem—and, in that sense, he was right.  When the hardworking families of Michigan no longer find it worthwhile to spend a couple hundred bucks going to your team . . . you’ve hit the wall.  Ford was asked, did he stick with Millen for too long?

Well, maybe. I think circumstances and timing were important. You don't want to jump ship after two games or one game. When the fans were really getting fed up, it's like, 'OK, it's time to make a move.' I thought about it obviously. The timing just worked out the way it did.”

Profootballtalk.com mocked this quote by jesting that instead of jumping ship after one or two games, Ford stuck with Millen for three games . . . and seven seasons, har har.  To me, however, that quote is quite telling.  It means that he was going to keep Millen on until either he turned it around, or the fans found the performance of the team completely unacceptable.  It apparently wasn’t even an option until the fans stopped coming.  The obvious reaction to this is that it “hit him in the pocketbook”—but what does Ford care about money?  The Lions could play to an empty stadium 16 weeks a year for the rest of his life, and he still wouldn’t lack for anything.  I’m going to take the high road here and say that Ford really didn’t think he’d lost the fans until the fans stopped coming.  I mean, they were losing 10+ games per season, raising prices, and still selling out!  That doesn’t happen if fans are really fed up, right?  I mean, from Ford’s box, what changed during that time?  The writers were ripping him?  They’d been doing that for forty years.  There were boos and chants?  Sure, from 50,000 paying customers.  How could he know that throughout the city, state, nation—and yes, judging from my traffic, the world—Lions fans were giving up and tuning out?

To an extent, I am playing Devil’s advocate here; giving Ford the benefit of the doubt.  In a world where Mark Cuban blogs and Tweets, an owner being so austere, aloof, even cloistered, seems antiquated.  Yet, from Mr. Ford’s perspective, it’s entirely possible that he didn’t realize the extent to which his team’s fans had walked away.  And yet . . . given how long it took for the fans to actually stop coming, and given how desperate everyone is to jump back on the bandwagon at the first sign of success--was he really wrong?  How many of us really did walk away in ‘04, or ‘05, or ‘06 . . . Really, for all of the griping, whining, pissing, and moaning that Lions fans did, it took 0-16 for us to actually walk away.  I can’t count how many times I have heard a fan say or read a fan type, “THAT’S IT!  I am DONE with this team!!”, only to have them chat me up about the latest Lions stuff the next day, or log back on to that Lions message board. 

It really does speak to the depth and breadth and passion of this Lions fanbase.  The Jaguars are perennial contenders--and can’t sell out their stadium even if they cover up half the seats!  Yet we kept coming and kept coming and kept coming, no matter how bad it got, for nearly a decade.  We kept buying jerseys and shirts and footballs and concessions.  We held on until the Lions hit absolute rock bottom.  Now, maybe Ford really is a crazy old coot who walks around completely clueless of everything that happens in the world around him—or maybe, just maybe, Big Willie Style had us all in check.

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in the june heat, the fire roars

>> 6.24.2009

The Grandmaster, speaking to the media yesterday.  Here’s the quote I’m both thrilled and fascinated by (a response to being asked if the fans are angry):

"It's hard to be angry at me, so I generally don't get that that. I don't know the best way to put it ... they're guardedly optimistic. I think when you put yourself out there, the way you do when you're a fan, when you expose your soul to rooting for your team and you get hurt time and time again, sometimes you have a tendency to hold back and not put yourself out as much. and not become as, you know, I don’t know a good way to put it, but not become as  . . . fanatical a fan.  Is that redundant?  “Fanatical a fan”?  But the one thing is, they keep stepping up.  They’re true football fans in this city; they’re excited about it.  Everywhere I go, I get positive, positive feelings from the fans here.”

When I saw this video for the first time, late last night, my eyes grew wide and my mouth slowly went open.  I played it again:

I think when you put yourself out there, the way you do when you're a fan, when you expose your soul to rooting for your team and you get hurt time and time again, sometimes you have a tendency to hold back and not put yourself out as much.

I’ve been following sports pretty closely for my entire life.  When I was in kindergarten, I took the sports section of the Free Press to bed with me.  When I was in first grade, I begged my mother to subscribe to Sports Illustrated for me—and she relented.  I’ve been consuming all the sports analysis I could get my hands on since before I had any adult teeth.  I don’t believe I’ve ever read, seen, heard, or heard of a coach or athlete “getting it” like this. 

Usually, professional athletes and coaches have a love/hate relationship with the fans.  They love the cheering and the adoration, but hate the irrationality, lack of understanding, and impatience.  At worst, they have a dismissive attitude—like Mike Golic’s recently-reprised rants against fans and superstition.  But what Jim Schwartz said in that little throwaway interview was absolutely spot on: he understands.  He understands what it’s like to be a fan!  He understands how hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—of complete strangers are now looking to him to validate the countless hours and dollars spent weaving the success or failure of the Lions into the fabric of their daily lives.  He understands how we are constantly living and dying with this franchise: scouring the internet for news, watching all the TV and listening to all the radio, piping all the Twitter feeds to our cell phone, going to the forums and rehashing the same arguments over and over and over and over . . .  He knows we’re desperate for all of the suffering to pay off; we’re desperate to see returns on the massive emotional investment we’ve made in this franchise.

I’ve always thought that coaches and players, walking amongst the trees, can’t see the forest that they live in.  To the players, this is their job—a grinding, grueling, annualized slaughterhouse that demands incredible hours, body-breaking effort, mind-numbing amounts of memorization and regurgitation, and—oh yeah--all the politics and frustrations that come with any intensely competitive career field.  Imagine a law firm where promotions are based on the outcomes of inter-practice cage fights, and you’re close.  To coaches, this is a 70-, 80-, 90-, 100-hour-per-week obsession that haunts every waking and sleeping hour of their lives for about 46 weeks a year.  The amount of film study, gameplanning, whiteboarding, meetings, and player film sessions these coaches take on—on top of all the actual exercises, drills, and scrimmages they run—is incomprehensible to most fans.

When a receiver breaks off a route and the pass intended for him gets picked, fifty thousand fans boo the quarterback for throwing “another stupid interception”.  How can that man not recall the small forest that died to print the 800-page playbook he’s got memorized cold, and want to strangle all the yahoos in the stands calling for his backup?  Likewise, I don’t think are any jobs in our society where more brilliant, hardworking, well-qualified, and well-compensated individuals are called “idiots” and “morons” more often than NFL head coaches.  To them, the pissing and moaning of the laborers and lawyers, the griping and sniping of Joe the Plumber and John Q. Public, they couldn’t possibly matter less.

. . . and yet, here, in the sweltering June heat, is Jim Schwartz, head coach of the Lions.  With the bone-chilling cold of this past winter an impossibly distant memory, he's talking earnestly about how hard it is for fans to “expose their soul” to a team, only to get hurt again and again.  Could there be a better fit?  Is there a team that needs a man like him more?  Is there a group of fans more desperate for someone to understand the depth of their devotion, and the depth of their suffering?  Is there a coach more perfectly suited to stoke the blue flames, and melt the ice around Lions' fans hearts?  Has there ever been a coach brilliant and bold enough to rock the Frank Zappa moustache/soul patch combination?

I submit to you that the answer is no.


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my name in lights

>> 6.23.2009

Okay folks, I beg your forgiveness for yet another meta post; I swear I’ll make it up to you tomorrow.  Today, a piece I originally for the Blue Blog, the Scout.com Lions blog, got syndicated as a feature article on the Roar Report, the official Scout.com Lions site.  Now, the article in question isn’t anything super amazing; in fact it’s largely similar to my Key Performance Indicators post from yesterday.  However, this one was completely re-written from scratch, without the colorful analogies, and in my Very Professional Newspaperman Voice—as opposed to the expansive, jarringly inconsistent, straight-from-my-id Blogger Voice you’ve all grown to put up with.

Still, it’s pretty golly-gosh-darn cool to have a Scout.com byline to my credit.  I am a “contributor’!  Whoo!  And, all partisanship aside, everyone reading this really ought to make the Blue Blog part of their daily trawl--most of the best stuff from around the Web gets not only linked there, but analyzed and put in greater context as well.  Thanks again, everyone, for your patience with my small-potatoes cap-feathering; there’s a bunch of great minicamp info coming down the pike, and I’ll be sure to have real stuff up tomorrow.

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key performance indicators

>> 6.22.2009

In business, the traditional ways of measuring success are with the broad overall goals: sales, revenue, profit-and-loss.  Are sales up or down?  Are costs up or down?  Is the profit margin higher this quarter compared to last?  Compared to the same quarter last year?  These are all different ways of asking the same question--the BIG question: whether the company is making money.  That’s the bottom line, after all; success for a business is defined by making money, and the traditional metrics of success all focus on that.

However, a business is more complicated than that (and forgive, businessmen out there, if I’m serenading you with the business equivalent of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).  A simple evaluation based on whether the company is currently making money doesn’t provide any insight into whether the company is healthy and growing, whether that growth, if it exists, is sustainable, or if the company will still be profitable a year from now.  For that deeper insight, businesses look at more difficult-to-quantify, but possibly more valuable, ‘Key Performance Indicators’.  KPIs might be things like new customer retention, talent retention, customer willingness to recommend, etc.  If the business has had a tough quarter, that might be the result of broader economic trends or factors—but if new customers are increasingly loving the product and telling all their friends, the core business might be in a great position for growth.

Tomorrow, the Lions open a three-day minicamp.  This minicamp will be the first practice with pads, helmets, veterans, rookies, blocking, tackling, lifting, film, and everything else that comes with real, actual football.  This will be the first time that the Lions’ staff will get a chance to really evaluate most of the positions—you can’t evaluate the O-line, tight ends, or anyone on the defense when full-speed blocking and tackling aren’t allowed.  It will also be the first time that the rookies and veterans will practice and compete for jobs together—not rookies versus rookies, or vets versus vets, but the entire roster starting with a level playing field—in a drastic departure from the prior regime, there will be no depth chart until deep into training camp.

We won’t get to see this First Real Football in detail.  There won’t be any TV broadcast we can TiVO and replay.  There won’t be any live streaming play-by-play.  There probably won’t be any live Tweeting, either (since the Twitter-savviest Detroit sports journalist, Greg Eno, has informed me he won’t be there).  And of course, we won't have any of the typical measures of football success to go by--yards, points, wins, or losses.  So, we’ll have to wade knee-deep into the stream of quotes, blurbs, blogs, and articles that will flow through our favored information channels in the nights and days following these practices, and hope to catch some fish of truth*.

I’ve identified a few KPIs that Lions observers should watch with interest:

  • The WRs vs. the DBs:  Calvin “Megatron” Johnson is awesome.  He’s completely sweet.  This is essentially the only known quantity on the Lions’ roster; we know that Megatron can and will match up against the very best the NFL has to offer—and will produce no matter how awful whoever’s throwing him the ball is.  This will allow us to measure what might be this team’s greatest on-paper weakness: the cornerback position.  Buchanon and Henry—and, if Henry slides back to safety . . . *gulp* . . . Eric King—lining up across from Megatron will give us a concrete idea of just how bad things will be for us at corner.  Will he dominate?  Most likely.  But the difference between him dominating, and him being completely unstoppable, could also be the difference between shutting down a Bernard Berrien—or not. 
  • The interior OL vs. the interior DL:  Cliff Avril, in a recent interview on  Sirius NFL Radio, revealed that with DT Grady Jackson working out lightly at home, fourth-round rookie Sammie Hill has been running with the ones.  Hill, a very raw athletic talent, will get invaluable reps against smart, tough veteran center Dominic Raiola, and . . . a couple of other guys.  Raiola, of course, will be giving up somewhere between 20 and 40 pounds to the big youngster, but we’ll get a good sense of exactly how raw Hill is by how much of that size advantage Raiola will be able to neutralize with leverage, footwork, and technique.  Also, we’ll get a sense of which of the many mountain-sized men the Lions have acquired this offseason will be playing on either side of Raiola.  Young veterans Daniel Loper and Stephen Peterman are thought to have the inside track on the left and right guard spots, respectively--but Loper’s 6’-6” frame is probably better suited to tackle, and Peterman has been inconsistent at best throughout his career.  The Lions’ leadership is thought to believe that with the shift from a pass-heavy zone blocking scheme to a traditional, run-first, drive blocking scheme, will emphasize Peterman’s strengths and conceal his weaknesses.  Also, new OL coach George Yarno was Peterman’s OL coach at LSU, so he may be able to draw out the best in the former third-rounder.  Seeing how these two—or others—fare versus the Lions’ iffy, depleted, and very young DT corps will go a long way toward revealing just how much all these OL acquisitions have bolstered the line.
  • The voice of the defense:  Lions fans everywhere jumped for joy when veteran MLB—and Detroit native, and U-M alum—Larry Foote forced his release from the Super-Bowl-winning Pittsburgh Steelers, and signed with the 0-16 Detroit Lions.  It was presumed that he’d be the “thumper” in the middle of the defense that the Lions seemed to have failed to acquire, and was also presumed to be the new veteran leader of the defense.  However, rookie S Louis Delmas took that role upon himself in the rookie-only minicamp, rallying his unitmates, and bantering constantly with QB Matt Stafford.  It will be interesting to see how these two interact with each other, and the rest of the defense.  Will their big-time personalities mesh—like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in Baltimore, and like Foote and Troy Polamalu did in Pittsburgh?  Or, will they clash?  This weekend will be the first indication we’ll get which of the new prized cattle is wearing the bell.
  • The impact of the linebackers: On a team rated a putrid, horrible, awful, wretched, nasty, rotten, worthless 65 overall in Madden 2010, the Lions still have the 5th-highest-rated linebacking corps.  The veteran additions—Foote, and former Spartan Julian Peterson—will join Ernie Sims to form the most athletic and aggressive Lions linebacking corps since the late 80’s /early 90s groups that featured Chris Spielman, Mike Cofer, and others.  Moreover, they’ll have the confining, one-gap, stay-at-home, short-zone leashes attached to them by the Tampa 2 defense taken off, and their jobs will be honed down to two things: running upfield, and killing people.  Ernie Sims, I suspect, will have a dramatic renaissance in this scheme, living up to his impressive potential.  Even though Peterson and Foote have limitations in coverage, their games are both beautifully suited to this new Guntherball scheme as well.  Also, look out for Jordon Dizon; Cunningham seems to like him as well, and he should see a lot of time in the nickel packages.  Since we know that tackles Jeff Backus and Gosder Cherilus—and new acquisitions like Jon Jansen and Ephraim Salaam—struggle against speed off the edge, hope for the outside linebackers to be very disruptive.  They will not be allowed to actually punish the quarterbacks at this stage of the offseason, but if the news comes back that the linebackers are overwhelming the offensive line, then that is good news indeed.

*”Fish of Truth” is a good name for a band.

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baby steps

>> 6.19.2009

A longtime reader, Scotty G., sent me an email the other day, telling me about a great interaction he had with the Lions.  His wife had once bought him a Kevin Jones jersey for Christmas--that same Kevin Jones who was summarily released after the '07 season.  Scotty's treasured gift had suddenly become passé (I have dwelt in that cave, my friend--my own wife once gifted me with a Charles Rogers jersey).

He'd heard the controversial story about the Lions' giveaways of "Kevin Smith" jerseys--jerseys that were really leftover Kevin Jones inventory with new nameplates sewn on.  Scotty got the bright idea that all he needed was one of those new nameplates to once again be supporting a current Lion.  He emailed the Lions, and received this response:

"Scott,

We have received your e-mail and have a new jersey for you! We are very happy you are a Detroit Lions fan! Please send me your address so I can get that mailed out to you.

Thanks for your continued support!

GO LIONS!"

Now, THAT is what I am talking about.  Scott received his jersey a couple of days ago--and while it is one of the altered jerseys, he (and I) am thrilled that the Lions organization went the extra mile to send him a free jersey.  He says he'll be wearing it with pride at every game he can attend--and despite it being a very long drive, he'll do his best to make it to as many as he can.  That, my friends, is the little blue fire getting stoked by those who really ought to be keeping it--those who work for the team.  Kudos to the Lions organization for stepping it up and winning back a fan; I know Scott is going to be repping the Lions and spreading that love wherever he goes.  

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a spring awakening

>> 6.15.2009

[Source: Archive.org]

Please take a few minutes to watch this short film. It's a message to the International Olympic Committee, touting Detroit's bid for the 1968 Summer Games. I'll pause for a moment to allow for the leveraging of jaws up from the floor, the application of hankies to lone tears on cheeks, and the removal of cotton from ears--apparently, public speaking was not Mayor Cavanaugh's strong suit.

Now, to remind those reading this: I was born in Lansing, in 1981, and have lived and worked within 15 minutes of the Capitol ever since. I neither saw nor knew nor loved the Detroit portrayed in this film. In fact, that Detroit wasn't quite what residents of the time saw or knew or loved either--this was, of course, an advertisement for the city to the world; little things like the '67 riots were not exactly going to play a feature role. Any native of the Motor City will also note that an eighteen-minute movie about Detroit that contains just three seconds of snow is disingenuous at best.

Still, it's jaw-dropping to see how far the city has fallen in forty years. "Mammoth" Cobo Hall, then newly built and gleaming in the sun, is now struggling to get the renovation and expansion it needs to stay relevant. The gorgeous beach so prominently featured as the centerpiece of a "water wonderland", now is often closed to the public, thanks to E. Coli. A native could probably watch this film and, off the top of their head, point out what has since been closed, condemned, or diminished. The "Renaissance" underway during those days led not to a vibrant and contemporary center of commerce, but a vibrant and contemporary candy shell of suburbs coating a rotten core of unemployment, crime, and bombed-out buildings. I have neither the firsthand experience, nor the secondary education necessary to tell you what went wrong along the way--but here we are. Detroit--both the city itself, and the auto industry it's synonymous with--is the loss leader for our nation's recession, and the butt of jokes nationwide.

The Lions find themselves in the same unenviable position. Coming off the worst season in the history of the NFL, the Lions have duly been christened the Worst Team of the Decade by NBC Sports. They've been rated an absolutely heinous 65 overall in Madden 2010. They're slotted no higher than 31st in any major media outlet's preseason power rankings--and I suspect Peter King was just baiting Cleveland fans. What does this mean, other than another discouraging fall of getting whipped in Madden by 12-year-olds abusing me with the Colts and Steelers?

It means that those people haven't been paying attention. It means that those people haven't noticed the changes. It means that those who make the easy joke or the out-of-hand dismissal haven't gotten down on their hands and knees to find the little green shoots and saplings popping out of the ground left and right. Sure, it's easy to look at the deserted high-rises and 31-81 and write Detroit off. It's easy to crack wise about bailouts and wideouts and Pintos and BMWs.

What's hard is the New York Post descending into "hell" to find out that:

"Detroiters, quite simply, are people people. No visitor ever need be a stranger here, unless they want it that way. Stick around and, pretty quickly, you'll be longing for the day when you could just sneak around without being recognized. Most of the time, you don't even need introductions -- simply showing up makes you part of the gang. Everyone wants to know how you got there. At times, you feel like you're in a small town in Japan, except there are fewer schoolgirls pointing at you and giggling . . . Everywhere you go in Detroit, you automatically have one thing in common with the people around you: You're here and alive and making the best of a city that so many people long ago left for dead. As conversation starters go, it doesn't get much better than that."

What's hard is Pat Kirwan going through the Lions' staff and roster, position-by-position, to find out that he's actually optimistic about the Lions; that there's a "light at the end of the tunnel". What's hard is not looking at the recent past and describing what you see--but examining the present, sifting through the dirt, bagging up the trash, gathering seeds of truth, and sowing them. What's hard is looking at a sapling, the earth it grows in, and the air around it, and imagining if it will grow into a tall and healthy tree. What's even harder is coming back with a watering can and a bag of fertilizer . . .

Too often, we take the easy way out. Too often, we boo and hiss. Too often, we say "let them die". Too often, we trample on the little green shoots that might replace the forest that once was. But I have hope that this team, these Lions, will not only restore our faith and pride in the team, but be a catalyst for the continuing rebirth of the city. Maybe Detroit will never be the gleaming nexus of international commerce and leisure portrayed in that video, and maybe the Lions will never be a multiple-title-winning dynasty of dynasties. But, I'll be thrilled when I can to take my kids to see a Lions game, watch a good team play hard, and then enjoy good food and good fun in a healthy city.

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change is coming!

>> 6.12.2009

This morning closes the deal on a decade of handwringing over the FCC's mandated national transition to digital television.  After years of speculation that all but the most tech-laden homes would go dark today--prompting our government to spend over a billion dollars on converter-box vouchers--it sounds like the biggest transitional hurdle has been explaining to seniors that hooking up the new HDTV they bought to their cable or satellite service doesn't require the converter box you and I paid $40 for.

It's a part of human nature to fear change.  We are creatures of habit--we love routine, we love the familiar, we cherish the nostalgic.  When we see change on the horizon, we get flustered and frazzled.  We blog and Tweet, we rant and rave, we chat over water coolers and dinner tables alike.  We cling desperately to what has been, finding any available option to slow or stop the inevitable.   We take sides--arguing over how to accept this brave new world, how to deal with the irrevocably butchered life we now must lead, how to cope with the agony and suffering sure to result from whatever's going to be different from now on.

Frequently, it ends up being no big deal.

You see, change is happening all the time.  It's happening in the world around us, whether we want it or not; whether we notice it or not.  Bit by bit, byte by byte, the way things "always have been" are decaying while "the way things are" are under construction.

In the sports blogging world this week, that natural evoultion manifested itself in the latest skirmish on the "MSM-Blog War" front lines.  At this point the story is old news to most anyone reading this, but to recap: a blogger, Jerod Morris of Midwest Sports Fans, wrote an article exploring Raul Ibanez's curiously fast start--and what might be fueling that unusual performance.  After a more widely-read blog, Hugging Harold Reynolds, linked to the story, Philadelphia Inquirer columnist John Gonzalez found it and absolutely savaged Morris for his "cheap shot".  ESPN's Outside the Lines took the surprising step of putting Morris, Gonzalez, and FoxSports.com's senior MLB writer, Ken Rosenthal on the air for a three-way panel discussion.

What transpired on the air that day has stoked great debate.  From Seattle Times columnist Geoff Baker's passionate testimony of the power of journalism--and condemnation of those who wield it irresponsibly--to Phillies blogger David S. Cohen's sober observation that Ibanez has hit for streaks like this many times before, to Deadspin's AJD's even-handed (and hilarious) assessment of all parties involved.

I'm not going to give "my take on it", since I'd be not only the last to the party, but probably the least eloquent.  This battle is as old as the digital TV handwringing; quality sports blogging has been around for a long, long time, as has the established media's distrust of it.  It took several years for most sportswriters to notice that their readership was going elsewhere for the non-double-sourced, non-vetted-by-the-legal-department, possibly-offensive-to-primary-sources  information they craved.  Grudgingly acknolwedging this market, the TV and print giants were harvesting scoops garnered by bloggers, and sending them to everyone with the credit "according to internet reports . . ."  The tables continued to turn as established journalists began blogging, and were often really bad at it.  From whiffing on basic Web conventions like linking to sources, to blatantly making stuff up to round out their 'rumor mill' section, many professional journalists blogged as they percieved "the bloggers" did: with a total lack of responsibility, and a total lack of professionalism.  And you know what?  Bloggers torched them for it.

This latest Ibanez dust-up is a tempest in a teapot.  The lines between "journalist" and "blogger" and "fan with a computer" started blurring a long, long time ago.  The best credentialed writers straddle all mediums with equal aplomb--knowing where and when to file raw rumor, hard news, idle thoughts, Q&A, and rampant speculation (e.g., Bill Simmons from ESPN writes both in print and online, blogs, chats, Tweets, and podcasts, all compellingly).  And the rest of the lot, be they J-school laureates or bloggers in their mother's basement, will be judged not by the color of their banner, but by the character of their content.  We don't need to wait for a world where bloggers can be quality reporters and analysts, and nationally syndicated columnists can personally interact with their fans on a direct and instant basis--that day is already here. 

However . . . what about the readers?  Sometimes I fear that those who read sports media have been conditioned to the morning paper, the beat writer and the columnist, the pure hard news and the unfettered opinion, the idea that anything they see in print is either double-checked fact or purely philosophical musing.  Time and again, I see re-posting or re-Tweeting that misconstrues the original report, like a worldwide game of "Telephone".  Thousand-word blog posts with stats, graphs, and analysis are shorn of their evenhandedness, boiled down to 140 characters or less, and blasted all over the Interweb in seconds.  I can't tell you how many times I've seen blogs cite a local radio show or insider team source and go, "We can't believe this is true, but [source] said [story], and we just heard an independent whisper backing it up, so we're going to let you all know what we've been hearing, but please take it with a grain of salt" only to see that report touted across forums everywhere as "[Blog] reported [story] as fact, what muckrakers they are!"

New rules and new conventions about how to consume and redistribute information must, and will, pop up to prevent things like Morris' inconclusive exoneration attempt being twisted (by a "real journalist") into "HEY RAUL, SOME BLOGGER SAID YOU'RE JUICING, WHADDYA THINK?"  Yes, bloggers are going to have to be more careful about the impact of their words on the ever-bigger audience they're addressing--but that audience must be more thoughtful about how they consume their information, too.  The old ways of passively accepting everything they see on their doostep in the morning are dying; they must learn to parse information online with critical thought.

Too bad they don't make a digital converter box for that.

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the secondary is dead, long live the secondary

>> 6.10.2009

Ever since the brutal injuries to cornerback Bryant Westbrook and safety Kurt Schultz during the 2000 season, the Lions have been absolutely desperate for help in the secondary.  With the possible exception of the offensive line, the defensive backfield has been the most consistently disappointing Lions unit on the field over the past decade.  However, unlike the offensive line, disappointment has been the only thing consistent about the Lions' secondary.  While the offensive line has had the same left tackle and center for nearly a decade, it seems as though every year brings a new "secondary overhaul" . . . and every year brings more disappointment.

2001: Signed CB Todd Lyght, CB/S Robert Bailey, and S Chidi Iwouma.  Subtracted S Corwin Brown, CB Darnell Walker, and CB Marquis Walker.

2002: Drafted CB Andre Goodman and CB Chris Cash; signed S Corey Harris, S Brian Walker, CB Eric Davis, and S Bracey Walker.  Subtracted Terry Fair, Ron Rice, Kurt Schultz,  Robert Bailey, and Chidi Iwouma.

2003: Signed CB Dre' Bly, CB Otis Smith, and drafted S Terry Holt.  Subtracted Todd Lyght and Eric Davis.

2004: Signed CB Fernando Bryant, S Brock Marion, S Vernon Fox, and drafted CB Keith Smith.  Subtracted Brian Walker and Corey Harris.

2005: Signed S Kennoy Kennedy, CB R.W. McQuarters, and S Jon McGraw; drafted CB Stanley Wilson.  Subtracted Brock Marion and Chris Cash.

2006: Drafted S Daniel Bullocks and signed CB Jamar Fletcher.  Subtracted Andre Goodman, R.W. McQuarters, Bracey Walker, and Vernon Fox.

2007: Drafted S Gerald Alexander, CB A.J. Davis, and CB Ramzee Robinson; signed CB Travis Fisher.  Subtracted Dre Bly, Terry Holt, Jamar Fletcher, and Jon McGraw.

2008: Traded for CB Leigh Bodden, and signed S Dwight Smith, S Kalvin Person, and CB Brian Kelly.  Subtracted Fernando Bryant, Kennoy Kennedy, and Stanley Wilson . . . and Brian Kelly.

2009: Drafted S Louis Delmas, and signed CB Philip Buchanon, CB/S Anthony Henry, CB Eric King, and S Marquand Manuel.  Subtracted Leigh Bodden, Travis Fisher, and Dwight Smith.

That is an extraordinary amount of roster churn.  Lest you think these are mostly bottom-feeders, I made sure not to mention any player that didn't play at least 10 games in a season for the Lions.  If you look closely, the Lions brought in two or more new starters in the backfield almost every single year since Millen took over.  There was absolutely zero consistency.  Outside of Dre' Bly and Fernando Bryant, I don't think any player on this list started more than two consecutive years . . . and thanks to injuries, Bly and Bryant were almost never on the field at the same time in four seasons!

Unfortunately, it looks like this year's overhaul is D.O.A.  After jettisoning most of the depth chart at cornerback, the Lions traded Jon Kitna to Dallas for Anthony Henry, signed Philip Buchanon from Tampa Bay, and signed Titans nickel/dime guy Eric King.  The Lions then drafted Louis Delmas in the second round to make a very talented young trio of Daniel Bullocks and Gerald Alexander.  Veterans Kalvin Pearson and Stu Schweigart made for solid depth.  Then, oddly, the Lions added journeyman safety Marquand Manuel . . . it seemed to make no sense.  Wasn't there already a logjam at safety?  Bullocks should be pencilled in next to Delmas, Alexander is allegedly healthy, Pearson is an adequate SS, and Schweigart is a talented enigma . . . where would Manuel fit?  Even if Pearson's too limited to play in Schwartz/Cunningham's symmetrical defense,  and Schwiegart is strictly depth, shouldn't Manuel be trapped firmly beneath Bullocks and Alexander?

Apparently not.  According to Tom Kowalski, Bullocks regressed badly throughout the season, "missed even more time during this off-season" (?!?), and is "way behind the rest of the veterans".  This is dismaying, to say the least.  If Bullocks is not only not reminding people of 2006, but way behind guys like Manuel, Pearson, and Schweigart?  He'll honestly have a fight to make the team.  In fact, he almost surely will, because Killer then went and penned another major bummer of an article . . .

If Henry slides back to safety, that means that he, Alexander, Bullocks, Manuel, Pearson, and Schweigart are all fighting for one starting spot, and maybe two reserve positions.  Pearson, the most obvious cut, is a special teams ace, so maybe not.  Schweigart's a local-ish product and a fan favorite, but unless he returns to his '05 form, I don't see him escaping the axe.  That leaves Henry and Alexander as the most likely prospects to start next to Delmas, with the loser of that battle fighting Manuel and Bullocks for the third-safety spot.  That's a nice mix of youth, talent, experience, skill, and depth at the two safety spots, then.  But, what about the corners?

Oh my stars and garters.

If Henry slides back to safety, the #1 corner is Philip Buchanon.  My take on him at the time of the signing included a fair bit of optimism--as a young veteran, he possessed all the talent in the world--tempered with a good bit of realism: his production in Tampa made him a legit NFL starter, but little more.  There's no doubt that at his best, in a man-to-man scheme, he'd be a top 20, top 15 corner in this league.  However, he's never consistently played at his best, and he's always had a bit of at attitude problem, whining his way out of first Oakland, and then Houston.  That appeared to be a non-issue for the past two seasons, but attitude-problem leopards seldom change their spots.  Combine that factor with the uncertainty that is evaluating a cornerback in the Tampa Two, and you have a complete mystery as your #1 corner.

The #2 at that point would be either Eric King, or Keith Smith.  King was a sort of Plan C for the Lions.  It had been noted, almost from the day Schwartz took over, that Titans nickel corner/return specialist Chris Carr would be an ideal fit, and a priority target.  When the Lions feared missing out on Carr, they signed Eric King as insurance--another Titans corner, and also a nickel back, depending on what you read.  Titans HC Jeff Fisher:

"He played real well for us as a special teamer, he played corner for us at times and was a nickel back. He's a tough guy and a good locker room guy and a good person. Those are the kinds of players you want on your team. Eric will be successful there with whatever they ask him to do. Eric, coming in, can get the job done as a starter if that's what Jim wants to do."

I kind of find it difficult to believe that the Titans had two young corners that were good enough to start for other teams on their bench, so I kind of find it difficult to believe that the Lions are going to be okay if they're starting this King guy and Philip Buchanon at corner when toe meets leather in New Orleans.  Then there's Keith Smith, 2004 draftee who flashed some promise initially, and then languished under Marinelli.  I am consistently advised that Smith is for real, has great talent, and was simply ruined by bad coaching.  Be that as it may, ruined by bad coaching is ruined by bad coaching, and I am taking a firm believe-it-as-I see it with both of these guys.  After that is former Mr. Irrelevant, Ramzee Robinson, and depth guys Chris Roberson, Antonio Smith, and Dexter Wynn.

Right now, things are looking extremely shaky back there.  I like the safety pair of Delmas and Henry a lot--but I'd much rather have Henry be able to stay at corner with Buchanon, and Alexander or Manuel starting next to Delmas.  No matter how things shake out, though, there's no doubt that the Lions are still in desperate need of true skill and talent in the defensive backfield--and nothing will be able to change that until the snow melts in 2010.  Don't forget, this is when things look their best--heaven help the Lions' defense once injuries, fatigue, and/or underperformance cut down the Lions' DBs like weeds once more.

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going further meta

>> 6.08.2009

Folks, please bear with me for a bit of blogging about my blogging:

* Despite the painful probability that there's no absolutely no demand for this whatsoever, I have made TLIW available via Kindle on Amazon.com.  I myself don't hold a Kindle to my name, yet it's the kind of toy I'd definitely go bonkers for if my "toy budget" were robust enough.  If you have one, you'll get this blog automatically delivered to your device, as frequently as I can manage to post here.

* Secondarily, the Scout.com-powered Blue Blog is up and running at nearly full speed; the site's template has been finished, comments are on (for now), and the contributors (including myself) have settled into a nice little groove.  You'll find all the best Lions news from around the Web, plated up piping hot right there--with a dollop of analysis on the side.

* Tertiarily, I am eagerly Tweeting as always; it's here where I like to branch out a bit.  Along with #lions news and analysis as it happens, you'll get my abbreviated musings on #redwings, #tigers, and #beer--as well as personal/family stuff that doesn't fit here.  I also Tweet just about whenever I do post here, so if you #follow @lionsinwinter you'll never miss a TLIW post.

* Quartiarily, my e-mail mailbox is always open; feel free to ask questions, send comments, or berate me; the address is thelionsinwinter@gmail.com.

* Finally, I've been working behind-the-scenes to iron out the wrinkles on the site's template.  right now, the minimalist thing works okay, but it's just not as good as it could be--and I've gotten some helpful notes from pro Webslingers about the rampaging XML and CSS errors that are probably Blogger's fault.  Stupid WYSIWYG; it's what you don't see that crashes browsers!  So, if you come here at an odd hour and everything is all freaky, just whip out your Kindle and read it there while I correct whatever I've broken.

I appreciate your continued patience!

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he's jes a good ole boy

>> 6.05.2009

I cracked up when I saw this Kowalski story/audio clip on Mlive.com.  It concerns the infamous series of pictures taken of Matt Stafford doing his Georgia days, partying with a couple of friends at Talladega.  First of all, to see those pictures posted at a "real media" site like Mlive is funny enough.  Second, it kind of pokes at something that's been crawling around in the dim, dank regions of my head.  Killer notes that these pics have made a positive impression on the fellas in the locker room, because they now know he's one of them: Golden Boy, 5-star recruit, $70M contract, comes from a ritzy suburb of a city where the word "ritz" still has some meaning . . . but ahhh, here he is lifting a keg with an SEC co-ed straight out of central casting!  He IS a real man!

One of the toughest things for me to take about Joey Harrington's failure in Detoit is that from the get-go, I really identified with him.  One of the classic daydreams of the sports fan is to imagine, "Man, what if I was born 6'-4" and ripped and could throw a football through a cow?"  One of the classic delusions that follows is, "Then I'd play just like Brett Favre!"  For me, I realize that if I were born with an athlete's body, but had the same heart, brain, and soul, I'd be like Joey Ballgame.  Besides his well-documented musicianship (I play bass and sing), and his above-average intelligence, there's something inherently self-aware about him that I feel an affinity for.  Brett Favre played with juvenile joy and abandon; Joey played with a cerebral understanding of exactly what was at stake on every down.  Brett Favre played like it was all great fun; Joey played with the weight of the world on his shoulders.

It's evident that some guys are book-dumb but football smart; I know from playing pick-up football that I'm more like the other way around.  The coordination of sensory input, concious mind, and physical reflexes needed is overwhelming; it's like playing a game of chess with your entire body as fast as you can run.  I always felt like Joey had a touch of the same problem.  Even though he probably had more grey matter between the ears than anybody else on the field, he just couldn't call the play, line up the offense, make presnap reads, make adjustments at the line, take the snap, read the defense, remember his footwork, check his second option, keep an ear out for the blindside blitz, make a decision, and throw with good technique all at the same time.  Just too much stuff to keep up with, too much pressure.  Goalies in hockey, pitchers in baseball, and perimeter shooters in basketball all have this strong emotional component to playing their position: confidence, momentum, rhythm, and feeling like you've "got it tonight" are all crucial components of success.  These pressure positions require a degree of mental tenacity above and beyond most other positions on the field.  I've often wondered if, instead of a higher IQ or wonderlic score being an indicator of success at these mentally taxing positions, too high of an IQ is actually detrimental?  Overthinking it, so to speak?  Perhaps with so much running through your head, "paralysis by analysis" is inevitable?

Such is clearly not the case for Pittsburgh Pirates' righthander Ross Olhendorf.

A brilliant mathematical mind and Princeton graduate, who wrote his senior thesis on the average expected ROI for rookie signing bonuses in baseball, Olhendorf is living proof that having an extraordinary analytical mind is no barrier to consistent clutch performance.   So then, what is it?  What is that X-factor--the ability to analyze on-field action, react appropriately, and maintaing composure, technique, and execution--and does Matt Stafford have it?

My friends, if I knew that, I wouldn't be blogging for a living.

(PS: I do not blog for a living.)

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meet the cubs: brandon pettigrew

>> 6.03.2009


Donald Mirelle/Getty Images

Shortly before the draft, I (and many other Lions followers) had had far too much of the relentless speculation over the #1 overall pick, and even of the crazy scenarios surrounding the the Lions' subsequent four picks.  Given the presumptive targets of the first few rounds: middle linebacker, offensive and defensive interior linemen, and cornerback, I decided to analyze the secondary needs, and what players might be available with the Lions' late-round selections.  Since the Lions selected no middle linebackers, interior linemen, or cornerbacks with their first five picks, this piece proved to be prescient in profiling the needs--just wrong on the players selected.  Here's one of the three "archetypes" I profiled:
Finally, I think the Lions could be looking at tight end in the later rounds. Whether or not they surprise everyone and take a TE early, the Lions' depth at tight end needs to be rebuilt. Casey Fitzsimmons hasn't shown any NFL ability since his rookie season, and that was five years ago. Michael Gaines was neither a great blocker nor offensive weapon, and John Owens is gone. Free agent signee Will Heller looks like a pure blocker. It's well known that one of the greatest crutches for a QB is a tight end with great hands, who can get open quick and catch the ball reliably, especially on third down--and whether or not the Lions draft Stafford, the Lions's QBs will need all the crutches they can get. A guy I really hope might be there is N.C. State's Anthony Hill. At 6'-5", 262, Hill's a really big, strong guy with a long frame. He's a great inline blocker, but he's got really nice hands and can get open in traffic. I think the Lions desperately need this kind of TE, a big blocker who can get open and make the catch on 3rd-and-6; move the sticks, over and over and over. I don't think the Lions are really in need of the field stretching, Gates/Winslow type. Johnson and Johnson are both deep threats; there should be plenty of space underneath for a TE like Hill.
Of course, the Lions did indeed "surprise everyone", taking Oklahoma State TE Brandon Pettigrew with the 20th overall pick.  Standing  6'-5" tall, and weighing 263 lbs., Pettigrew was far and away the consensus #1 tight end; in fact he was commonly regarded as the only serious tight end prospect available in this draft.  In a tight end class comprised of strictly second-day material, what made Pettigrew stand out amongst the others?  What made him the sole tight end worthy of a first-round pick?

Coming out of Robert E. Lee high school in Tyler, Texas, Scout.com rated Pettigrew as the #13 tight end prospect in the nation, garnering three stars.  He took a redshirt year, but then immediately got onto the field as a freshman.  Playing in all eleven games, and starting nine, Pettigrew mostly made hay as a blocker, but did haul in 11 passes for 128 yards and a touchdown.  His sophomore year, he became the full-time starter.  While still being asked to do little more than block in OSU's kinetic spread offense, he still more than doubled his previous year's statistics: 24 catches, 310 yards, and 4 TDs.  For this, he was named honorable mention All-Big 12.  His Junior year, he continued to improve, finishing third on the team with 35 catches for 540 yards (a 15.4 ypc average!) and 4 TDs. He had his two best performances in two of OSU's biggest games: 8 catches for 87 yards and a score against Texas, and 8 for 85 against Georgia.  He was named first-team All-Big 12.
Expectations were high for his senior year, as he made the preseason watch lists for both the John Mackey Award (for tight ends), and the Rotary Lombardi Award (for LoS players).  However, disappointment was quick.  Pettigrew injured his ankle early in the season, and completely missed four of the first six games.  However, he still managed to post his best single-season reception numbers: 42 catches for 472 yards.  Even with the injury, he was still a John Mackey finalist.  With 112 career receptions, Pettigrew ranks 7th on OSU's all-time list; #1 for tight ends.  He's also ranked 8th for career recieving yards (1,450), and also #1 for tight ends.  He registered a remarkable 216 knockdown blocks per season in his career, and 30 touchdown-resulting blocks.
Now, the definitive authority on a player's potential . . . internet highlight reels:

Actually, NFL.com has the best video on Pettigrew, but unfortunately they don't allow for easy embedding.  I urge you to watch the following:
There isn't much about Pettigrew that I can say that hasn't been said repeatedly in the videos above.  He's a legitimately big-framed athelete who posesses the size, strength, and inclination to blow people up in both the running game and passing game.  He's a natural pass catcher with extremely soft hands, who has surprising speed and agility for someone so big and strong.  He's not a glorified wide reciever, with 4.45 deep speed down the middle.  However, what he is is something more than that: an outstanding two-way player who should never come off the field.  He'll be a weapon in the run game, blowing up holes and sealing off edges.  He'll be a weapon in the passing game, finding space in the middle of the field to move the chains.  He'll be both a crutch and a shield for Matt Stafford, providing critical max-protect help against blitz-heavy teams, and a huge target with soft hands that he can dump it off to when he absolutely must complete a pass.  
Time and time again, when reading about, watching about, or "scouting" Brandon Pettigrew, what I'm seeing and hearing is the same thing over and over and over again: Brandon Pettigrew will step on the field as one of the best two-way tight ends in football, and his potential beyond that is almost unlimited.  He'll never catch 90 balls or 1,100 yards, or 13 TDs, like an Antonio Gates.  However, Brandon Pettigrew just might be the biggest contributing factor to the immediate and long-term success of Matt Stafford--and the Detroit Lions.

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the lions congregation: the return

>> 6.01.2009

Praise be!  The good Reverend Spielman has returned from his sabbatical, and the flock has duly responded to his questions three:

1) Who starts at LG and RG this season?

2) How many games will the Lions sell out this year?

3) Kevin Smith believes this is a playoff team.  Do you?

As always, practically the entire spectrum of possible answers is represented; I encourage everyone to go check it out!

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